How Next Year Will Be Different

The outline of a plan for 2020-21.

July 2020

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How Next Year Will Be Different

Photo: Andrew Brodhead

Each autumn, 7,000 undergrads and 9,400 graduate students begin a new academic year on the Farm. They sit elbow-to-elbow in lecture halls, hunch together over lab microscopes, sing in a cappella groups and go to parties. University life—especially the residential education central to the undergraduate experience—is not built for physical distancing.

So as the university wrapped up a virtual spring quarter, its leaders focused on figuring out how to provide a Stanford education amid a pandemic that could be exacerbated by the very activities that make college formative.

In a June 3 letter to students, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne outlined an initial plan for 2020–21, citing three main considerations: 

  • A plan that can withstand an increase in COVID-19 cases 
  • Physical distancing
  • Sufficient residential space for students to quarantine as needed


All undergrads will have private sleeping spaces, which will reduce undergrad housing capacity by about half. Stanford plans to bring undergraduates to campus in cohorts over a four-quarter year through summer 2021. Absent special circumstances, undergrads will be on campus for two quarters—autumn and summer for frosh and sophomores, and winter and spring for juniors and seniors—and complete a third quarter remotely. 

Because graduate students live primarily in apartment-style residences, their housing will not be substantially altered. 

Teaching and research

Fall quarter will start one week early, on September 14 (with possible exceptions for certain degree programs in business, education, law and medicine), enabling classes to end and most undergraduates to depart before Thanksgiving. Finals will be held online the following week.

Many classes—especially those with more than 50 students—will be held online, both to serve remote students and because Stanford lacks enough classrooms to provide 6 feet of distance between each person. “We have a beautiful campus with spaces that haven’t necessarily been used for formal classroom teaching,” says vice provost for graduate education Stacey Bent, PhD ’92. “A lot of creative thinking is going on.” 

‘We have a beautiful campus with spaces that haven’t necessarily been used for formal classroom teaching. A lot of creative thinking is going on.’

Critical in 2020–21 are continuing a return to research and strengthening online learning, administrators say. Graduate research is highly varied, ranging from computational to field to library and archival research, says Bent, who is co-chairing the Research Continuity Policy Committee with vice provost and dean of research Kathryn Moler, ’88, PhD ’95. In his letter, Tessier-Lavigne emphasized that online teaching will evolve beyond the springtime priority of ensuring that students could finish the year. Stanford has hired 50 grad-student teaching fellows to help faculty improve online courses. “We are also looking at ways to better replicate other features of in-person teaching,” Tessier-Lavigne said, “such as small group interactions, academic support and peer-to-peer learning.” 

The 2020–21 budget

The Board of Trustees, anticipating revenue $620 million less than pre-pandemic projections and ongoing market volatility, approved a 2020–21 budget that includes a 10 percent cut in payout from endowment funds (except for those that support student financial aid, payout from which will increase 3 percent) as well as a rare withdrawal of up to $150 million from unrestricted endowment. The trustees also approved a 9 percent overall increase in financial aid spending, including funds to fully cover tuition for undergraduates whose families earn less than $150,000 per year (up from $125,000) and expanded support for doctoral students. 

As plans for 2020–21 continue to take shape, Stanford will provide updates online and in print.

Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Email her at

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