MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXII No. 4
March / April 2020
I. Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak;
II. Lemonade from Lemons: Making the Most out of our Current Crisis; III. Publication Policies of the FNL; IV. Professor Rajagopal Joins Human Rights Council
Education in the Time of Covid-19
Coronavirus Structure, Vaccine
and Therapy Development
Notes from the MIT Town Hall
Introducing an Institute-Wide
Referendum at MIT
PKG Center Connects MIT Students
with Broader Community Needs
Questioning Structure
of the Faculty Newsletter
Women at MIT 1962-2020
Printable Version


I. Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak;
II. Lemonade from Lemons: Making the Most
out of our Current Crisis;
III. Publication Policies of the FNL;
IV. Professor Rajagopal Joins UN Human Rights Council


Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak

As we go to press, more than 95% of the U.S. population has been told to stay home. Over 22 million people have filed for unemployment and, as of today, April 19, 2020, more than 40,000 people have died. Globally over two million people have been infected, and tens of thousands have lost their lives to Covid-19. We do not know how and when this pandemic will end. What we do know is that things will get substantially worse before they get better. We also know that those who are most vulnerable in our world will bear the highest cost of this pandemic for years to come.

In response, MIT – like many leading higher education institutions – has focused its attention on the safety and well-being of its community, on accelerated research and innovation to fight the spread and impact of Covid-19, and on support for shifting all teaching, operations, and scholarly activities online. MIT's response so far has taken extreme dedication and endless hours of work from people across the Institute.

Over the past three weeks MIT has undergone unprecedented changes. Twelve hundred courses have moved online, with grades changed to pass/fail. Thousands of undergraduate students were sent home, and many graduate students were asked to leave campus housing. All non-essential employees are working from home. These are but some of the many changes that have swept through MIT.

Yet, amid these changes, faculty, staff, and students have stepped up to contribute to the fight against Covid-19. A group of our colleagues at the Sloan School has formed a Covid-19 Policy Alliance ( At the Media Lab, researchers are developing Safe Paths, a privacy-focused app for contact tracing and a #BeatTheVirus campaign to counter misinformation on  Covid-19. Colleagues at the Ragon and the Broad Institutes are working directly on the development of improved devices, tests, vaccines, and therapies. Others among us are working with colleagues to focus attention on emerging needs. These are just a few of the efforts happening at MIT. As people have said, responding to this kind of world crisis is what MIT is good at.

As we acknowledge the responsive efforts of so many at MIT, we must also be mindful that decisions made in response to Covid-19 can place an excessive burden on the more vulnerable members of our community. The abrupt removal of most undergraduate and many graduate students from campus was needed to slow the spread, but it also created anxiety and stress for students. For some students, returning home meant putting their family at risk, and for some, home is not a safe place. We understand that academic advisors and mentors have been asked to stay in touch with their student advisees and to be available to offer support and advice, and we believe this is indeed very important.

Recently the Provost announced a one-year tenure-clock extension for untenured faculty due to the disruption of life during Covid-19. This is an important acknowledgment of the burdens – academic, personal, and familial – imposed by the crisis. Of course, the disruption will impact faculty in very different ways: those with extra familial responsibilities that cannot be handled by partners or paid caregivers will be especially affected. One effect of the extension will be that faculty who opt for the extra year will delay the salary bump that tenure brings, and this will have a cumulative impact on lifetime income. The difference is not trivial. We hear that there are ongoing discussions about such concerns and we hope that they yield effective solutions.

Similar considerations need to be provided for graduate students and research staff/postdocs who are vulnerable to the same distractions that faculty are facing. The case is even worse for adjunct faculty who are often here on a temporary contract but who are also vital members of our community.

It is very important to include the staff members of our community when considering the negative effects of the current situation. Our staff are dedicated members of the MIT community and critical to the success of our efforts. We expect that the Administration will continue to pay close attention to the needs of these community members as well.

Looking forward, enormous challenges lie ahead from the economic and social repercussions unleashed by the pandemic, including the deep global recession, job losses, and their impact on the well-being of our students and their families, on research and administrative staff, and on faculty.

This academic year, the leadership at MIT has faced extreme challenges. The Epstein case called into question the judgment of members and former members of the Institute’s senior leadership team. It also highlighted systemic/structural problems with democratic representation at MIT and the disenfranchisement of several communities within the Institute.

Covid-19 asks that same leadership step up with a moral clarity that will ensure the care and support of our entire community. Despite problematic communication with our undergraduates early in the process, the leadership has risen to this task. As we move into an uncertain future and face new challenges with diverse repercussions, let us all demonstrate our capacity to maintain that moral clarity.

Editorial Board of the MIT Faculty Newsletter

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Lemonade from Lemons:
Making the Most out of our Current Crisis

The Covid-19 outbreak has compelled MIT faculty meetings to now be held virtually (see March 17, 2020 email from Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser, "March 18 Faculty Meeting: Zoom Meeting Info and Request for Questions"). When the need for faculty voting arises in this new virtual context, as it invariably must, then this will of necessity require some form of electronic voting. This would be a welcome step forward for MIT. E-voting is technologically and operationally feasible, and is likely to be more secret and universal. E-voting may also increase faculty attendance. There’s plenty of evidence for this: Participation in the FNL faculty-wide Editorial Board election is much higher than votes at the faculty meeting for faculty committees; states that have adopted mail-in ballots as a default, like Washington, have seen the voter turnout increase by more than 10% above the national average. There is strong reason to believe that e-voting can similarly boost faculty participation.

