April faculty meeting discussion focuses on fall plans and first-year credit limit

Faculty members share thoughts on potential vaccine requirements for Fall 2021

Faculty attendees discussed fall planning and changes to the first-year spring credit limit at the virtual April faculty meeting. Attendees additionally recognized the recipients of the Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award and reviewed motions to change the required units for the Master of Architecture (MArch) degree and to add new senior leadership roles to the rules and regulations of the faculty.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 provided an overview of the Institute’s plans for Fall 2021 and posed additional questions for faculty to discuss. 

Barnhart said that the Institute hopes to “be back to full operations” or “as close to normal operations as we think we can be” in the fall by inviting all students back to residences, classrooms, and labs; resuming full in-person academic and research activities on campus; and bringing back in-person residential, co-curricular, and athletic experiences.

Barnhart added that staff are expected to return by Sept. 7 and that there will be “new ways of working.”

Additionally, MIT expects that many COVID-era restrictions will be lifted, but some may remain in place. “We don’t know to what extent, but testing, enhanced cleaning, physical distancing, and mask-wearing could be necessary,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart also described what MIT does not know yet, including what the state of Massachusetts will require of universities; whether students, faculty, and staff should be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or required to report vaccination status; how much testing will be needed in the fall; and how teaching and learning in the fall will differ from pre-COVID teaching and learning.

Professor Claire Conceison asked whether faculty meetings would be held during the summer and whether non-MIT students would be permitted to come to MIT’s campus to participate in activities. According to Chair of the Faculty Rick Danheiser, it has yet to be discussed whether faculty meetings will take place during the summer and that updates will likely be communicated via morning calls. Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz said that he anticipates planning for educational and research activities involving visitors to occur “over the next few weeks” and advised activities with visiting participants to have backup plans.

Professor Christopher Zegras PhD ’05 asked what capabilities faculty can expect to have provided by the Institute to facilitate hybrid teaching and meetings. Waitz responded that they can assume the same capabilities that MIT currently has.

Professor Eugenie Brinkema said that, especially for faculty with children or vulnerable family members who are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, MIT should provide “a lot of latitude in faculty decisions regarding things like teaching and learning … and deciding if they want to, for example, continue to teach virtually.”

Professor Haynes Miller asked whether MIT has any metrics or benchmarks that they expect to reach before “things become normal” or that might indicate when a return to virtual learning would be necessary.

Waitz responded that Professor Peko Hosoi along with members of MIT’s COVID Management Team have worked extensively to have a “good sense of what it takes to manage MIT in a pandemic.” He said that with respect to vaccinations, it would be useful for MIT to know how many people are vaccinated, how effective the vaccine is, prevalence of the vaccine in the community, and the impact of the vaccine on serious cases of COVID-19.

Waitz said that MIT will not know what many of the parameters will be like in the fall, since “we’re still only a few months into living with the vaccine and knowing how effective it is.” Waitz added that it would be helpful to have more information to strengthen MIT’s understanding for the fall.

Faculty members discussed at length whether the COVID-19 vaccine should be required for all members of the MIT community and how community members could report their vaccination status.

Professor Yossi Sheffi PhD ’78 asked why MIT is “even considering” not requiring everybody that can be vaccinated to be vaccinated.

Vice President for Human Resources Ramona Allen responded that MIT plans to “strongly urge staff to get the vaccine.” However, “some people feel very strongly … against getting the vaccine, and so we want to be respectful of that opinion as well. No decision has been made. It would be our hope that the entire community would be vaccinated, but I’m not sure we’re gonna get there.”

Director of MIT Medical Cecilia Stuopis ’90 added that ideally, “100% of our community takes the vaccination,” but in contrast, “with the reality of the world that we live in and with the very human people that we interact with who have free agency, and we do have to have that respectful approach in dialogue with them.”

Professor Roger Levy asked whether MIT could require disclosure of vaccinations from a legislative or legal perspective, such that MIT does not need to risk intrusion on “individual liberty.”

Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo responded that he does not believe there will be legislative action from the state requiring vaccines or disclosures but that as a legal matter, MIT can require employees to vaccinate. Additionally, MIT is discussing whether or not “even if we didn’t mandate that [they receive vaccines], we would be asking people to confirm whether or not they have been vaccinated” via COVID Pass.

Professor Caroline Jones asked whether it was possible for MIT, if community members report vaccination status, to require unvaccinated individuals to test frequently or to analyze the risk of being exposed for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Waitz cited MIT’s wastewater detection program and current on-campus testing as effective in determining cases of COVID-19 early. Waitz added that he is “a strong supporter” of requiring vaccination information from individuals, as it would enable MIT “to better manage the campus and give everyone additional liberties and releases from some of the restrictions we have now.”

Professor Leon Glicksman mentioned that many undergraduates are required to receive immunizations prior to enrolling at MIT and asked whether there is a policy for students who refuse the immunizations.

Stuopis said that those immunizations are mandated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which allows religious or medical exemptions to the requirements. Additionally, MIT enforces the immunizations through registration holds on students.

Glicksman asked whether there have been cases in which students have “raised a ruckus” due to the requirements. Stuopis answered that “every year, there’s a handful of students who raise a ruckus,” and those students are “almost always domestic students” rather than international students, who sometimes do not have access to vaccines required by the Commonwealth.

