While Most Surveyed Faculty Satisfied with Transition to Remote, 80% Say Virtual Learning Less Valuable for Students

Eighty percent of surveyed members of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences said they think a remote semester is not as valuable as an in-person semester for students, with 43 percent of respondents indicating “strong” disagreement.
By Meera S. Nair and Andy Z. Wang

Harvard Yard sits largely empty early in the fully remote spring 2021 semester. A strong majority of surveyed faculty felt remote learning is not as valuable to students as in-person instruction.
Harvard Yard sits largely empty early in the fully remote spring 2021 semester. A strong majority of surveyed faculty felt remote learning is not as valuable to students as in-person instruction. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Eighty percent of surveyed members of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences said they think a remote semester is not as valuable as an in-person semester for students, with 43 percent of respondents indicating “strong” disagreement.

Simultaneously, nearly 73 percent of survey respondents said that the FAS and the University provided them with sufficient guidance and resources for remote instruction, and 71 percent felt the transition to remote instruction was managed well by FAS.

The Crimson distributed its faculty survey to more than 1,100 members of the FAS in late February, polling Harvard’s flagship faculty on key University policy decisions, challenges they face as academics, and pressing issues on campus — including the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty all received the survey.

The 94-question survey obtained more than 300 responses, though not all respondents answered each question. The anonymous survey, a link to which was emailed to nearly every member of the FAS, was open from Feb. 26 to Mar. 5. The Crimson did not adjust the data for possible selection bias.

The first, second, and third installments of The Crimson’s 2021 faculty survey series explored faculty perspectives on the University’s tenure procedures, Harvard’s response to divestment movements on campus, and the FAS’s climate and culture, respectively. This fourth installment examines how faculty view Harvard’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment for this story.

A Remote Year

More than a year after Harvard first moved courses online and sent staff home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a majority of faculty surveyed indicated satisfaction with Harvard’s transition to online learning.

Harvard’s Extension School had utilized Zoom as its primary platform for digital coursework since 2016. In the early discussions surrounding Covid-19 contingency plans, University administrators contacted the Extension School to determine instruction strategy and create resources for remote instruction.

Just weeks after the mass de-densification of Harvard’s campus, faculty and administrators alike began to earnestly prepare for the possibility of a virtual fall semester. Among other University resources, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning — the FAS’s teaching support center — offered support to about 300 faculty members through workshops and training modules.

Seventy-one percent of faculty respondents stated that they believe the FAS managed the transition to remote learning well, though 12 percent “somewhat” disagreed and 4 percent “strongly” disagreed.

Furthermore, 73 percent of faculty surveyed agreed that the FAS and the University provided enough resources and guidance for remote instruction, of which 40 percent agreed “strongly.” Just 16 percent of faculty said they felt underprepared for teaching online.

In July 2020, Harvard announced that first-years would be welcomed back to campus for the fall semester, with students in other class years receiving dorm accomodations on a petition basis. All instruction would remain virtual, and most laboratories and offices would remain closed.

Nearly 60 percent of faculty respondents indicated satisfaction with Harvard’s reopening plan, with 19 percent “strongly satisfied” with the plan. In contrast, 11 percent and 2 percent of faculty were “somewhat dissatisfied” or “strongly dissatisfied” with the plan, respectively.

As Harvard eyes a full return to campus in the fall with in-person instruction, 60 percent of surveyed faculty said they feel safe returning to in-person teaching in fall 2021.

The Virtual Classroom

Despite their appreciation of Harvard’s reopening plan and resources for virtual instruction, faculty strongly disputed the value of an online semester for students.

Eighty percent of faculty surveyed disagreed that a remote semester is as valuable than an in-person semester for students, with 43 percent disagreeing “strongly.”

At the same time, some faculty criticized the University for being “dishonest” toward students by promising them a “genuine academic experience” during the virtual school-year while discouraging undergraduates from taking time off. Ultimately, enrollment in both the fall and spring semesters was about 20 percent lower than in a normal semester.

“Most of all, I disapproved of the way the University, esp. at the outset, put unreasonable pressure on undergrads not to take a gap year (eg threatening they might not get housing when they returned),” one faculty member wrote. “That was so transparently economically motivated it was very discouraging.”

Harvard did not change its leave of absence policies this academic year, but noted that the College could not necessarily guarantee students housing upon their return from a leave.

