Opinion open letter

A call for clearer communication regarding COVID-19

Dear President Reif,

Thank you for your tireless work, standing at the Institute’s helm during this turbulent moment in history. I’m deeply grateful for the countless hours you’ve devoted to protecting our community from the pandemic.

I write to express the unnecessary distress that many graduate students are currently experiencing. For those of us whose research depends on lab work, the restricted campus operations have been particularly disruptive — we cannot work from home. Clearly, lost productivity cannot be weighed against the untold grief and anguish caused by a lost life. Our community understands, and supports a temporary reduction in operations as a critical measure in our battle against COVID-19. Nonetheless, it is an inescapable reality that months of lost productivity are a source of anxiety for graduate students

Compounding this anxiety is unclear messaging from your office regarding our eventual return to lab. Given that a resumption of research is contingent upon decisions made in your office, graduate students understandably crave insight into your decision making process. The lack of transparency regarding your decisions is an active source of distress among graduate students who cannot work from home. We don’t expect answers — we understand that you don’t have them yet. However, we do expect clarity and transparency.

You have vaguely expressed that your decision to reopen labs will be informed by scientific research, consultation with public health experts, and guidance from local and state officials. What specific data are you waiting for? What ongoing research projects are you monitoring? What is the timeline for this research? What public health experts are you consulting? What specific guidance are you awaiting from local and state governments? What is the timeline of this guidance? What public health indicators are you monitoring most closely? I wholeheartedly believe that you are making well-informed decisions, but the dearth of specifics in your communications has generated unnecessary frustration and despair in our community.

As president, you are responsible not only for our community’s physical health, but for its mental health as well. In a moment when the inextricable nature of mental and physical health is particularly evident, it is all the more important that your communications include reassuring specifics rather than anxiety-inducing prevarications. The anxiety we already experience as a result of the pandemic and an inability to make research headway needn’t be compounded by opaque communications from your office.

In an information landscape characterized by uncertainty, we look to your office for clarity. You have the power to mitigate our anxiety! Please consider publishing the details of your decision making process regarding the limited reopening of research labs.


Walker Knauss, Graduate Student in Chemistry