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On “All Doors Open,” and moving forward

Dear Editors of The Tech and members of the MIT community:

We are grateful for the many different ways that individuals and groups chose to observe “All Doors Open” on Monday, from professors who took the time for open conversation with their classes, to the students who prayed and offered hugs along the Infinite Corridor, to those who stopped with us outside of our offices to talk.

The response to “All Doors Open” and to last week’s e-mail announcing it has been encouraging and, in true MIT fashion, action-oriented. We are still collecting and reviewing the feedback, and we are considering establishing several working groups to reflect on the community’s suggestions and recommend some plans for action.

But we were so heartened by the response that we wanted to share a few highlights right away:

We heard repeatedly about the need to increase interaction, whether among students or between students and faculty. The word “isolation” appeared in a number of e-mails; we must find ways to break down the barriers that exist on our campus and to create pathways for connection.

A number of community members told us that we need to be more forthcoming in naming the problems we are trying to solve, that we have had suicides in our community and we should not be afraid to say so if we want to find ways to help.

Several parents suggested developing in-person or online student training sessions related to stress and wellbeing, particularly around nutrition, exercise and alcohol abuse. One student proposed developing training exercises for faculty to help recognize signs of distress and to identify those who may need help. Additionally, faculty would benefit from a greater understanding of how to assist students in need to navigate MIT’s infrastructure of support services.

Another student suggested that together we need to “Hack the MIT culture” — confront negative attitudes with more positive, ultimately more productive thoughts and actions around sleep, seeking help and creating a healthier work/study/life balance.

Several emails described the shock students experience when they arrive at MIT. After knowing only success throughout their high school or undergraduate experiences, students arrive as freshmen or new graduate students to find that those around them are as smart and accomplished as they are and that work standards are extraordinarily high; this can lead to a painful sense of inadequacy and even of being “an imposter.” A student reported that one of her faculty began a recent class by asking the students for their impressions of what makes the class so stressful. The discussion that followed not only helped the faculty member to understand the students’ perceptions of the subject’s demands, but made explicit an issue that we all experience but rarely address so openly.

One student suggested one immediate fix: We could all take the time to encourage each other. As she explained, early in her time at MIT, one of her professors emailed her, commending her for how she had handled an assignment. This simple, reassuring “job-well-done” seemed so unusual and felt so meaningful to her that she saved the e-mail in her inbox as a reminder of her ability to succeed.

The feedback we have received has been eye opening and informative. And the number of people who have offered to help in concrete ways, with expertise or experience, has been inspiring. MIT is a place informed by facts and evidence, and we must do more to understand the challenges so many in our community face. We must also do more to make those around us feel valued and supported – while guarding the creative intensity and rigor that are the essence of MIT

This is a non-trivial proposition, and we are grateful to know that in tackling this challenge, we can count on the collective wisdom and action of our entire community.

We will continue to provide updates as our path forward becomes clearer. In the meantime, we appreciate all of the input we have received and welcome further thoughts and recommendations at
we-are@mit.edu.

Sincerely,

Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor
Steven Hall, Chair of the Faculty