Certain divisions felt more strongly about in-person learning, with 86 percent of Sciences faculty responding that remote learning was less valuable. The sentiment was shared by 80 percent of Arts and Humanities faculty, 76 percent of Social Sciences faculty, and 72 percent of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty.

In the fall semester, international freshmen enrolling in online-only academic programs were barred from entering the United States under federal regulations. Many international first-years said that their first semester of college was marked by late-night classes, social isolation, and insufficient support from Harvard.

However, only 38 percent of faculty respondents felt that international students’ academic needs were not well-supported this academic year.

Graduate students, facing a tough appointment market and hiring freezes, called on Harvard in the early stages of the pandemic to provide assistance. In May 2020, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences launched its Emergency Support Initiative to provide funding and fellowship opportunities for its students.

But just 15 percent of faculty surveyed “strongly” agreed that graduate students’ academic needs were well-supported this school year, with another 26 percent “somewhat” agreeing. In turn, 26 percent of respondents “somewhat” or “strongly” disagreed.

Digital Faculty Life

A majority of surveyed faculty — 70 percent — said they think a remote semester is not as meaningful as an in-person semester for faculty, including half of whom “strongly” disagreed.

Faculty opinions on a virtual semester did, however, vary based on discipline. Just 17 percent of respondents from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences felt “strongly” that a remote semester is not as meaningful as an in-person semester for faculty, compared to 33 percent in the Arts and Humanities, 39 percent in the Social Sciences, and 42 percent in the Sciences.

Survey respondents were also invited to share what their largest stressors during the pandemic were. The survey found that family life, research, and teaching were the top three stressors during the pandemic for faculty. A quarter of survey respondents indicated that health and illness served as one of their top stressors due to the pandemic.

Additionally, a write-in option on the survey allowed respondents to identify other top stressors, apart from those previously mentioned, which included family life, research, teaching, and health.

The survey indicated that some faculty experienced chronic stress in the past year due to increased workload placed on them during the pandemic. Many faculty also expressed social isolation and loneliness as major stressors faced amid the pandemic.

Faculty have previously indicated that they do not believe a virtual semester can replace an in-person semester, pointing for example to decreased levels of socialization and student engagement via Zoom.

In an interview with The Crimson last month, FAS Dean Claudine Gay said she is “enormously proud” of the “incredible resilience” Harvard faculty, students, and staff alike have demonstrated when adapting to the pandemic. She applauded the FAS’s commitment “to restart scholarship,” including getting researchers back into their labs and welcoming some undergraduates back to campus during the 2020-21 academic year.

“None of this would have been possible without our faculty, staff, and students, who have leaned into the challenges of the pandemic, brought enormous energy and a willingness to find solutions, and a real commitment to — above all else — preserving our academic mission,” Gay said.


For its 2021 Faculty Survey, The Crimson collected electronic responses through Qualtrics, an online survey platform, from Feb. 26 to Mar. 5, 2021. A link to the anonymous survey was sent to 1,182 FAS and SEAS faculty members through emails sourced in February 2021 from Harvard directory information. The pool included individuals on Harvard’s Connections database with FAS affiliations, including tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty.

Of those faculty, 315 accessed the link to the survey. A total of 309 participants answered at least one question, while 235 participants completed every question in the survey.

To prevent participants from accidentally taking the survey more than once, The Crimson enabled Qualtrics’ browser cookie functionality to register unique survey sessions on each device. This device data is controlled by Qualtrics, and The Crimson does not retain information that could identify devices accessing the survey with anonymous responses.

In an effort to check for response bias, The Crimson compared respondent demographics with publicly available information on faculty demographics provided by the University — information regarding gender, minority background, SEAS affiliation, and ladder versus non-ladder status. Overall, respondent demographics tracked with faculty demographics.

Of survey respondents, 38 percent identified themselves as women and 19 percent identified themselves as minorities. Based on data in the 2020 FAS Dean’s Annual report, women and minorities make up 32 percent and 25 percent of FAS ladder faculty, respectively.

According to the report, 41 percent of the FAS were non-ladder faculty — a term synonymous with non-tenure-track faculty. Similarly, 39 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s survey identified themselves as non-ladder faculty.

Of faculty who were sent the link to the survey, 106 — or 9 percent — are affiliated with SEAS. In comparison, of respondents who indicated their divisional affiliation on the survey, 6 percent reported an affiliation with SEAS.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

This is the fourth installment in a six-part series analyzing the results of The Crimson’s survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s flagship faculty. Read the first installment here, the second installment here, and the third installment here.

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