The next normal | MIT Technology Review


One morning at the start of the spring semester, I was surprised by a very welcome sound outside: the voice of the students! I couldn’t resist going to the window. Even bundled up in the cold, the students were obviously thrilled to be back on campus – or in the case of the early years, to be on campus for the first time. It gave me a tremendous boost.

And it also got me thinking about what MIT will be like when everyone else returns.

I know I’m not the only one who dreams of the “next normal”. Fortunately, MIT Task Force 2021 and beyond—A group of faculty, staff and students from across the Institute — has spent the past year more than dreaming on this issue. With their guidance and building on the broad community contribution they have sought, we take the opportunity of huge societal upheavals to reflect on potential changes that can help us prepare for the future.

For example, we will need to find the right balance between in person and remotely. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen something “impossible” happen: large numbers of MIT employees are successfully working from home. Many yearn for the camaraderie of being with co-workers, but many also find hidden benefits in working remotely. Our varied experiences can inform the way we think about the workplace and can suggest ways for all of us to be more productive and fulfilled in our working hours.

Of course, students are clamoring to return to hands-on learning and discovery – MIT’s “special sauce”. But as they pursue their academic goals, they face an increasingly uncertain world. The working group anticipates the need to place more emphasis on student well-being; the response could include new program offerings to help students build coping skills and develop strategies to enhance their academic and social success.

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

This is just a quick sampling of avenues explored by the 2021 task force and beyond as we envision an MIT best equipped to thrive in a post-pandemic future. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done – best practices to study and ideas to discuss and debate. But I am confident that we are on the right track to make MIT even better prepared to serve the nation and the world.

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