Graduate students must return to the US to maintain appointments, some exceptions allowed

Open letter urging MIT to rescind policy receives over 600 signatures

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz wrote in a Dec. 7 email that graduate students with Spring 2021 RA, TA, or fellowship appointments were “being asked to return/come to the U.S.” by Jan. 30 to maintain their appointments.

The International Students Office wrote that this is in accordance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 5-Month Temporary Absence Rule, which was suspended for Spring and Summer 2020. It was not confirmed whether this rule would or would not apply in Fall and Spring 2021.

Graduate students would only be eligible to continue their appointments remotely if affected by visa delays, travel restrictions, border closures, or other COVID-related factors; if the student or member of the student’s household was instructed by a medical provider to not travel to the U.S.; or if the student is caring for a family member with an illness. Students under these circumstances were asked to submit an intake form through their graduate administrator, to be reviewed individually to determine options available to the students.

A Dec. 11 open letter to the MIT administration responding to Waitz’s email received over 600 signatures from student organizations, graduate and undergraduate students, alumni, and postdoctoral associates. The letter wrote that the policy “forces students living overseas to uproot their lives” to return to the U.S. where COVID-19 “is raging harder than ever.”

The letter urged MIT to rescind its policy, “involve those impacted before making wide-reaching policy decisions,” and “protect international students from further precarity and mistreatment.”

The letter compared MIT’s policy to the July 6 DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directive that banned international students taking fully online coursework from remaining in the U.S. MIT and Harvard filed a lawsuit against DHS and ICE that eventually resulted in the directive being rescinded.

The letter also wrote that as of Dec. 23, of 195 remote appointment requests, 145 were approved without change, 40 were approved with change of funding, and 5 remained under review. 800 remote appointments were approved during Fall 2020, according to the letter.

The letter added that Harvard and Yale will continue to pay remote stipends in the Spring.

A forum on the policy was held for graduate students Dec. 14. A follow-up Dec. 16 guidance acknowledged student concerns regarding the policy and summarized Waitz’s message from the forum, writing that MIT would provide “more timely and ongoing updates” and “increased flexibility when reviewing exception requests,” as well as clarify “that the eligibility criteria include all medical conditions.”

MIT’s fall guidance on remote student appointments announced that the “vast majority” of graduate students abroad would be able to continue their fellowships, TA, or RA appointments, with some TA or RAships possibly converted to non-service fellowships depending on the country the student is living in, the student’s research area, or “export control requirements.”

As in the fall, undergraduate students abroad are not able to participate in paid UROPs or other hourly wage opportunities.