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Left Out of Fall Planning, Harvard Parents Send Demand Letters to Administration

University Hall houses several administrative offices, including those of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College.
University Hall houses several administrative offices, including those of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard College. By Aiyana G. White
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Parents of the Harvard Class of 2022 have organized a group lobbying effort urging the University to reduce the College’s tuition, soften leave of absence policies, and better articulate their decision making around why only a limited number of students will be permitted to return to campus.

The day Harvard announced in early July that it would invite only freshmen and select upperclassmen to campus in the fall, Yolanda Brown-Spidell said she wanted to discuss her “host of feelings” about the news with other parents. Hours later, she posted in the Facebook group for Harvard Class of 2022 parents inviting others to share their own reactions.

“I literally just offered to host a Zoom meeting so that we could create a space where we could just share as parents and talk about how we felt, how we were processing it,” Brown-Spidell said. “Within that Zoom call, organically, this organizing body was formed.”

Since that initial conversation — which 135 parents attended — the group has sent multiple letters listing their demands to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. Their first letter garnered 211 signatures.

The group requested Harvard reduce its tuition by 10 percent to account for the fact that the University is conducting all courses remotely. They also called upon the administration to explain the “complex variables” it weighed to arrive at the decision to return only freshmen and select upperclassmen to campus.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote that continued remote instruction ensures that Harvard maintains academic continuity for all undergraduates — even if travel restrictions, visa issues, or health considerations keep them away from campus.

After Harvard announced it would only bring freshmen and select upperclassmen back to campus and conduct its courses entirely online in the fall, many undergraduates expressed interest in taking a leave of absence. However, some also said their decision hinges upon the availability of campus housing when they return, as well as their ability to avail themselves of campus resources and activities during their time off.

Responding to these concerns, the group of parents demanded Harvard bolster housing options for students returning after a leave and allow students on leave to continue participating in House activities. They also asked that Harvard grant students on leave ongoing access to virtual language and laboratory resources without petition, and the full support of the Career Services Office, internship recruiting, and the alumni network.

Four of the group’s leaders asked Khurana to meet and discuss their demands. He agreed to talk with them on July 29, but rescinded his offer after they sent him an agenda and announced their intention to invite the other 500 members of the Harvard Parents Class of 2022 Facebook group as observers.

“Given your proposed agenda, I don’t think a meeting would be productive since we are not considering changing our policies for the fall semester,” he wrote.

Brown-Spidell said she felt frustrated that the College was unwilling to consider an adjustment to their long-standing leave policies given students’ extenuating circumstances.

“Given that we are in a global pandemic, I would hope that the University would show some sensitivity to what we're going through collectively as a country as a world,” Brown-Spidell said.

Dane wrote that students who take a leave of absence have chosen to be away from Harvard and therefore are not officially enrolled. Accordingly, students on leave may not access libraries and other facilities or participate in extracurricular activities.

She also noted that “in the event there is excess demand for housing in academic year 21–22 or thereafter, Harvard will establish and share a process through which students may apply for undergraduate residential housing.”

Pilar C. Olivo ’88, one of the group’s leaders, said she felt Harvard has not sufficiently engaged parents in conversations about their children’s college experience.

Another group leader, Elizabeth E. “Liz” Horgan ’88, said Harvard had missed its opportunity to “build a bridge” with parents during the planning process.

“We as parents, we’re an important part of this ecosystem that is the university,” she said. “We think that our voice is valuable and important. And we feel like we have earned the right to have a conversation to understand more about the thinking that applied to the decisions that impact our families.”

Dane wrote that the College will continue to prioritize communication with enrolled students because its primary relationship is with them.

“Dean Khurana regularly hosts town halls for parents and students, and he will continue to convene broad conversations in the future,” Dane wrote.

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

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

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