Administrators hold town hall to discuss recent Fall 2020 decisions

Administrators discuss housing, financial decisions, gap years, campus life, academics, first-year experience

MIT administrators held a virtual town hall July 15 following President L. Rafael Reif’s announcement July 7 that only seniors and students with special circumstances will be invited to campus this fall. Administrators discussed housing and financial decisions, gap years and leaves of absence, on-campus life, academics, the first-year experience, and plans for Spring 2021.

The town hall was aimed at undergraduate students and their families and was presented in collaboration with the MIT Parents Association, according to the town hall’s email invitation.

Matthew Bauer, senior director of communications and special assistant to the Dean of Student Life, moderated the discussion.

The town hall was formatted as a Q&A, with questions from the Undergraduate Association (UA) forum July 10 provided by UA leaders and questions from the audience. Audience members submitted and voted on questions through an interface below the video stream. Bauer addressed the questions with the most votes.

Housing and campus access

The housing exemption form for non-seniors requesting to live on campus opened July 17 at 9 a.m. EDT and will close July 31 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. All information can be found on the Student Housing Assistance Review Process website.

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz said that super-seniors will have guaranteed fall housing and emphasized administrators’ intent of giving all students the option to spend one semester on campus.

Senior Associate Dean for Housing and Residential Services (HRS) David Friedrich said that move-in will occur Aug. 29–30. Students applying for on-campus housing will also choose a particular move-in window to maintain physical distancing.

David Elwell, director of the International Students Office, said that international students having trouble getting visas can start the semester remotely abroad.

Waitz said that off-campus seniors will not be allowed to access campus facilities, while graduate students do not face this restriction, because MIT wants to be “conservative” and “succeed” in the fall so that more people can be invited back for Spring 2021.  

Waitz said that although seniors are only “one birth-year away” from graduate students, MIT must “draw some lines between gray areas.” He added that undergraduates generally “have different social behaviors than grad students” and that their living arrangements and social behaviors “present more health risks.” 

Waitz cited the “fifteen to twenty percent” of undergraduate Student Preference Survey respondents who indicated in early June that they would not follow public health restrictions. 

Waitz added that a few off-campus students flouting the rules may make individuals residing on-campus sick if they are allowed campus access. He explained that administrators hope to keep all undergraduates with campus access in dorms, which have Heads of House working closely with students and ensuring compliance with public health restrictions.

Financial concerns

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 said that MIT is doing “a number of things” to financially help seniors who wish to break an off-campus lease in order to live on campus and access campus facilities. She pointed to online resources compiled by HRS on how to sublet, assign, or cancel a lease. 

Barnhart also said that the $5,000 COVID-19 era grant provides “financial flexibility” for students who break a lease. She urged students who need more help or have “urgent financial needs” to reach out to Student Support Services (S3) or Student Financial Services.

Barnhart said that there will be no tuition reductions this fall because MIT is working hard to provide an “MIT experience” through remote learning; tuition reductions disproportionately benefit students receiving less financial aid; MIT recognizes “greater financial needs” due to the pandemic and increased financial aid expectations accordingly; and MIT will give every family the COVID-19 era grant.

Gap years and leaves of absence

Senior Associate Dean for Student Support and Wellbeing David Randall said that the process for requesting a gap year or leave of absence (LOA) is unchanged. Incoming first years must declare a gap year by July 27. Upper-level students must request a LOA by Registration Day Aug. 31.

Friedrich said incoming first years taking a gap year will be guaranteed on-campus housing when they enroll. However, the current leave policy remains in effect for upper-level students, so MIT will not be able to guarantee on-campus housing for them after a LOA.

Friedrich said that MIT is committed to housing all students invited back to campus in the 2020–2021 academic year. However, upon return to “normal housing operations,” MIT will only guarantee housing to students who lived in a dorm in Spring 2020 and remained enrolled throughout the 2020–2021 academic year. 

Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill ’86 said that students thinking of taking a gap year should think about what they will do during the gap year. Schmill pointed out that while the MIT experience will be different, the experience outside of MIT will be different too and many “typical gap-year activities” will not be available.

On-campus life and restrictions

Baker Head of House John Fernandez ’85 said that physical distancing “will be in place” on campus and that outdoor spaces will be used as much as possible, “weather permitting.” Fernandez added that there were some “interesting ideas” proposed of using temporary outdoor structures and that MIT is “working to map out areas of campus” to be “used in different ways,” defining different guidelines for different spaces.

Fernandez said that MIT is also working with Dormitory Council on the idea of pods consisting of three to five students who live together and socialize without physical distancing, but only with each other. He added that dorm room assignment committees will work to retain as many traditional room assignment processes as possible.

Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson said that MIT is trying a “common sense approach” of encouraging on-campus students to limit off-campus trips. She said that it’s “one thing” if students visit a grocery store, but students who return from a long trip will be asked to self-quarantine.

