When I first heard about the All Doors Open event, I was a little uncertain. I knew from my work in Student Support Services (S3) that our community was struggling to come to terms with a string of bad news, most recently the on-campus death of Phoebe Wang. We were given fifteen unstructured minutes, time to use however we chose. What would we make of it? My colleagues and I heard that some found the thought and experience of this undefined time awkward, long and intolerable. Others saw it as exactly what they needed.
What we observed in S3 was that “All Doors Open” represented an opportunity for a fresh start. It gave all of us in the MIT community a chance to catch our collective breath and become more direct about how we are feeling. Taking the time to stop, together, has started a conversation. In the time since All Doors Open, we have had a lot of conversations about important topics. As people talked, we listened and we learned.
Most importantly, we learned that people wanted to talk. People came to our office in larger numbers. They expressed concerns about friends, colleagues and loved ones whom they hadn’t noticed were troubled, until the recent death heightened their awareness and sense of responsibility for others. They talked about tragedy, they talked about death, and they talked about suicide. Yes, I said the word… suicide. Many told us that they wished more had been said publicly about the causes of death in the announcements over the last year. While we can all understand that the Institute has a moral obligation to respect the wishes of families above all in these painful situations, especially in the immediate aftermath, over and over we heard that the pain of not knowing can feel overwhelming when a colleague, friend or community member has died so suddenly. In listening to these reactions, it is clear that suicide and mental health need to be a part of the campus conversation.
We learned a lot from students and about the impact that professors have on them in these moments of crisis. When professors spoke openly about the tragedies and responded flexibly to them, the effect on their students was profoundly positive. By the same token, not acknowledging a recent tragedy, or refusing to be flexible in responding to students who have genuinely been affected, gives students the impression that uncomfortable topics should be swept under the rug. If I could deliver only one message to our faculty, it would be this: You are powerful! You are the role models for our students, the focus of their highest admiration. When you acknowledge pain, confusion and tragedy, share your personal experience of them, give students the opportunity to discuss them, and think flexibly about how to adjust classroom expectations, the impacts can be long lasting and deep.
I have gotten feedback from professors, though, who aren’t sure what to say to students about these sensitive subjects. They want more guidance, more direction. They are worried that they might make things worse. There is a need for clarity about how to handle classroom conversations when everyone feels at a loss. These crises serve as a reminder that, as basic as it sounds, professors are people too. Faculty members are not immune to being shaken, confused and unsure in the face of a tragedy. There needs to be better support for professors during these situations. Staff in my office consulted with many professors over the past few months, but the guidance needs to reach across the Institute in a systematic way.
We also heard that students are hesitant to talk openly with each other. They are comfortable talking about academics, or being “hosed.” But they find it much harder to talk about their genuine struggles. When things feel overwhelming, it’s less intimidating to isolate oneself than to seek help. Students also said they are reluctant to provide feedback about what could change on campus. They are either intimidated to talk to people in power or don’t have confidence that their feedback will have much of an impact.
To all of you in the MIT student community: I encourage you to talk to each other about your struggles, but not just about the daily stuff like academics and research. I promise that if you share a little bit about yourself, you’ll find others who struggle in similar ways. Keep having conversations with the administration about what we all could do differently. Don’t stop; don’t let the passage of time erode your resolve to make changes. Push us to think in creative, new, and bold ways about the MIT experience. Please remember, people are listening, and hearing the student voice is crucial to making positive change.
Finally, we heard from many, especially staff, that they are trying to make sense of the past year. We are absorbing a lot of bad news, not just at MIT but also in the world. We are hearing about illness, terrorism, and war. The wounds from the Boston Bombings and Sean Collier’s murder are still fresh. People feel that it has been one thing after the other, and it is hard to process it all. This is a reminder to us all about the basic human value of kindness, empathy, and understanding.
MIT is famous for inventing the future. In this moment, though, we need to reflect on the past, acknowledge where we currently stand, and then, as a community, think of new ways to make MIT an even better place to live, work, and learn. Let’s continue the conversation. Our door in S3, as always, is open and if you have thoughts on how we can better serve the community in this tough time please do not hesitate to stop by or contact me directly.
Associate Dean David Randall oversees Student Support Services.