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MIT Technology Review

Planning for the unknowable future

MIT weighs the options for fall.

Simon Simard

Among this pandemic’s humbling lessons is how long it takes for disorienting new realities to sink in. On March 24, when I wrote my last letter to you in this space, we knew a pandemic was upon us. We had already acted to radically depopulate our campus, including taking the painful step of sending nearly all our undergraduates suddenly away. And we had also asked our faculty to step up to the intense challenge of putting all their courses online in just two weeks, while scaling back our immense research enterprise.

But at that point, we had only just grasped that the ongoing public health crisis in Massachusetts would force us to reshape Tech Reunions and Commencement as well, requiring us to somehow conduct both of these cherished events online. We were not at all certain how to make it happen—only that we had no choice but to do so. Now, 10 weeks later, I can report that thanks to the intense efforts and creative contributions of many hundreds of students, staff, alumni, and faculty here and around the world, these remote versions were delightful, inspiring, and very MIT. (You can see the graduation preshow and program webcast for yourself, right here.)

As I write, we are piloting the protocols required to begin bringing on--campus research safely up to speed again. And we are engaged in a new effort to make key decisions about the next major milestone in the academic calendar: the start of the fall semester, which will be gearing up another 10 unknowable weeks from now. 

The decisions for the fall and beyond involve a large number of interrelated factors and enormous uncertainty—a systems optimization problem that is both MIT-hard and deeply human. Our first priority must be protecting the health and well-being of our community and the many communities we touch. 

After modeling a wide range of scenarios and taking the current public health advice into account, we do not think it very likely that we can all be on campus together this fall. Since every available path involves complex trade-offs, each in some way painful or unattractive, we are reaching out in many different ways to share with the community what we have learned so far, and to gather insights and ideas. We believe we must reach a decision by early July; I am confident that by working through these choices together, we will arrive at a solution that is truly worthy of MIT.