The Past and Present of Harvard’s Residential Dilemmas

If students return to campus at any point in the coming months, the house system and residential life they will experience is likely to be substantially different, thanks to COVID-19.
By Sydnie M. Cobb and Declan J. Knieriem

By Meera S. Nair

In 1977, former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III infamously proclaimed that “Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world.”

In the past, such an “act of God” has taken the form of devastating hurricanes, whiteout blizzards, and even an act of terrorism. Despite the magnitude of these instances, the University in each case only resolved to cancel classes for a week at most.

In the University’s almost 400-year history, however, there have been a handful of times in which students’ residential arrangements were placed in flux throughout a semester. These include the British occupation of Boston in 1775, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Each of these instances disrupted one of the most prominent tenets of the College experience — house life.

The house system was established in the 1930s under the guidance of then-University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877. To counter socioeconomic rifts among in the student population, Lowell called for demarcation of the undergraduate population into groups “large enough to give each man a chance to associate closely with a considerable number of his fellows, and not so large as to cause a division into exclusive cliques.”

That plan eventually evolved into the current house system, composed of 12 distinct dormitories that serve as the nucleus for upperclassman life on campus and a shared connection between alumni and current students alike.

If students return to campus at any point in the coming months, however, the house system and residential life they will experience is likely to be substantially different from years past — thanks largely to social distancing measures related to the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Virtually Adjourned’

At the time of the 1775 campus evacuation, Harvard was composed of just five buildings that were converted into housing for more than 1,600 American soldiers as they attempted to slow the British advance into Boston.

“[The soldiers] take over Hollis, and also Massachusetts [Hall]. There are people in Holden Chapel,” Harvard history professor Zachary B. Nowak explained in a recent interview. “And these soldiers are stuffed in there. These buildings usually can't fit 60 students, but there are 400 soldiers in there.”

While the soldiers inhabited campus, Harvard affiliates migrated to Concord, Mass., where they resumed classes in October of 1775. The University operated in Concord for an entire year.

During the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, students urged then-President Lowell to close the University, as the world struggled to contain the deadly virus that may have killed as many as 40 million people.

Lowell chronicled his struggle in deciding whether or not to keep the University open in letters to his friends. “I have been talking over the question of opening with some of our medical experts. Doctor Christian felt as you do, that we had better postpone the opening. On the other hand, Doctor Rosenau...thinks it would be a mistake for us not to open on time,” he wrote.

Despite the rising death toll, Lowell decided to keep the University open amid the pandemic.

The decision was unpopular, exemplified by a scathing critique featured in the former magazine Harvard Illustrated: “The authorities here and elsewhere have deemed the effects of the epidemic to be of so alarming nature as to warrant the closing of theatres, moving-picture houses, and the like, and the prohibition of public meeting of every kind...It is under these circumstances that Harvard University keeps open its doors.”

To protect students on campus, the University broke up large classes and mandated that students who sneezed or coughed during lectures be quarantined. At one point, the University infirmary was overwhelmed with more than 60 patients with the deadly flu.

With guidelines to mitigate the high infection rate, traditional campus life was rendered obsolete. Though students remained on campus, the Harvard Alumni Bulletin deemed campus life “virtually adjourned.”

One hundred years later, the coronavirus pandemic gave these words new meaning.

On March 10, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced that students would have to vacate their on-campus housing within five days and complete the duration of the semester virtually on Zoom, a video conferencing platform.

Across the country, moving boxes and trucks became an all-too-familiar sight on college campuses, as students were forced to bid farewell to collegiate life within a matter of days. Colleges ushered their students and faculty into an unprecedented period, attempting to create a virtual college experience to replace what had been left behind.

For students at the College, this meant that classes, extracurricular activities, formals, and traditions like Housing Day and Visitas — usually populating campus spaces like Sever Hall, the Science Center, the Houses, or the Yard — all had to find new homes on Zoom.

Though colleges were forced to rapidly shift to virtual learning in March as the pandemic worsened, administrators across the country are now afforded a longer timeline but must potentially plan a full semester around the uncertainty of coronavirus.

‘It Will Explode’

On May 12, Cornell University sociology professor Kim A. Weeden and her colleagues issued a forthcoming paper showing all students on a college campus are connected by three “degrees of separation” or less.

Weeden said her findings empirically indicated that college campuses can catalyze an outbreak.

“The primary finding is that these direct and indirect connections between students through their classes create a small world network on college campuses,” she said. “Of course, the concern is that that social structure is also a fertile condition for the epidemic spread of a disease, so we can imagine a disease spreading across these direct and indirect ties.”

While traditionally bustling during meal times, Quincy Dining Hall is empty of dining trays and conversation.
While traditionally bustling during meal times, Quincy Dining Hall is empty of dining trays and conversation. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

The study, entitled “The Small World Network of College Classes: Implications for Epidemic Spread on a University Campus,” drew data from the course selections of Cornell’s approximately 15,000 undergraduates to determine students' connectivity.

According to Weeden, however, the results of the study are independent of the student population’s size.

“That key figure of about three degrees of separation, or reaching most students with three degrees of separation — that is not sensitive to the size of the university,” she said. “So that part of the network structure seems to be consistent.”

The study concluded that administrators can take steps through “hybrid models of instruction” to reduce contact in the student population without eliminating it. Weeden’s study did not factor in residential spaces such as dining halls, which she said will be “much trickier” to address.

C. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiology professor at Boston University, said all colleges across the country face similar problems when deciding whether to reopen. Residential colleges like Harvard will additionally need to rethink student accommodations to ensure appropriate social distancing measures, according to Horsburgh.

