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MIT Associate Provost Recommends Against Cutting Financial Ties With Saudi Government

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MIT Building 10.
John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons

Updated at 3:58 p.m.

A preliminary report released Thursday by the administrator who oversees MIT's international activities recommends that the university maintain its relationships with organizations directly owned and operated by the Saudi Arabian government.

Richard Lester, associate provost for international activities, also recommends keeping current relationships with private Saudi donors and continuing to welcome Saudi students, researchers and visitors to campus.

The Saudi government has come under intense criticism and scrutiny recently for its military actions in Yemen and its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Lester started drafting the report at the request of MIT President Rafael Reif in October, two weeks after Khashoggi's assassination.

Lester told WGBH News his research didn't find MIT was supporting state violence by the Saudi government.

"There's absolutely no reason to believe that the actions or the activities that we undertake with our Saudi collaborators and sponsors are providing any material assistance to those actions that I think all of us have been appalled by," he said.

While he wouldn't disclose the dollar amount, Lester said the money MIT has received from Saudis amounts to less than 1 percent of the school's $3 billion budget.

"What I'm talking about is an aggregate number that includes the funding that we received from these government entities that the report identifies," he said.

While he was drafting his report, Lester received input from students, faculty and staff on campus. He said there's been a wide range of opinions, varying from those who believe the university should participate in efforts to isolate and censure Saudi Arabia to those who want the collaborative relationships with the country to continue.

"The view that some of our colleagues in the community here express is that they don't think we should walk away from those people," Lester said. "[They say] despite the atrocious behavior that we're all aware of, we shouldn't punish the people that we are working with for the actions of people in the leadership."

The university has had a well-publicized recent interaction with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been widely accused of having been complicit in the murder of Khashoggi.

In March, bin Salman visited MIT's campus. Last month, the CIA delivered a report to members of Congress concluding that bin Salman ordered the murder of Khashoggi.

Read more: Senators, Post CIA Briefing, Convinced Saudi Crown Prince Was Involved In Journalist's Death

An individual who played a leading role in the murder accompanied the crown prince on his visit to campus, according to the report.

Lester plans to receive comments on his recommendations through Jan. 15 and then send a full report to Reif.

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