GSAS Dean’s Update about the Coming Academic Year

July 09, 2020

Dear MA and PhD students of GSAS,

You recently received a message from President Bollinger announcing the University’s intended plans for the Fall 2020 term, including vigorous public health protocols in place as we invite students to return to campus and academic life at Columbia.

We are excited to reopen the university, and thank you most sincerely for your patience these past months as we have worked to ensure the health and safety of every member of our community. We are grateful to be able to return to our educational mission, and to support our faculty’s commitment to the highest quality graduate education for our master’s and doctoral students.  

Of course, this year will be like no other, with de-densified classrooms and online components, with face coverings and careful attention to space. Columbia is excited to welcome you back after months of careful planning. This message contains information about the plans of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and answers several important questions. We will be in touch in the coming weeks to provide further updates.    

How will the academic calendar and class formats be affected?

Columbia will operate on a three-term cycle for the 2020-2021 academic year. Most graduate classes, however, will be concentrated in the fall and spring terms. Classes for the fall term will begin on schedule on September 8; please see the 2020-21 Academic Calendar for more detail.

As we begin the fall term, courses will be offered in multiple formats. Classes will have hybrid modalities to provide flexibility as the semester progresses. GSAS students will have the opportunity to take classes in-person when available, and all courses will be offered online to accommodate students who cannot or do not wish to attend in person. Your individual departments and programs will have more information in the next few weeks about the range of classes to be offered in person, online, and in hybrid format.

What health and safety measures will be implemented on campus?

Our campus health policy will require that people wear a face covering at all times while on campus, unless they are in a private room with the door closed. Physical distancing will be enforced throughout campus.

A detailed overview of public health protocols on Columbia’s campus includes symptom screening, mandatory and periodic testing, contact tracing, face covering, social distancing, and quarantining.

Please see the new Columbia Community Health Compact, which encompasses a shared community pledge to the highest standards of health and safety.

Will I be able to travel to campus?

The State of New York has established public health criteria that must be fulfilled in order to progress through the phases of reopening. At present, New York City is in the third of four phases, and higher-education institutions will be permitted to return to in-person instruction when the City reaches Phase 4.

Students traveling to campus from certain areas outside of New York may be subject to mandatory self-quarantine, dependent on the public health regulations in effect at the time of their scheduled arrival.

Continuing students and new students who do not require a visa are welcome on campus whenever they can travel to New York.

Students who do require a visa to the United States to attend classes should contact the International Students & Scholars Office for guidance about the updated regulations for hybrid and online education in Fall 2020 issued by the U.S. government on July 6.

The University is working to maximize the ability of our international students to fully leverage the benefits of our graduate programs through in-person, online, and hybrid options. We will be in direct touch with international students shortly.

President Bollinger has made clear his opposition to recent federal visa rules. Columbia, together with other leading colleges and universities, will be filing an amicus brief in the legal challenge to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s newest federal rules, which pose significant limitations on international students.

Will there be flexibility in the terms of University housing?

A majority of our graduate students in Columbia Residential housing chose to retain their apartments during the pandemic, and those who voluntarily left were offered priority placement upon return; many have already applied to be placed in housing once more. That said, all students who have received an offer of Columbia Residential housing, including continuing students, may cancel their contracts until August 15 and be reimbursed for the full amount of their deposit. Full-time students attending classes online are eligible for University housing.

Public health guidelines will necessitate changes to some residential behavior and availability, including physical distancing in common areas and reduced occupancy of certain units. Visit the Columbia Residential website for more information.

How is GSAS supporting students during the pandemic?

When the pandemic began, GSAS, in partnership with the Arts and Sciences Graduate Council, established a GSAS/ASGC Community COVID-19 Emergency Fund that disbursed nearly $110,000 to hundreds of students in immediate need. The Graduate School also partnered with the central administration to provide $3 million in additional summer stipend support for nearly 1300 doctoral students, and provided tuition fellowships to all master’s students who enrolled in Columbia summer language courses to advance their thesis work.

While we continue to raise money from alumni to replenish the Covid-19 Emergency Fund, we have put together for students a list of other University and federal resources to address ongoing challenges of income loss, child care, food and housing insecurity, and health and well-being during the public health crisis.

The Graduate School will continue to support students this year with programs and resources that will be available regardless of instructional format: initiatives to support diversity and promote inclusionmental health and wellness services; and the Writing Studio for PhD students and thesis-writing courses for international MA students. In response to the changing professional landscape further shaped by the global pandemic, we are opening a new career and professional development office for our MA and PhD students.

GSAS will begin a phased transition of staff members back to campus throughout the summer so that we may be in place to support students returning to campus.

Where can I find additional information?

The University continues to update its COVID-19 Resource Guide with the most recent information and developments. GSAS also will continue to communicate with you regularly; please be sure to check your Columbia email regularly and visit the GSAS website.


This message details the most recent information available to GSAS; we hope for increasing clarity in the coming weeks, and will communicate with you as we learn more. We have all been put into an extraordinarily challenging position: to make important decisions with information that is either incomplete or rapidly changing. Circumstances will surely continue to evolve, and although we cannot predict what is to come, it is critical that we remain determined and resilient, together.

All of us at GSAS look forward to welcoming you to the 2020-21 academic year, whether you are joining us in person, virtually, or some combination of the two. Beyond the pandemic, graduate education and scholarship have an essential role to play in these volatile times, as our fractured society confronts issues such as racial justice, climate change, and global public health. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences remains dedicated to creating community, advancing knowledge through research, and supporting you, our diverse student body, in the pursuit of your academic and professional projects.

Warmest regards,

Carlos J. Alonso, Dean
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Vice President for Graduate Education
Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor in the Humanities