MIT to continue restricting campus access for the fall

Decision generates much response from MIT community; open letter reaches 1,800 signatures

MIT announced that restrictions on campus access in some buildings, a process that was initially established in 2020 due to COVID-19, will remain in place during a MIT community update call Aug. 8. Provost Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Glen Shor reiterated that MIT would proceed with the plan in an Aug. 19 email

Changes for MIT members

Building access for MIT community members (students, faculty, staff, and affiliates) remains largely unchanged, as long as they are compliant with current vaccination and COVID Pass requirements. They can continue to “access campus buildings through access points with their MIT IDs.” Cross-registered students, research affiliates, and contractors and service providers must be entered into COVID Pass.

Changes for visitors

All visitors must follow MIT’s COVID-19 policies “while on campus,” but are “not required to have a negative” test before coming to campus.

Escorted visitors, if “accompanied by an MIT ID holder” already in COVID Pass, may enter “non-residential campus buildings from any access point.” COVID Pass users are responsible for their visitors during the visit. Escorted visitors are “strongly encouraged to be up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations.”

Unescorted visitors and event attendees must use Tim Tickets, MIT’s visitor pass system. Visitors can register for a Tim Ticket after accepting “MIT guidelines for building access,” agreeing to “adhere to MIT rules and protocols,” and providing personal information, vaccination status, and symptom status. Visitors under the age of 18 “not accompanied by a parent or guardian” are generally not allowed.

Changes for the general public

The public is welcome in “outdoor spaces” and several buildings during stated daytime hours. The buildings include MIT Medical (Building E23), the MIT Welcome Center’s first floor (Building E38), the Stratton Student Center’s first floor and basement (Building W20), the Zesiger Center Sports and Fitness Center (Building W35), and the List Visual Arts Center (Building E15).

MIT planned to announce the addition of the Ray and Maria Stata Center’s first floor (Building 32), Koch Institute for Cancer Research’s café and first floor (Building 76), and the MIT Atrium (Building E25) separately on Aug. 22, according to the presentation during the Aug. 8 call.

Unescorted public group tours are “allowed inside select campus buildings during posted days and times.”

The doors to Lobby 7 will remain unlocked during weekdays from 9 a.m to 5 p.m., but will be locked past 5 p.m. and during weekends. Those who wish to access will have to tap in at the door with an MIT ID or Tim Ticket.

Behind the plan

Associate Provost Krystyn Van Vliet PhD ’02 led the Aug. 8 call, noting that the decision was guided by five main principles: “ease of access”; supporting the “health, safety, and security” of the community; creating a “welcoming environment” for “invited visitors participating” in MIT events; “clarity regarding for visitors from the wider Cambridge/Boston community” and “the global general public”; and retaining “elements of modified access that worked well for the MIT community during the pandemic.” 

Van Vliet noted that “MIT conversations informed” the campus access plan. The planning team was composed of the Office of the Provost for “campus access and space planning oversight”; the MIT police for “safety and security considerations”; Information Systems & Technology for “technical and systems considerations and implementation”; Campus Services & Stewardship for “campus planning and design and management of physical plant”; Campus Planning for “design and planning considerations”; and Facilities for “physical operations and implementations” such as “impacts on staff working 24/7 on campus.” Van Vliet said the team sought further input from the MIT Undergraduate Association (UA), Graduate Student Council (GSC), and Faculty Policy Committee.

Chief of MIT Police John DiFava also discussed some non-pandemic advantages of having more control over campus access, such as safety, security, and greater control over large volumes of tourists and visitors.

MIT community’s response

An open letter drafted by Ari Ofsevit ’19 began circulating in the MIT community Aug. 11. As of Aug. 21, the letter has received 1,800 signatures from signees who are in “strong” disagreement with the “recent decision to maintain a closed campus at MIT going forward.” The letter adds that “closing MIT’s campus will diminish the openness which makes MIT the vibrant, collaborative, forward-thinking place that it is.”

