Administrators address budgeting, public health, research at town hall

Waitz says “good chance” that MIT summer activities will remain remote

President L. Rafael Reif and a panel of MIT administrators addressed questions regarding budgeting, public health, research, and initiatives to support community members in light of the COVID-19 pandemic in a virtual town hall meeting April 7.

MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis ’90 led the discussion on public health. 

As of the meeting, 22 members within the MIT community were known to have tested positive for COVID-19, 17 in New England and five outside. (As of press time, 28 members of the MIT community have tested positive, according to MIT Medical’s website.) Stuopis said the tally is likely an undercount and asked community members who have tested positive to report their diagnosis to MIT Medical. 

Stuopis also predicted the number of positive cases to rise within the MIT community, with some members potentially requiring hospitalization and ICU treatment.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson elaborated on the decision to ask students to leave campus. 

Barnhart said that the decision was made under the guidance of public health experts such as Stuopis, who compared FSILGs and residence halls to “docked cruise ships.” Administrators prioritized the MIT community’s health and safety in making the decision, Barnhart said.

Nelson emphasized the Division of Student Life’s focus on providing on and off-campus student support through the creation of the Student Success Team, along with transitioning all Student Support Services online.

The Institute has also supported the broader community by housing Cambridge and MIT essential personnel in vacated dorms, Nelson said.

Vice President for Online Learning Sanjay Sarma and Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser addressed the academic transition to online classes.

Sarma said that although it is difficult to recreate the “magic” of in-person classes online, MIT was well-equipped for the transition due to its decades of preparation through MIT OpenCourseWare and MITx.

Danheiser said that the decision to implement an alternate grading system was made after “extensive deliberation” with faculty, mental health professionals, and student leaders. 

Danheiser said that the emergency grading will allow instructors to maintain rigor and prioritize student learning over grades and evaluations. Danheiser also said that he trusts students to maintain academic integrity by themselves, as students are motivated to learn the material.

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz wrote in an email to The Tech that “in general, administrators of scholarships, internships, and graduate and professional degree programs are issuing guidance that they will appropriately consider the extraordinary circumstances of this semester.” He wrote that students with questions about particular programs that require letter grades should contact the Office of the Vice Chancellor.

In response to student concerns about the PE/NE system’s impact on admissions for medical and graduate programs, Danheiser cited statements by graduate and professional schools indicating that they will evaluate applicants holistically. 

The panel also addressed questions about budgeting, tuition, and financial aid. 

Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88 compared MIT’s current financial situation to that during the 2008 financial crisis. MIT faces a decline in returns from its endowment, which currently funds one third of MIT’s budget. Experience from 2008 suggests that a reduction in expenditures is necessary, Schmidt said. 

Schmidt said that although MIT will be drawing a larger portion from the endowment, withdrawals must be managed “carefully” so the fund is sustainable in the long term. In addition, Schmidt pointed out that most of MIT’s endowment comes with donor stipulations restricting its use.

Schmidt noted a key difference from 2008 in the “significant costs” MIT incurred in the “immediate response” to the COVID-19 crisis. The expenses include covering the online transition; supporting athletics, dining, and contracted workers; and reimbursing housing and student life fees. Schmidt estimated the losses to be in the “tens of millions” range.

Another difference is the uncertainty surrounding when students and faculty can return to campus. Schmidt said that reduced levels of operation in the summer and fall may impact future research funding and tuition.  

Schmidt and Reif then turned the conversation towards MIT’s values. Schmidt pointed out that MIT’s mission statement includes service to “the nation and the world.”

In line with MIT’s mission, Schmidt said that the Institute has designated one vacated residence hall (East Campus) for first responders and another (Burton Conner) for self-quarantine.

The east parallel of EC will house “up to 100 essential personnel” working for Pro EMS, Cambridge Health Alliance, the Cambridge Fire Department, and the Cambridge Police Department, EC Head of House Sandy Alexandre wrote in an email to EC residents April 3.

According to Schmidt, addressing the rapid loss of jobs from the pandemic is a “very high priority” that will “strongly influence” MIT’s finances going forward.

“MIT is fortunate to have a number of resources, and I feel we have to work as hard as humanly possible to use those resources to preserve jobs and not further exacerbate the economic situation,” said Schmidt. 

Schmidt emphasized the role of “collective shared sacrifice” in the preservation of jobs. However, Schmidt also couldn’t “say what we will be able to do” due to the uncertainty surrounding summer and fall.

