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Letter to the community: Building a vision for MIT’s post-Covid future

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The following letter was sent to the MIT community today by President L. Rafael Reif.

To the members of the MIT community,

In advance of Tuesday’s online MIT Town Hall – tomorrow, May 5 at 4 pm EDT (2000 GMT) – I write for four important reasons:

  • To give you a sense of the groundwork under way to map our options for summer and the start of the academic year
  • To announce coming opportunities for you to hear more and contribute your thinking
  • To articulate key principles to guide the decisions ahead and
  • To let you know about an important new effort to begin building a vision for MIT’s post-Covid future.

Planning for summer and fall: Team 2020

As I wrote on April 13, at my request, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz and Acting Deputy Executive Vice President Tony Sharon have created a team to manage the complex planning for the summer and the start of the academic year. Team 2020 is charged with guiding and coordinating several continuity working groups that are seeking to articulate and analyze the paths available for resuming campus life in some form. 

At tomorrow’s town hall, leaders of the Research, Academic, Student and Residential Life, Community and Space Planning working groups will share options they are exploring, from the most hopeful to the most constrained. This slide deck offers useful background.

Each group’s work is deeply intertwined with the work of all the others. And every decision we must make hinges to some degree on uncertain estimates about the pace of progress in testing, tracing, treatment and potential vaccine development – not to mention the trajectory of the virus, shifting societal expectations around practices like wearing masks and physical distancing, and evolving policies from the federal, state and local governments. (For instance, on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued a statewide order requiring masks in public until further notice.)

Seeking your input

At this stage, we are eager to share our initial thinking more broadly and get further input from across the community. Tomorrow’s town hall is a first step. In the coming days, we will also roll out invitations for interactive sessions designed for

  • undergraduates
  • graduate students
  • staff in different categories and
  • faculty, by School/College

In addition, in the next several days we will launch a communitywide survey to better understand how everyone is faring in this crisis.

What we learn from each other in the next few weeks will be crucial to arriving at sound, workable decisions for a gradual return through the summer and fall.

Guiding principles in this work

As we work on these solutions together, I would like to lay out some principles to guide us. In the face of this global crisis, we must strive to:

  1. Keep one another safe and healthy, grounding our decisions in science
  2. Uphold MITs mission and signature standards of excellence. By providing outstanding educational experiences and steady academic progression for students and by restoring and sustaining the momentum of our research enterprise
  3. Preserve the Institute’s financial footing
  4. Make sure our decisions are informed by compassion, empathy and respect for everyone in our community
  5. Help lead the global pandemic response, as individuals and as an institution

Envisioning a post-pandemic MIT: Task Force 2021

We can be certain that, post-Covid, the world will be different. So will MIT. Right now, with most of us deprived of each other’s company and our beloved campus, it is natural to fear that “different” could mainly mean “worse.” But I believe we can find both hope and inspiration in the fantastic ways that MIT was transformed by another period of drastic disruption: World War II.

As MIT helped the United States respond to the immediate threats of war, it invented a new future for itself: By framing a productive new relationship between the federal government and research universities, MIT helped the nation come to see the advance of fundamental science as a core US strength ­– and established a lead role for itself in that work. World War II also turned MIT from a technical college with a handful of graduate students to a great research university whose contributions were recognized with its first Nobel Prize in 1944. And through the immense “Rad Lab” project that rapidly developed radar technology, MIT acquired its intensely interdisciplinary culture – not to mention the ethos of the legendary Building 20, the “magical incubator” that taught generations of MIT researchers the art of fearless innovation.

In other words, the painful demands of that terrible war ultimately delivered much of what we now love about MIT.

Taking inspiration from that history, I have asked Chair of the Faculty Rick Danheiser and Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma to assemble and co-lead Task Force 2021 – a collaborative, cross-Institute group that will help our whole community begin to envision a post-Covid MIT, for 2021 and beyond.

You can find the preliminary charge for Task Force 2021 here.

The full task force membership is still in formation; Rick and Sanjay expect to recruit a broadly representative group of more than 75 faculty, staff and students from across the Institute, with senior faculty leading many of the streams of work. The members of Task Force 2021 will communicate and consult actively with the community. I expect to receive their initial findings by the end of 2020.

I have no doubt that, with the collaborative leadership of Task Force 2021, the people of MIT will use this moment to invent a better future – for our community and beyond.

*          *          *

At the end of a long letter packed with administrative facts, I pause to remember that driving all this Covid-related activity is a great weight of human suffering – disappointment, anxiety, loneliness, illness, loss and grief – imposed so unevenly, and intensified by the exhausting daily push and pull of discouragement and hope.

As we work together on decisions to serve the shared interests of our whole community, I am grateful to every one of you who is listening every day for the hints of other’s troubles and offering the comfort of your own close attention, sympathy and care.


L. Rafael Reif

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