In an email to The Tech, Ofsevit wrote that as an MIT alum, he “cannot conceive of any reasonable reason” the administration would “give for closing the campus access.” He noted that the response to the letter has been “quite impressive” considering that “students aren’t back on campus” and he’s only done “some outreach on Twitter and to friends.” More than 80% of the responses are from “current or former students.”

After opening the ground for suggestions, Ofsevit wrote that he plans to “invite people who want to help shape the letter to Zoom editing sessions” to make sure “everyone’s voice is heard.” There have been many comments regarding the “struggles facing students’ groups” that “draw from the community.” He hopes that the administration will “explain why” they made this decision and realize “this is a broad issue that hits home with a lot of people.”

Tesla Wells G took an active part in circulating the letter. In an email Aug. 11, they noted MIT’s relationship with Cambridge/Boston and with the global public/tourists as the main reasons for objecting to campus restriction. They wrote that MIT was able to “empower a local arts scene” by giving them “free space” and offered “basic amenities” to the public like study group space, lecture halls, or restrooms. It is “important” for the public to be able to “wander through the halls and see posters on chemical engineering, transit designs, and cancer research” in a time when the public’s “relationship to science and institutions of higher learning is fraught.”

Wells wrote to The Tech that they signed the petition after completing a “large housing project” during their junior year at MIT, studying “how MIT has contributed to gentrification in the greater Cambridge area.”

Wells wrote that Van Vliet’s report showed that the “committee that workshopped” the proposal were mostly “people in security and facility maintenance roles.” There was a lack of “community input from MIT or the Cambridge Community,” and the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations, Disability Services, Admissions, or Alumni Association were not consulted. Wells wrote they are “deeply worried that marginal safety increase is coming at a large but unmeasured and unexpressed cost.”

GSC President Adam Joseph Miller G wrote in an email to The Tech that the GSC Executive Committee “met with the administration in late Spring” to “advocate for a relaxation of the access policy.” The Committee was “not a part of the decision or any conversations afterward” and “found out about the decision by public announcement.” 

Miller himself was “surprised by the announcement” because “it didn’t align with where [he] thought the conversation was with the administration.” He “doesn’t think closed access is the right trade-off for our community,” and said the GSC would “advocate for a more open policy.”

Dormitory Council President Zawad Chowdhury ’23 wrote to The Tech that they and other executive members also signed the open letter as part of “organizations and community members affected by the change.”

Cambridge City Councilor Burhan Azeem ’19 was also active in advocating against campus restriction, writing that “having an ungated campus is critical to MIT’s commitment to interdisciplinary work and culture of openness” in an email to The Tech. He added that this “allows many community members to benefit from MIT spaces for arts and other activities.” 

Administration’s second response

Barnhart and Shor wrote to the MIT community with an update Aug. 19, noting that the administration’s decision “spurred conversation” in “recent days.” 

Barnhart and Shor wrote that MIT “took steps to manage the flow of people” coming into the facilities in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the “pandemic has evolved,” a “planning team sought input from the community” to balance “two MIT values” of a “commitment to openness and to each other’s well-being.” 

Barnhart and Shor added that they “appreciate the input from the MIT community.” While “a great many people … care deeply about access to MIT,” there are also “many who worry about safety in fully open buildings.” MIT will “continue to gladly welcome visitors to open events” and “guests who are registered” or “escorted.” 

Barnhart and Shor also wrote that MIT would “open some additional spaces to the public,” including the “first floors of the Stata Center and the Koch Institute, and the E25 atrium.” Their letter restated the announcement in the Aug. 8 call that these additional openings would be implemented on Aug. 22.

The plan is to “proceed with the described approach for the fall semester” and “continue the conversation” about balancing building access and community safety for the “spring semester and beyond.”


Update 08/27/2022: A previous version of the article featured an error of when restrictions to campus access began and the process of announcing additional building openings. The article has since been updated.