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March 10, 2020: Harvard Stops, But the World Cannot

By Sungmin Oh
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Harvard does not shut its doors. Even during the 1918 Spanish Flu — when 50 million died and 500 million were infected — Harvard did not close. There have been days off — hurricanes, blizzards, the Boston Marathon bombing — but as Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III quipped, “Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world.”

Yet here we are. If not at the end of the world, then as President Lawrence S. Bacow announced yesterday morning — to students waking up, walking into midterms, touching up the final clauses of senior theses — we likely find ourselves at the end of our physical time on campus this semester.

And though we have much to say in the days to come — words of hope, critiques of process, fears of personal and global proportions — we find ourselves first wanting to speak to the obligations, which out of necessity or as a troubling abdication, the University in sending students home indefinitely abandons. We want to highlight the concerns of those most vulnerable in our community and for the world our institution seeks to serve.

Pandemics exacerbate inequality — from who can and can’t afford not to work to who has and lacks health insurance. Harvard’s decision has already begun to lay bare these inequalities and will no doubt continue to do so in deeply troubling and dangerous ways.

Coronavirus will hit the most vulnerable members of our community and Cambridge at large with force. Those who stand to lose include people experiencing homelessness, University employees making hourly wages, students with pre-existing risk factors, international and low-income students — particularly those from countries the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified as warning level three — and students who may face other forms of precarity.

The University must extend support to these groups. It could start by compensating all workers, allowing international students who find themselves in a broad array of challenging immigration conditions to stay on campus, and supporting those from unstable home backgrounds — many of whom will struggle with Zoom-ing and the other means of remote learning. Furthermore, the University should support organizations that serve vital community service functions, like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y, which run on student labor, to ensure they can perform their work going forward. And it might also consider collaborating with Cambridge on supporting the local economy and small business owners.

Beyond these first concerns — concerns of life here and now — there is also the message Harvard sends to the world.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that in removing students from its campus, Harvard has conceded that knowledge production and transmission has effectively stopped. With empty classrooms, archives, laboratories and offices, the closed gates of Harvard University turn away those who see in it the promise of institutions devoted to learning, knowledge, and open dialogue.

At times of instability and catastrophe, our institutions should be beacons of hope. In desperate times, they must continue the vital human work of being, thinking, and acting together. As one of the leading institutions of scholarship in the world, Harvard’s response will inevitably amplify a growing sense of global collapse.

Especially as our government — in its messaging, policies, and aid — fails to put together anything even approaching a coherent response to the pandemic, institutions of knowledge should fill the void — step up where President Donald Trump has now repeatedly stepped away from waiting eyes. The production of knowledge has a significance that, at its best, shines through uncertainty, confusion, and doubt. And as we feel an existential humility in the face of this pandemic, Harvard's choice to close its doors gives us deep reason for worry as students and global citizens.

We must as a community remain courageous, compassionate, and committed to each other. We must, as a University, remain committed to the ideals and hard work and of knowledge as a human enterprise and an enterprise for the betterment of humankind.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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