In collaboration with Vice President for Finance Glen Shor and other staff, Schmidt announced three key steps in their financial plan. The first step entails sending guidance to units on campus to curtail spending through pausing near-term hiring. 

Schmidt said that in the next step, MIT will rebudget for fiscal year 2021 by referencing steps from 2008 to reduce base budget allocation, level payout to current year levels, and reduce or eliminate merit salary increases while limiting layoffs. Schmidt recognizes that students may require more financial aid and support, which the budget will reflect.

The final step consists of considering various scenarios for restoring research and instruction in the summer and fall while maintaining the health and safety of the community, Schmidt said. 

Schmidt said that MIT is unable to discount tuition due to financial constraints, emphasizing the costs MIT incurred in the transition online. He believes students will recognize the Institute’s efforts to “make the best we could” out of online learning and will continue progress towards their degrees.  

Ramona Allen, vice president for human resources, addressed MIT’s support for staff and faculty.

Allen pointed out that some MIT employees are unable or only partially able to work from home and said that MIT is working with managers and supervisors to try to find meaningful work for employees that can be done remotely.

Other employees may be unable to work their full hours due to caring for their family. MIT is “committed to paying full wages and benefits for as long as possible” even if the employee is unable to work full hours, Allen said.

Allen said that “people have a lot to worry about right now” without also worrying “about their paychecks.”

Vice President for Research Maria Zuber addressed the state of research at MIT.

Zuber said that while all research that could be done remotely will continue off-campus, on-campus research sites will decrease personnel density to 10-20% of normal capacity. She mentioned Lincoln Labs, which reduced to 10% density and instituted shift work to further lower density, as an example.

While on-campus research has been scaled down, Zuber listed several types of on-campus research activities that have been allowed to continue. These activities include long-term experiments that would lose large amounts of data if terminated prematurely; students finishing theses and postdocs finishing papers needed in order to move on to new positions; maintenance of critical samples, equipment, and animal populations; and work directly related to COVID-19.

Zuber said that there were 50 short term COVID-19 related projects in progress on and off campus involving all five schools and the College of Computing. These projects include low-cost testing with CRISPR, vaccine development, collaboration with public health officials in data analytics and mass communication, and Bluetooth-based contact tracing using cryptographic methods.

Zuber said that ramped-down labs will reopen “as soon as it is safe to do so.” There will not be “a single date for everyone to have a green light.” Instead, Zuber will be talking to department heads and lab and center directors about “creative ways” to safely resume on-campus research.

With regards to grant continuity, Zuber said that much is still unknown. More information will be provided in the research section of the MIT COVID-19 site and in future town halls, Zuber said.

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz addressed the resumption of normal life on campus and MIT’s plans for the future.

Waitz pointed out the “benefit in delaying some decisions” until more information is available. However, he said that there is a “good chance that many activities in the summer will remain remote.” Plans for fall are “more wide open” and depend on the progression of COVID-19 and of the science and technology to fight it.

Waitz said that MIT has a team currently “mapping out the scenarios” for the future comprised of the same people who have been “deeply involved” in the de-densification and transition over the past month. Waitz said that the scenarios will be based on “different pathways” for the pandemic and “different assumptions about the population and level of activity on campus.”

Finally, mechanical engineering professor Martin Culpepper PhD ’00 and medical engineering professor Elazer Edelman PhD ’84 highlighted some of the work they have been doing on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Culpepper assembled a team of “over a hundred” to develop a face shield for healthcare workers. He used a flat sheet of clear material that was cut and folded into a three dimensional shield. The team sent 250 prototypes to local hospitals to receive feedback before scaling up to mass manufacturing in the tens of thousands. MIT has partnered with the manufacturer to donate the first hundred thousand shields.

Edelman, who leads the MIT Medical Outreach Team, spoke on the Institute’s connection to the healthcare system, especially in sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE).

MIT has distributed over 600,000 pieces of PPE collected from 20 departments, labs, and centers. In addition, MIT has reached out to its alumni, particularly those in Asia, to get in touch with manufacturers, Edelman said. Edelman predicts that MIT will be able to distribute millions of pieces of PPE “in the coming weeks.”

Vice President for Communications Alfred Ironside encouraged viewers to submit questions via the webcast’s Q&A feature to be addressed at future town halls.