Glicksman also asked whether the COVID-19 vaccine could potentially go on the same list of required vaccinations, to which Stuopis responded “yes.”

Discussion on the vaccine also took place in the Zoom chat.

In response to questions in the chat about whether the COVID-19 vaccines having full FDA authorization rather than EUA approval during a health emergency would make a difference in requiring vaccinations, Stuopis wrote that “the clear preference would be to have full authorization. That being said, the cogs of the FDA run at their own pace, and we may not be able to use that as a gating criteria.”

Stuopis added that “the data supplied for EUA approval for these vaccines was very near the same amount of data that would typically be provided for a standard path to approval.”

Additionally, when asked in the chat whether data has been collected on the COVID Pass app on vaccine rates or access within the MIT community, Stuopis wrote that “the yield on the self-reporting of vaccination in CovidPass has not been as robust as we would like. There are also many MIT community members who are not in COVID pass who we do not have insight into.” MIT is currently working on a reporting system for all community members that “should be ready to roll out soon,” Stuopis wrote.

Professor Arthur Bahr, chair of the committee on the undergraduate program (CUP), presented a motion to change the first-year spring credit limit from 57 units to 60 units. The motion was moved and seconded by faculty members for a vote at the May faculty meeting.

Bahr said that the main reason for the change is that “60 is simply a more rational upper limit than 57, given how many subjects are 12 units and how relatively few are nine.” Additionally, the CUP voted at its March 31 meeting to approve the proposal with a vote of 13 in favor to one not in favor.

The proposal was initially presented at the March faculty meeting.

Bahr added that students and advisors should recognize that the 60-unit credit limit is “an upper limit, not a norm or expectation” and that the CUP believes “that for most students in most semesters, not just the first year, 48 [units] is likely to be a more appropriate load” than 60.

Bahr said that the CUP is working on a statement of intent regarding the proposal that would explain its rationale as well as “educate first year advisors and students alike about manageable course loads.”

Professor Steven Leeb PhD ’93, the only CUP member who did not vote in favor of the proposal, proposed a formal motion to delay voting on the change to the credit limit until the February 2022 faculty meeting. Leeb’s motion was moved and seconded.

Secretary of the Faculty Professor David Singer said that because there was no mechanism for voting at the April meeting, the vote on Leeb’s motion would take place at the May meeting prior to the vote on Bahr’s motion.

Leeb said that “nothing in the [CUP’s] proposal is necessary to start a happy and full year next year” and that he would be grateful if faculty allowed “a little bit more time to discuss” the change.

Professor W. Craig Carter also raised concerns about the CUP’s proposal from the March meeting which sought to eliminate Early Sophomore Standing (ESS). Carter mentioned that in addition to ESS, Advanced Placement exams and Advanced Standing Exams may create disparities among first years and questioned “whether advanced standing is a good measure of mastery and perhaps a lost opportunity to revisit fundamental concepts.”

Carter also suggested that the CUP or other faculty members develop a stronger measure of whether students are receiving a better education at MIT.

Responding to Leeb’s and Carter’s concerns, Bahr stated that the CUP has gathered input on the proposal from faculty governance committees, student support services, the Office of Minority Education and that “feedback in support of the proposal has been overwhelming.”

Additionally, Associate Director of Academic Services at the Sloan School of Management Mary Camerlengo asked whether the committee on academic performance would still consider requests to exceed the credit limit if the change is made. Bahr answered that no provision is being made for petitions to exceed the credit limit.

Faculty additionally moved and seconded a motion presented by Professor Martha Gray PhD ’86, chair of the committee on graduate programs, to decrease the number required units for the MArch degree by removing 30 units of unrestricted electives, thereby decreasing the total units from 312 to 282. No changes would be made to the program’s thesis requirement.

Gray said that the program would remain “in line with accreditation requirements, but the change will facilitate timely graduation and increased flexibility for students by reducing the overall workload.”

Faculty also moved and seconded a motion to add two new senior leadership roles — the Dean of the Schwarzman College of Computing and the Institute Community and Equity Officer — to the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty.

The three motions and Leeb’s proposal to delay voting on the first-year credit limit will be voted on at the May faculty meeting. 

Professor Bevin Engelward, chair of the Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award selection committee, presented the award’s 2020–2021 recipients, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Desirée Plata PhD ’09 and Urban Studies and Planning Professor Justin Steil.

Engelward said that the senior faculty colleague who nominated Plata wrote that she is “motivated by the common good, especially in regard to keeping people safe from hazardous chemicals in the environment … In alignment with her passions, she is a global leader in proactive environmental engineering … Her work is leading us away from the cleanup mode of environmental protection and towards smart and sustainable innovation that aims to prevent future negative impacts on the environment.”

Engelward said that the senior faculty colleague who nominated Steil wrote that he “is a nationally recognized scholar of urban planning and law” whose research “has been particularly impactful with regard to fair housing and preserving existing civil rights protections. 57 cities, counties, civil rights organizations, and fair housing organizations across the U.S. have cited his research… Professor Steil brings MIT students into contact with real world problems that they help to address.”

The Edgerton Award annually recognizes outstanding non-tenured members of the MIT faculty “for exceptional distinction in teaching, research, and service” from candidates nominated by other faculty members, Engelward said.