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Kennedy School Dean Elmendorf Addresses Financial, Academic Challenges Posed by Coronavirus Pandemic

Harvard, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, pictured here in 2017, discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Kennedy School ranging from financial challenges to navigating the student experience during remote learning in an interview with The Crimson Thursday.
Harvard, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, pictured here in 2017, discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Kennedy School ranging from financial challenges to navigating the student experience during remote learning in an interview with The Crimson Thursday. By Gigi M. Kisela
By Raquel Coronell Uribe and Sixiao Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: Oct. 9, 2020, at 2:13 a.m.

Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Kennedy School ranging from financial challenges to navigating the student experience during remote learning in an interview with The Crimson Tuesday.

The pandemic has forced nearly all of Harvard’s schools, including the Kennedy School, to transition to remote-learning. HKS students were given the option to defer this year without incurring any additional fees, according to Elmendorf.

“That’s not usually an option for our students,” Elmendorf said. “Usually, you can only defer if you have a particular personal issue that has arisen, but we felt that this would be a different enough experience that people should have a fair opportunity to say they did not want this experience.”

Unlike some institutions that chose to cut tuition for remote learning, Harvard schools are charging their usual tuition rates. Despite some pushback from HKS students about the decision, Elmendorf said the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, decides the tuition rates for the school.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced in late September that $20 million dollars from central funds will be distributed across Harvard’s schools to combat the economic hardship from the pandemic. Elmendorf said the Kennedy School plans on using the funds it receives to maintain some of the school’s activities.

“The amount of additional money coming to the Kennedy School through that plan is much smaller than the losses we’re experiencing this year,” Elmendorf said. “Those funds will help, but we need them to keep doing some of the things we’ve already been doing.”

Elmendorf also referenced various University initiatives to keep the school financially secure, including University-wide hiring and salary freezes and newly-established incentives for staff to retire early.

“We’re trying to fend off bad things from happening, primarily,” Elmendorf said. “It is a very large, short-term financial shock that we need to deal with responsibly, so it does not become a permanent drag on the school.”

Elemdorf also recognized the challenges the pandemic has created for students at the Kennedy School — especially for students enrolled in one year programs who may never step foot on Harvard’s campus.

“I do feel especially bad for the one year students who would like to be on campus and can't be now,” Elmendorf said. “As I said, we want students, faculty, and staff to be back on campus as long as we can do it safely. But assuring that safety is a challenge.”

Although Elmendorf said he was not sure whether remote learning will continue in the spring, he noted there are “a lot of possibilities” to give students an in-person Harvard experience, especially if a coronavirus vaccine is obtained by the spring.

“Every option that I've ever heard has some advantages and some disadvantages,” he said. “But again, the most important thing in the end is that I don't want to be responsible for people getting the disease.”

“I do want people to have the best learning experience,” he added.

Elmendorf said he admired the students who chose to enroll this year despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic.

“I think this year's students will have a unique experience,” he said. “I'm glad that so many of them understand the importance of the mission of public service, and don't want to wait to get the extra tools and knowledge skills they need to be even more effective at that.”

Elmendorf, who became HKS dean in 2016, said one important lesson he has learned in his time as the head of the school is “the power of talented and committed people when they’re given an opportunity to make a difference.”

“The nature of governments and most big organizations is that there's an overchart, and there are approval processes and decisions,” Elmendorf said. “Universities have a different sort of structure, right? The wonderful magic in universities is that smart people come together with a commitment to do excellent work. And then they go off, and they do it.”

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at raquel.coronelluribe@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.
—Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at sixiao.yu@thecrimson.com.

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