“Are we going to have less people in each dorm, so that they don't run into each other so often?” Horsburgh asked. “And if so, how are we going to increase the dorm space capacity to handle half as many people in each dorm room?”

Many public health experts agreed on the necessity of a rigorous testing infrastructure to allow students to return to campus. Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 announced plans last week to increase the number of coronavirus tests administered each day from the current 10,000 to 45,000 by the end of July, and to 75,000 per day by the end of the year.

As of Sunday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts reached 92,675, out of 532,373 tested in total.

Davidson H. Hamer — a global health professor and infectious disease specialist at BU — said campus outbreaks pose not only a danger to the student population, but also a grave risk to older populations on campus.

“The real risk is — if students are asymptomatic shedders or mildly infected and shedding — is the infection of faculty and staff or older members of the campus,” he said. “It spreads to more vulnerable populations like that.”

Former BU Dean of Arts and Sciences Virginia Sapiro wrote in an email that reopening campuses in any location would pose the risk of an outbreak.

“Student residences and communal areas are the perfect setting for transmitting disease regardless of whether the T runs by or you can hear cows moo-ing,” she wrote. “There may be more ways to get in trouble in a city in terms of places to go to pick up the virus, but once the virus enters a college community, it will explode.”

‘It’s Hard to Imagine’

Despite the plethora of public health obstacles, colleges nationwide are considering their options for a possible return to residential life. Harvard is no exception.

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced Harvard will resume teaching for the fall semester, though no determination has been made whether this instruction will occur in person or online. In an interview with The Crimson last week, Bacow said Harvard’s campus will be open, though the process of repopulating is “likely to vary by school.”

Bacow said the University is currently exploring options to maintain social distancing guidelines in its residential spaces, including non-traditional housing stock for undergraduates.

Eliot Dining Hall, known for its large windows and beautiful architecture, is mostly empty of students during Sunday morning brunch, depicting the potential implications of social distancing guidelines.
Eliot Dining Hall, known for its large windows and beautiful architecture, is mostly empty of students during Sunday morning brunch, depicting the potential implications of social distancing guidelines. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Other colleges, however, have taken it a step further.

The president of the University of Notre Dame, Reverend John I. Jenkins, sent a May 18 letter to faculty and staff committing to in-person classes starting the week of August 10. He wrote that the university would complete the full semester by Thanksgiving without breaks, in an effort to decrease the likelihood of students carrying the virus to and from campus while travelling. Jenkins also wrote that he prefers this plan over one of gradual student repopulation to preserve a full campus experience.

“Some institutions are electing to reduce the number of students on campus by inviting back only a portion of the student body at any time,” Jenkins wrote. “We have resisted that course because we believe in the educational value of the on-campus experience for all our students, and we recognize it is particularly valuable for students whose living situations away from campus may not be as conducive to study.”

Jenkins also outlined strict social distancing and quarantine protocols that will be in place and wrote the university will act “aggressively” to contain cases on campus.

“We believe that, with extensive protocols of testing, contact tracing and isolating or quarantining, coupled with preventive measures such as an emphasis on hand-washing and norms for social distancing and wearing masks in certain settings, we can keep our campus environment safe,” Jenkins wrote.

In a similar vein, several Boston-area colleges have announced intentions to reopen their residential systems in the fall, including BU, Tufts University, and Northeastern University. BU also plans to operate an independent coronavirus testing program for its students, faculty, and staff.

Additionally, universities have said students’ return to campus is contingent on the virus’s progression and guidance from health officials.

According to Hamer, one way to return would be through a staggered arrival, allowing every student to be tested as they step foot on campus.

“I think there's a movement towards a plan for many — at least a potential plan — to have every student tested on arrival, and if it's a large university like Harvard or Boston University, then that can mean a lot of tests all at once,” he said. “So one strategy that would help decongest arrival would be to try and have students arriving on different days to try and stagger their return.”

He added that many social distancing practices will become commonplace or even mandatory — meaning that students will return to a college life very different from what they left in March.

“Wearing masks is going to be something that most universities are going to consider and probably require, especially in public places including classrooms and cafeterias,” he said.

Horsburgh said he is concerned about how extracurricular groups will function in these conditions. Under the proposed strict social distancing guidelines, he said activities such as athletics or theater could look drastically different.

“You’ve got to get people apart, and yet college is a mixing experience. So, it's going to be real different if people can't mix much,” Horsburgh said.

“It's hard to imagine how the dorms are going to work,” he added.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on residential planning, referring to previous statements from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay. According to these statements, a decision on the fate of students’ potential return to campus will be made by July.

During the last few days on campus in March 2020, Mather Dining Hall was mostly empty, as house life declined while students experienced their final moments on campus.
During the last few days on campus in March 2020, Mather Dining Hall was mostly empty, as house life declined while students experienced their final moments on campus. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez

In her April email to faculty and staff, Gay said repopulating the undergraduate Houses will be FAS’s most difficult task.

“Our most daunting challenge will be how and when to stage the return of undergraduates to their residential Houses,” she wrote. “But we will not bring students back until we can do so safely, in a manner that protects individuals and our broader community from undue risks associated with Covid-19.”

With Harvard remaining tight-lipped about fall planning and the deadline for a decision a month or more away, much uncertainty shrouds the future of the College’s residential learning mission. Despite the challenge of on-campus learning, however, Hamer said there would be compelling advantages to bringing students back.

“Personally, I think that the need to have students actually present on campus and having various collaborative activities and educational activities needs to be considered,” he said. “It's very disruptive to have to do everything by remote learning. I think it probably just doesn't work as well.”

“I think there's going to be a balance between the risk of importation and potential spread of disease on a campus and the lack of benefit that students would get from having that educational experience,” he added.

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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