The student’s email arrived early on Jan. 28.
It was addressed to Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The undergraduate didn’t want to bother him, she wrote, but she was stuck overseas and unable to return to campus because of the White House’s newly imposed travel ban.
It was 6:37 a.m., but Reif didn’t hesitate. He immediately contacted three of his top aides to help her and two other students in similar straits.
“These people worked around the clock to make sure these kids made it home,” he said. “They didn’t sleep.”
One week later, the students were safely back in Cambridge, but in the midst of the ordeal, Reif wrote a letter to the MIT community expressing his thoughts on the situation.
He wrote that the research university, founded in 1861, was at once uniquely American and profoundly global.
“Like the United States, and thanks to the United States, MIT gains tremendous strength by being a magnet for talent from around the world,” he wrote. In that light, he said, the executive order appeared to him “a stunning violation of our deepest American values, the values of a nation of immigrants: fairness, equality, openness, generosity, courage.”
Reif is an immigrant himself. Born and educated in Venezuela, he came to the U.S. as a graduate student, earning his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He joined the MIT faculty in 1980 and became its president in 2012.
Reif stopped by the Los Angeles Times this week to discuss science in the age of Trump and MIT’s plan for the next four years.
Why do you think the scientific community has been so vocal in its opposition to the travel ban?
I believe the reasons are obvious. Scientists love to collaborate and work with people who see things from a different perspective. When people work together to address big challenges — whether it’s climate change or fresh water access or Alzheimer’s — you start recognizing people for what they can contribute to the big mission. It doesn’t matter where you came from. It is irrelevant.
We have students from Turkey being supervised by faculty from Greece. Culturally they hate each other, but that doesn’t come up at MIT because they are dealing with bigger issues than themselves.
Last week Trump threatened on Twitter to cut off federal funding for UC Berkeley because violent protests prompted the university to cancel a talk by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t have all the details, but I understand that somebody whose views that are not politically acceptable to some members of the community was not allowed to speak. That doesn’t help universities. We should allow everyone to say whatever they want. But I think having the U.S. president make a statement like that feels like an overreaction.
Are you concerned Trump might continue to threaten universities with the loss of federal funds when they do something he doesn’t agree with?
There are reasons to be concerned, but I would not panic.
I like to think the administration is not fully staffed yet, and that we will get to a more stable and predictable situation sometime soon. Just like I wish the president did not overreact in the tweet, I don’t want to overreact either. Let’s just give him a chance to settle in, get the team together, and figure out in which direction they really want to take the country.
Might federal agencies like the Department of Defense or the National Institutes of Health decide on their own to withhold funding if they think that’s what the president wants?
I’m having a wait-and-see attitude. I am trying to speak as best I can for the need for us to understand each other’s point of view. Let’s recognize that we live in a democratic country and there are people who believe that what he tweeted was the right thing to say.
The last thing we need right now is to start a war between “us” and “them,” whoever “them” are. We just have to figure out how to continue to build bridges and understand each other.
The election showed us that we are not all hearing the same information. Do you have any thoughts on how to break through people’s bubbles and communicate with them?
The exercise I’m practicing, and it seems to be working, is to find somewhere that we agree and once we establish that, extrapolate. If we start by not agreeing, we will never get anywhere.
What’s your plan for the next four years?
The big picture for MIT is to keep doing basic research because that is the mother of all knowledge. But we don’t want to stop there. We also need to identify big problems and have people working on those. To me, the health of the planet and human health are the two critical ones that drive everything.
So we have a lot to do. Every day counts. We cannot stop what we are doing and get distracted. The last thing I want is for us to get distracted by him.
Political upheaval to me is like waves on the beach. Underneath that we just have to keep going.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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