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Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana defended his administration’s handling of a mass move-out amid the coronavirus pandemic in an interview Tuesday, describing nightly meetings aimed at addressing new student concerns and noting that the College plans to conduct an “after-action review” of its response.
After the College announced undergraduates must leave campus and finish their semester remotely to prevent the spread of coronavirus, some students voiced concerns over how the administration communicated its decision and corresponding contingency plans.
Khurana said conveying both the rationale behind the decision to “de-densify” campus and information about move-out resources was especially difficult due to the diversity of Harvard’s student body.
“I think it took some time for folks to kind of understand what the meaning of this was, understanding how it was gonna affect different people differently,” he said.
Khurana said that students did, however, spot initial “gaps” in support and resources during the five-day move-out window.
“There were a lot more questions students had that we didn't always anticipate,” he said. “And what we tried to do is every day, as we process the questions, really update our FAQs as quickly as possible.”
In order to address these concerns, Khurana said administrators met every night to brainstorm solutions to implement the next day. Between his Tuesday announcement and the Sunday evacuation deadline, the College rolled out a variety of new support services for students.
“We really put our organization very much in problem-solving mode and continuous-improvement mode,” he added.
Students raised questions about their financial ability to ship and store belongings, for example, to which the College responded by granting financial aid recipients a $200 subsidy. Similar concerns about the cost of transport home spurred the College to offer those with financial aid packages travel reimbursements, as well.
Beyond the economic hurdle of returning home, some students faced additional barriers, including travel bans and unsafe family environments. The College announced that students could petition to remain on campus, though cautioning that it would grant such petitions sparingly.
Khurana said that the College had to work quickly to flesh out and clearly articulate the criteria for a successful petition, as well as to create an “extension policy” for those who needed extra time to develop personal contingency plans.
However, Khurana acknowledged that many students had questions to which the College could not offer immediate answers.
First generation, low income students, for example, worried about the potential loss of their on-campus employment. Students from rural areas without internet access asked how they would be expected to complete their online work. Other students requested details about the College’s reimbursement plans and how room and board would be prorated.
“When you have 6,600 students from all parts of our country in different parts of the world, different where you are if you're a first year student versus the questions you have as a senior, we tried to make sure that we were able to show particularizing for different interests that people had, depending on their concentration, depending on whether their thesis had been handed in or not handed in,” he said.
Khurana said the College deliberately waited to address many of these “second-order” questions to focus on fulfilling its immediate imperative to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
“Those are all important questions, but we also felt it was important to again de-densify the campus as quickly as possible, and then provide a lot of clarity once the team had finished doing that,” Khurana said.
He added that the College anticipated using spring break to address questions about what coursework would look like during the latter half of the semester.
“I think we recognized also that there were questions that students had about what remote learning would mean for them, and did they have a place to do remote learning? What technologies were we going to be relying on for doing remote learning? What were the expectations?” he added. “We tried to answer those as best as we could, knowing that we would have this spring break week to basically address the questions of academic continuity.”
Still, Khurana said he recognizes there was room for improvement in the College’s response. He said the College would conduct an “after-action review” of its decision coordination and communication process in order to retool its response to future emergencies.
“I think it's really important to just acknowledge that there's obviously things that we could always do better and improve,” he said.
Khurana said that despite the disruptiveness of the evacuation, he was moved by how undergraduates organized to support their peers during and after the move-out.
Students mobilized, for example, to compile a list of affiliates willing to open their homes to those who did not feel safe returning home.
“Their concerns about their peers, and others who may be in difficult situations, just provided such a sense of hope and possibility because it's exactly what we want our students to be, which are caring citizens and citizen-leaders who are thinking about others before they're thinking about themselves,” Khurana said.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.
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