MIT’s Refreshing Approach to Masking & Mistakes

MIT President Rafael Reif attends a news conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., October 14, 2019.
(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

MIT lifted its mask requirement for students on March 14. In their announcement, university officials had to include the following suggestion:

All community members are asked to respect others’ choices on masking and to be respectful of those choices when discussing mask usage. Individuals, DLCs, or organizations may not require, coerce, or pressure others to wear masks. In situations where there are power imbalances, individuals are asked to be especially thoughtful in requesting a person to alter their masking practice since even well-meaning requests can be perceived to carry pressure or coercion. If you are asked to wear a mask in an area where it is not required or to remove a mask in a particular situation, you are free to refuse.

It’s pretty disturbing that student and faculty would have to be asked to “respect others’ choices” and not “require, coerce, or pressure” others to mask. But, of course, on college campuses, masking and Covid precautions have become yet another arrow in the quiver of woke students and faculty. As I’ve written before, the language of safety is a form of power on college campuses.

In a well-meaning effort to prevent woke shaming and unnecessary virtue signaling, the university might have gone too far. Its original lifting of mask regulations included a provision that said, “Individuals may not request or require that others wear masks.”

 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) pushed back on this requirement, noting that “the university’s ban on mere requests that others mask up violated MIT’s free expression.” FIRE sent a letter to MIT on March 17 requesting that it amend the policy:

While MIT’s memo may represent a well-intentioned effort to abide by local regulations, not only is MIT’s ban on “request[s]” not required by law, it violated the university’s clear commitment to free expression…FIRE asks that MIT expediently update its policy and publicly clarify that students and faculty are not broadly banned from requesting that others wear masks — a request recipients are free to deny, accept, or ignore

Yesterday, MIT updated its masking policy: 

In situations where there are power imbalances, individuals are asked to be especially thoughtful in requesting a person to alter their masking practice since even well-meaning requests can be perceived to carry pressure or coercion.

Kudos to MIT officials for anticipating and mitigating woke masking pressure while also accepting constructive criticism when they went too far. It’s not often you see such a productive shift in a university’s actions.

(And for MIT students who receive the now-permissible “request” to mask up, know you are equally “free to refuse.”)

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