The on-campus housing agreements for undergraduates and graduate students were released July 17. Nelson said that administrators, students, and Heads of House are still working on other policy areas, including the use of common space and kitchens, pods, visitor policy, and student ID visibility.

In case of a COVID-19 outbreak in a dorm, Nelson said that MIT will ask residents to shelter in place and institute increased testing to manage the outbreak.

Pamela Gannon ’84, director of Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILG) alumni programs, said that the decision to close FSILGs in the fall came from the “stress” of maintaining the safety of FSILGs and was not punitive in nature. Gannon added that MIT will deep clean FSILGs so that “hopefully students can return” to FSILGs in the spring.

Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes said that all on-campus students must be on a meal plan because ensuring student kitchens are free of infection is “difficult.” MIT will also minimize the number of food vendors on campus and avoid “smaller vendors” of unknown safety. Hayes said that the Meal Plan Working Group made this decision based on CDC guidelines and MIT Medical advice.

Hayes said that Campus Dining is working with Student Disability Services to ensure students, like in previous semesters, have access to allergen-free meals. He said that MIT will implement an “Oasis station” free from “all eight major allergens”: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.

Shawn Ferullo, chief of student health at MIT Medical, said that undergraduates will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival to campus and again after a week. Fall testing protocols are still “being officially defined.”


Waitz said that  the plan as of July 15 was that credit limits would remain the same for the upcoming school year. 

The fall grading policy was released in a July 17 email from Chair of the Faculty and Academic Policies and Regulations Team Chair Rick Danheiser.

Peko Hosoi, associate dean of the School of Engineering, said that “most if not all” of the engineering departments are offering in-person lab classes that follow MIT guidance on density, personal protective equipment, and physical distancing. Researchers “will figure out how to work” UROP students into a low-density schedule.

Waitz said that first-year seminars and small-group discussion classes will be virtualized. Zoom “may be more personal” than a small class in a large room with masks and physical distancing, Waitz said.

Waitz said that “lots of faculty” have been adapting to remote learning by developing hands-on kits and “shifting recitation times” to accommodate time zone differences. 

MIT will also lend out iPads for all interested TAs and undergraduates to compensate for the lack of whiteboard and blackboard learning. Additionally, the Institute is transitioning from Stellar and Learning Modules to Canvas.

First-year experience

First-year Experience Coordinator Kate Weishaar ’18 said that regular orientation events with upper-level student Orientation Leaders are happening throughout summer, allowing first-years to connect in “flag-groups” of 100. She said that the first-year advising system, where first years have both faculty advisors and upper-level student associate advisors, will allow associate advisors to show first years the “human side” of MIT.

Weishaar added that first years can also connect by forming study groups from people they meet in their orientation groups or a first-year Slack channel. The Office of the First Year will also “implement a way for students to connect regionally” so they can study together and attend physically-distanced meet-ups. 

Weishaar said that all faculty “who teach first-year students regularly” are aware of the challenges first years will face and “have been implementing a number of ways to address” them. For example, a mentoring system was implemented in 8.02 (Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism) during Spring 2020: class staff who underwent “a rigorous training” in mentoring met with students one-on-one each week.

Randall added that first years can turn to their advisors, S3, and Mental Health and Counseling for support.

Gustavo Burkett, senior associate dean of diversity and community involvement in the Division of Student Life said that orientation will contain a virtual Activities Midway, like the one held during CP★, in which first years can learn about extracurriculars and clubs. The Activities Midway will be a Zoom room with breakout rooms for each participating student group. First years can also browse through student organizations on MIT Engage.

Spring 2021

Barnhart said that she was “confident” that even “if conditions do not get better,” the plan to invite all first years, sophomores, and juniors on-campus in the spring can “remain intact.” She described the spring plan as a similarly “conservative approach” to the fall under the same assumptions about testing and tracing and disease conditions. 

Additionally, Barnhart said that MIT expects to have higher residential capacity in the spring from buildings that were expected to open in the fall but cannot after construction was shut down. MIT will also have gained knowledge about the efficacy and logistics of the public health mechanisms implemented during the fall.

Waitz added that expanded housing capacity will allow one student per room, which, combined with ample COVID-19 testing, will allow MIT to maintain control “even if things get bad.” He added that although there is a chance that the state or city government might send students home in the event of another outbreak, he thinks MIT is “in a good position” for both the fall and spring terms.

Barnhart said administrators hope that medical breakthroughs allow everyone to be invited back for Spring, in which case an in-person Commencement will proceed as usual. However, if seniors are not invited back, Commencement will be virtualized with a future in-person celebration much like in Spring 2020.

Barnhart said that she does not know whether MIT would prioritize first years being on-campus during the spring if MIT is unable to invite first years, sophomores, and juniors back. However, should spring decisions need to change, there will be “as deliberative and inclusive a process as possible.”