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Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Bill Lee Lauds ‘Really Positive’ Fundraising Year Despite Pandemic

William F. Lee '72, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, speaks at the conference to announce Harvard's next president in 2018.
William F. Lee '72, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, speaks at the conference to announce Harvard's next president in 2018. By Casey M. Allen
By Jasper G. Goodman and Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Corporation senior fellow William F. Lee ’72 said in an interview Wednesday that the University expects high fundraising returns by the end of the fiscal year despite challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lee — the lead trustee of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — said strong commitment from alumni has resulted in a particularly positive fundraising year for several “critical areas,” including the arts, quantum computing, and professorships.

“If the pandemic had lasted five or six or seven years, we’d be having a different conversation, but the fundraising year is going to be a good one,” Lee said. “And it’s going to be a good one for reasons that will ensure the vitality of the institution going forward.”

The University’s Fiscal Year 2020 financial report, released in October, said that Harvard “should anticipate less philanthropy in the coming year.” Lee said Wednesday, though, that the fundraising picture is “more positive than you would expect after the last 15 months that we’ve had.”

“The overall fundraising outlook is really positive,” Lee said.

He acknowledged that the inability to meet with donors in person due to public health concerns posed a “challenge,” but said donations from alumni who were not “diverted by the pandemic” will result in a good fiscal year overall.

Class reunions — which take place at the time of Commencement Exercises each spring — are typically a cash cow for the University, but will be held virtually for the second consecutive year later this month.

Lee lamented the absence of an in-person Commencement ceremony, “a cathartic event” that he said Harvard pulls off well.

“If we could’ve done it in person, we would have, but it is sort of emblematic of the more cautious approach that we’ve taken,” he said.

Lee said the Corporation has been involved in making every major decision throughout the pandemic, including ongoing discussions about how the fall 2021 semester will look.

“It has been advised of each of the steps that was taken — steps taken at the end of last year in the spring semester, the steps taken during the course of the summer to decide what we were going to do in the fall, the question of deciding what type of teaching we were going to do across universities,” Lee said.

Lee said he was in daily contact with University President Lawrence S. Bacow at the start of the pandemic after students were sent home. He added that the Corporation met more frequently than normal due to the pandemic.

“There [was] the traditional, formal involvement of the Corporation, there were special meetings of the Corporation, and then there was a lot of individual outreach, basically to take advantage of the expertise on the Corporation,” he said.

The “breadth and depth” of expertise among the Corporation’s 12 members ensured careful debate in considering each of the University’s decisions on Covid-19, according to Lee.

“No one of those 12, I can promise you, is accustomed to being shy about expressing an opinion or asking a question,” Lee said. “There were a lot of hard questions asked, and there were a lot of hard questions to be asked.”

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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