E-voting can also ensure the secrecy of voting, one hallmark of a genuinely democratic process. Open voting by a show of hands at faculty meetings always has the potential to subject faculty members to unwarranted peer pressure and, for untenured faculty, fear of retaliation.

E-voting avoids this defect as well as others such as miscounting, and so may well lead to a more genuine and honest expression of views by faculty members, especially when voting on controversial issues.

It turns out that there is nothing in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty that explicitly prevents virtual meetings from taking place – and now, such meetings will take place. Similarly, nothing in the faculty regulations prevents e-voting, which of necessity will now also take its place for the time being at faculty meetings. We have no doubt that both will work, providing empirical evidence of improvement. The only remaining question: Once the current crisis passes, why roll back this better engineering to the more imperfect past? That would be very unlike MIT. Rather, it seems to us that the successful use of both e-meeting and e-voting for Faculty meetings points the way ahead to a permanent move for a better MIT during the remainder of the twenty-first century – squeezing at least a little bit of lemonade from the terrible times we now navigate.

Publication Policies of the FNL

The Faculty Newsletter periodically receives criticism of its content. An example is Professor Weinberg’s pointed letter in the current issue, where he inquires about the multiplicity of voices in the FNL, and which deserves response.         

The pages of the Faculty Newsletter exist to enable the faculty to share ideas, perspectives, opinions – and, in so doing, to make our work environment more vibrant and our actions more informed, responsive, and responsible. The articles express the views of those members of the faculty who choose to take the time to express them. The FNL Editorial Board welcomes and encourages contributions from any and all faculty members, particularly those who feel that important perspectives are not being included. Submissions should not be libelous, and should bear some connection to issues and concerns of the MIT faculty. Other than those general filters, the Editorial Board does not exercise limitations on articles submitted for publication by faculty members.

The Editorials are the views of either the Editorial Subcommittee responsible for that issue, or the entire Editorial Board. These pieces are not intended to represent average, median, or popular representation of faculty views. Rather they represent the views of the Editorial Board members, who have been elected by the faculty at large in an electronic election. Many more faculty vote in the election of FNL Board members than vote for the Standing Committees of the Faculty. The FNL Editorial Board is also the only committee of the Institute for which only faculty, and all faculty, can vote. (The preceding editorial calls for changing the current situation, and having the full faculty vote electronically for all faculty membership on all committees.)

Articles submitted to the Faculty Newsletter by faculty are not vetted or sent out for review beforehand. We publish opposing views, refutations, or corrections, typically in the subsequent issue. (Though given some uncertainty during this Coronavirus emergency of when the next issue of the FNL will be published, we are responding to Professor Weinberg’s letter in this issue.)

Editorial Board members receive little academic or professional credit for their service. In general, they are colleagues who strongly believe that the faculty form an absolutely essential constituency at MIT (as opposed, for example, to the model of the faculty as simply individual employees of the Corporation), deserving and requiring an independent and active voice. Given the absence of an elected Faculty Senate or Council, the FNL role in providing independent faculty expression is particularly valuable.

This imperative is what launched the Faculty Newsletter [see:] and this ethos is deeply engrained in FNL function. Some of these beliefs stem from a conservative viewpoint with respect to the privileges of academia, stemming from the medieval tradition of the autonomous university. Others come from a more progressive view that faculty have special responsibilities in society in their role as teachers of the next generation. Periodically we also publish submissions from postdocs, graduate students, research staff, administrators, and others when in our assessment the expressed views need to be heard by our colleagues.

We urge you – members of our esteemed faculty – to share your views, concerns, and proposals with your colleagues through the pages of this Faculty Newsletter.

Professor Rajagopal Joins UN Human Rights Council

We also acknowledge some good news: a member of the Editorial Board of the Faculty Newsletter, and a faculty colleague from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, has recently been voted by the UN Human Rights Council as the next UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. No MIT faculty member has ever been elected to this important position in the human rights field, as far as we know.

The human rights work of the UN is led by the UN Human Rights Council (47 States elected by the UN General Assembly yearly), representing member States from around the world. The Special Rapporteurs are independent experts who are selected for their expertise, independence, impartiality, and objectivity to be in charge of specific issues areas. Those areas include a range of human rights matters such as freedom of expression, torture, racism, housing, health, food, water and sanitation, etc. Major investigative and legal work on the topics which the FNL has covered recently, such as the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or the killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Prince Salman’s coterie, have been led by Special Rapporteurs on torture, illegal executions, etc. The Special Rapporteurs are appointed in their personal capacity by the UN Human Rights Council for three years initially, and the positions are honorary.

The Rapporteurs have three main kinds of duties: first, they submit thematic reports on major issues of concern, to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. Second, the Rapporteurs deal with urgent calls/complaints about human rights violations within their mandates. Those are received on a daily basis and require public and private interventions with countries and other parties. Third, the Rapporteurs conduct selected country visits and then file reports based on their detailed field investigations on the status of human rights adherence in those countries. In addition, the rapporteurs are also often called upon to speak at various forums at the UN, engage in public communication and advocacy, and function as the global voice on the issues within their mandates. For a general description of Special Rapporteurs, see:

Editorial Subcommittee

Robert Berwick
Sally Haslanger
Jonathan King

Ceasar McDowell
Balakrishnan Rajagopal
Robert Redwine

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