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Graduate School Planning for the 2020-21 Academic Year

May 17, 2020

Dear Graduate Students,

I hope you are well in this particularly challenging period. I first want to express my appreciation for your extraordinary efforts this semester. The move to remote teaching, research and learning has demanded of us all determination, ingenuity, and flexibility. I had the pleasure of joining a number of virtual dissertation defenses, which were powerful highlights of the tremendous accomplishments of graduate students in recent weeks. I also want to acknowledge the challenges that many in the graduate student community have been facing. Many graduate students, including international students, student parents, and other groups, have understandably been challenged by a highly fluid and uncertain period personally, professionally and economically.

Following up on President Paxson’s May 6 letter, I’m writing to describe how the Graduate School is planning for a safe return to campus, and to share the academic, teaching and research continuity planning underway for the 2020-2021 academic year. Based on guidance from our state and national health agencies, we are preparing for three scenarios, which President Paxson outlined. It’s worth noting that, for graduate students, these are scenarios for course offerings; as discussed below, the resumption of research in labs and in the field will depend on the prevailing public health conditions and will have its own timeline.

The University is considering variations of three scenarios affecting courses:

  • Normal operations with a traditional academic year.
  • Reduced undergraduate campus population and a modified academic calendar of three semesters between September 2020 and August 2021.
  • Fully online for fall 2020, and perhaps for the full academic year. 

The University has established a series of COVID-19 Planning Groups, which include representatives from the Graduate School. Additionally, the Graduate School has established a planning group to focus on the impact of any plans on graduate education, with representatives from units across the University. We will continue to seek graduate student input to inform the development of plans as they relate to graduate education. The following sections detail the planning underway for a healthy and safe return to campus and for academic, teaching, and research continuity.

Graduate Student Health and Safety on Campus
Planning for a return to research and the campus environment requires ensuring the safety of students, faculty, and staff. As President Paxson’s letter noted, the University is working to develop policies and offer guidance for a phased, gradual and controlled resumption of on-campus activities. Departmental Chairs, faculty and DGSs will develop plans for a return to research, which will be vetted and approved by a committee focused above all on the health and safety of students, staff and faculty. These plans are tailored to individual departments and will be shared with graduate students prior to their return to campus. More information will be shared soon about how the University has structured and will manage the safe return to campus. Graduate students seeking academic accommodations due to medical and disability concerns are directed to review with SAS their eligibility for reasonable accommodations. The Graduate School also serves as a resource to graduate students with questions or concerns during this process. 

Graduate Student Academic Continuity
We recognize that the potential move to a three-semester model or to a partially/fully online model as outlined in the possible scenarios will have varied impacts on graduate students. The University recognizes that many graduate students need to use summers to complete fieldwork, internships, or full-time activity in the lab. For that reason, should the University move to this scenario, we expect that most critical courses for graduate students will be offered in the fall and spring semesters, though individual programs may make alternative arrangements to support students more effectively. The President has shared with the community that she will make a decision regarding the fall semester’s format no later than July 15.

Graduate Student Teaching Continuity
Since the University moved to remote instruction this spring, graduate students have approached their courses, as students and teaching assistants, with dedication. The Academic Continuity Planning group led by Provost Locke has been working to ensure that Brown is fully prepared to deliver — in person and/or remotely — the high quality and personalized educational experience for which Brown is known. We recognize that a move to remote or hybrid instructional models for the fall will impact graduate students serving as teaching assistants in the coming semester. We are therefore working to ensure that support is provided to faculty and to graduate student instructors to ensure a high-quality experience. This planning includes ensuring appropriate funding and support for any student who may serve as an instructor during the summer.

The Graduate School will be sending a survey later this month to all graduate students asking them to identify how they might be best supported as students and instructors. We are working with partners, including the Digital Learning and Design (DLD) Team, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, and the University Library, to establish resources to support this transition. Students should stay in contact with their DGS and the Graduate School as instructor and TA assignments are developed for next academic year, and be in contact should it become apparent that you will have difficulty fulfilling responsibilities.

Graduate Student Research Continuity
Under the leadership of Vice President for Research Jill Pipher, a Subcommittee on Research Continuity is developing a plan for ramping up research and to offer best practices for lab safety based on the University’s planning scenarios. Graduate student input has been valuable in this planning effort. Guidance on planning to reopen labs safely will be issued next week. Soon after, additional guidance will be issued on restarting field research, including both human subjects research and non-human subjects research.

At the University Library, planning is underway to support resumed campus research activities through facilitating digital access to general and special collections materials that are not available through other means. The Library also is working toward launching a form of limited "distant circulation" of physical materials.

I want to remind you that the Graduate School staff is available by email, by phone, and for Zoom meetings, as we continue to work remotely throughout the summer. Additionally, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and University Health Services, as well as other student resources across campus, are open and continue to be available to graduate students. We are regularly updating our COVID-19 FAQs for graduate students and encourage you to review. Students can reach out to [email protected] with any additional questions.

I wish you a successful completion to the spring semester.


Dean of the Graduate School
Professor of Medical Science
Molecular Microbiology & Immunology
Brown University