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'Nearly All' Respondents to Undergraduate Survey Prefer Fall On-Campus, Khurana Says

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana sits for an interview in February.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana sits for an interview in February. By Amanda Y. Su
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said in a Tuesday interview that “nearly all” respondents to a College-wide survey about the coming semester expressed a strong desire to return to Harvard’s residential campus in the fall.

Khurana said more than 2,400 undergraduates responded to the survey, sharing a variety of ideas about how the College could architect a safe, in-person semester.

Students cited the advantages of in-person engagement as a major impetus for re-opening campus, according to Khurana. Those advantages included participating in clubs, engaging in research activities, and interacting with faculty outside of class.

Khurana said some respondents also noted the technical challenges of online learning, as well as challenging home circumstances that preclude academic success.

“In particular for first years and seniors, being on campus can be quite important to their experiences, including their social but also their learning experiences,” he said.

Khurana added that students also wrote about ways the pandemic has exacerbated their mental health conditions and generated new anxieties.

“We heard also about some of the general mental health stress that uncertainty presents to our students right now, uncertainty about what's happening on campus, but also what will happen in the fall and general uncertainty about the future,” he said. “We also heard about stresses that are happening at the family level, irrespective of the economic dislocation or family members becoming ill or in some cases, people losing loved ones.”

Khurana invited students to take the survey after University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced last month that Harvard would resume teaching and research in the fall.

Garber’s announcement nixed the possibility of a delayed start — which many students previously said they would prefer — but left much else uncertain. The email generated confusion among students, who cited the ways in which an online semester would exacerbate inequality, reignite debates surrounding equitable grading policies, and disrupt extracurricular activities.

In wake of the announcement, undergraduates penned a petition to the administration, formally arguing against a virtual fall semester and condemning the University’s plan to hold an open fall “no matter what.”

Khurana said he shares students’ hope. He added, however, that Harvard’s “fundamental approach” to education — which requires a dense, interactive campus environment — presents a challenge for executing undergraduates’ safe return.

“The challenge we face is that our close living quarters and the sort of way that students and our faculty and our staff all engage with each other is right now inconsistent with the physical distancing guidelines,” Khurana said.

“What we're trying to do is address those two aspects of the situation, which is recognizing that we are, at our essence, a residential liberal arts and science experience with lots of interaction, and that those interactions are inconsistent with social distancing and other public health guidelines,” he added.

As Harvard determines whether students can safely return to campus in the fall, Khurana said administrators are using an “evidence-based risk management approach” to apply data, public health guidelines, and expert recommendations to the College’s specific circumstances.

He added that administrators recognize these pragmatic factors must be weighed alongside concerns surrounding “equity and social justice.”

Khurana said Harvard intends to reach a final decision about the format of the fall semester by late June or early July.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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