Reif leads second town hall to discuss plans for continuity and reopening campus

Reif says fall semester decisions will likely be made by “late June, early July”

President L. Rafael Reif led a second MIT community town hall May 5. Topics covered included evolving knowledge about COVID-19, academic preparations for the fall, staffing, residential continuity, and reopening campus research. The first town hall was held April 7.

Evolving COVID-19 knowledge

Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard, said that healthcare workers are safe as long as they wear personal protective equipment (PPE). A lack of PPE for healthcare workers poses challenges, Walker said.

Walker added that COVID-19 transmission “drops dramatically” if everyone wears a mask, practices physical distancing, and frequently monitors their temperature and symptoms.

Reif asked Walker whether knowledge of COVID-19 transmission is changing enough to justify delaying key Institute decisions. Walker responded that additional information will become more apparent in the future, such as the number of individuals infected; how close the community may be to herd immunity; whether antibodies are protective; and the availability of easier options for testing, such as the saliva-based methods that MIT researchers are actively developing.

Academic preparations

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz and Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser led the discussion on future academic preparations.

Waitz, who described himself as an optimist, said he believes that MIT “will have at least some students on campus for some of” the fall term.

Danheiser chairs the Academic Policy and Regulations Team, the successor to the Emergency Academic Regulations Team.

Danheiser said a goal of the team is to provide as “enriching” of an academic experience as possible while recognizing the various challenges students face. 

For example, the Institute decided that end-of-term subject evaluations with numerical ratings were no longer appropriate for the spring term due to the abrupt transition online. Danheiser wrote in an email to faculty and students May 3 that students will instead be given two surveys: a Qualtrics-based Institute-wide remote learning survey and subject-specific surveys with open-ended responses. 

The Institute-wide remote learning survey will be open May 13-31, after the last day of classes. Its results will be shared with the MIT community.

The subject-specific surveys will be open May 20-31, after the final exams period. Their results will be limited to the instructors of the subjects, department leaders, and “a very limited number of key people who have been supporting remote teaching across MIT,” Danheiser wrote.

Reif said that the “responsible thing to do” is to delay making fall semester decisions for as long as the circumstances are rapidly changing. However, he expects that a decision will be made by “late June” or “early July.”


Ramona Allen, vice president for human resources, reaffirmed MIT’s commitment to “avoid layoffs at all costs.”

Residential life

Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson said the Residential Continuity Working Group has two goals: to reimagine campus with new constraints and to prioritize community health and safety.

Nelson said that although housing assignments remain uncertain until fall academic plans are determined, Housing and Residential Services may “do a virtual assignment for new students based on their preference” so that “upperclassmen could connect right away with new students” entering their living groups.

David Singer, associate head of MacGregor House, pointed out that differences in sizes, layouts, communities, and student governments between dorms must be taken into consideration when redesigning residential life in a way that preserves both culture and public health. He said that administrators should allow students to take the lead in designing new guidelines for residential life.

Julie Shah PhD ‘10, head of house of Sidney-Pacific, said that the over 400 graduate students currently living in the residence have been “coping and innovating” in the transition from in-person to virtual community events.

Research continuity

Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that efforts to maintain campus research include funding continuity and “planning for a phased reopening” of research labs.

The Lightning Committee, chaired by Professor Tyler Jacks, has been charged with determining guidelines to “ramp up” lab operations.

Jacks said the committee focuses on addressing research that cannot be performed remotely, adding that returning to labs will be a “voluntary” process.

Jacks said that labs will start with a small number of individuals returning to in-person work, “well within” CDC guidelines, and gradually allow more individuals back “as conditions allow.” Labs will additionally have “mandated” PPE use, “daily health checks,” and “frequent sanitization of personal workspaces in common areas.”

Jacks emphasized the need to “integrate the level of research activity across campus” to ensure that shared facilities and services are not “overburdened.”

MIT is currently working with the federal government and “peer institutions” to “advocate for funding enhancements to existing grants” and “the importance of proceeding with new proposal solicitations,” Zuber said.

Zuber added that MIT is also communicating with non-federal partners and foundations, many of which are financially challenged by the crisis, in order to minimize funding effects on researchers.