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In the past couple of weeks, both University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay have acknowledged the difficulty of planning for the upcoming fall semester. We don’t envy them. Bacow, in particular, has expressed fear that by the time those decisions will need to be made, there will still be significant uncertainty. And we share those concerns.
It’s at this point a hard-worn and oft-repeated fact that pandemics are defined more by their uncontrollable factors than by any obvious, let alone one-dimensional models. And that makes devising and implementing public health policies difficult. Harvard and other research institutions are already hard at work trying to understand the effectiveness of social distancing measures and developing a vaccine. But even assuming perfect knowledge and infinite institutional capability, the question of whether to reopen campus is still complicated by Harvard’s international student body and dense residential setting, as well as legal restrictions beyond the University’s control and the needs of other contingents of our community.
We cannot ask for a specific response to a crisis whose full extent we will not know until the fall. However, we urge the University to be conscious of two factors.
First, a Harvard College education simply cannot be replaced by classes over Zoom. Without the physical gathering of students and professors, much is lost. Virtual technologies, no matter how smooth and high-resolution, cannot replace dining hall conversations, the exchanges on the way in and out of classrooms, and the richness of body language. What remains, when you take these out, is a subpar educational, not to mention social, experience. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana is fond of reminding pretty much anyone who will listen that learning takes place mostly outside of the classroom. But with online college, there is nowhere outside the classroom.
We encourage the college to weigh that fact heavily in its decision-making process. If the University is considering having an online fall semester without granting students full freedom to take leaves of absence, they should instead postpone the semester. Anything else would unfairly diminish the value of a four-year college experience.
Indeed, the College would seem to have both the means and the logistical capability to postpone a semester. With the world’s largest University endowment, the University should be able to sustain itself for longer than many other institutions can. Moreover, by cutting the already long winter break, moving the spring semester later into May or June, and starting fall classes at an unusual time, it would not be impossible to schedule a postponed semester.
Second, uncertainty about the future is, as of right now, a source of significant stress for most members of our community. Moving forward, the University should provide an outline of the different possible scenarios and their respective contingency plans, as part of a push to raise the bar for effective and frequent communication. We were kicked off campus with only five days notice. We should be afforded more time to process and prepare for the different futures that may lay ahead of us now.
Students, faculty, and staff from all around the world are severely and individually affected by COVID-19. Everyone has their own unique set of challenges to face, their own planning to do, and varying resources with which to do so. For that reason, the University owes us some degree of preemptive transparency, so that we can all act as free and self-governing agents in the months ahead.
We understand the constraints that the University is facing and know we cannot reasonably expect our upcoming semester to look like any typical fall on the Charles River. Some sacrifices will likely be necessary, and we are ready to face them with courage and camaraderie. But we sincerely hope that the quality of our education and our capacity to choose for ourselves what that education might look like is not sacrificed in the process.
We would much rather sacrifice certain luxuries on campus than to cope with another semester on Zoom, and we would prefer an untraditional (perhaps later) semester on campus to than another one at home.
When next semester comes, no matter in what form or at what time, we sincerely hope that everyone will be safe, healthy, and ready to resume the powerful collective project of college life and learning. Until then, we hope the University will make a patient and informed decision on what to do, while doing its best to keep students up-to-date at each stage of the process.
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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