The next normal

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One morning at the start of the spring semester, I was surprised by a most welcome sound outside: the voices of students! I could not resist going to the window. Even bundled up against the cold, the students were obviously excited to be back on campus—or in the case of first-years, to be on campus for the first time. It gave me a tremendous lift.

And it also led me to contemplate what MIT will be like when everyone is back.

I know I am not the only one with daydreams about the “next normal.” Fortunately, MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond—a group of faculty, staff, and students from across the Institute—has spent the last year doing more than dreaming about this question. With their guidance, and drawing on the broad community input they sought out, we are using the opportunity of enormous societal disruption to think about potential changes that can help us prepare for the future. 

For instance, we will need to strike the right balance between in-person and remote. Through the pandemic, we have seen something “impossible” happen: large numbers of MIT staff successfully working from home. Many long for the camaraderie of being with colleagues—yet many are also finding hidden benefits in remote work. Our varied experiences can inform how we think about the workplace and may suggest ways for all of us to be more productive and fulfilled in our working hours.

Of course, students are clamoring to get back to hands-on learning and discovery—MIT’s “special sauce.” But as they pursue their academic goals, they face an increasingly uncertain world. The task force anticipates a need for greater emphasis on student well-­being; the response could include new curricular offerings to help students strengthen their coping skills and develop strategies to bolster their academic and social success. 

In the immediate future, some undergraduates, facing challenges imposed by a damaged economy, will likely need increased financial aid. And to ensure MIT’s creative strength over the long haul, we will have to seek new funding sources and financial models to support our graduate students, the heart of our research enterprise. 

This is just a quick sampling of the avenues Task Force 2021 and Beyond is exploring as we envision an MIT best equipped to thrive in a post-pandemic future. There is an enormous amount of work to do—best practices to study and ideas to discuss and debate. But I am confident we are on a path to making MIT even better prepared to serve the nation and the world. 

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