Harvard — halls empty, dorms half full — has operated in crisis mode for over a year now.
A former Dean of Students once quipped that Harvard University would “close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world;” a quote we’ve mulled over since our March 10, 2020 mass exodus from Cambridge. This flight marked our first exposure to Harvard’s wartime persona; the version of our university that, in response to a once-in-a-century crisis, did and became something new — a Covid test administrator, Community Compact enforcer, and en masse iPad lender, to name a few.
Through its response to the “act of God” that leveled us, we’ve seen what Harvard is capable of — and willing to do — during a crisis.
Yet the coronavirus, while arguably the most visible global catastrophe in recent history, is not the only crisis this world and university are facing. Amidst the pandemic’s storm, an explosive reckoning on racial injustice, political turmoil, and the encroaching threat of climate change have punctured the last year, with all festering long before it.
Those of us who, on a dime, fled our physical campus and became Zoom disciples overnight know the previously unimaginable sacrifices Harvard can make when it wants to. But Harvard’s response to this crisis begs comparison to its handling of others. So much careening, urgent catastrophe was stuffed into this school year: the murder of George Floyd, our generation’s Emmett Till, an electoral crisis preceded by repeated presidential flirtations with autocracy, and the ever-upping-ante of the climate crisis.
Wartime Harvard had many fronts to fight on. It largely chose one.
From the outset of the pandemic, the University has taken a conservative approach to its handling of public health: Protect health first, figure everything else out later. Some moves — like the development of robust testing infrastructure and requirements for affiliates — have been simple but sharp. Through their specificity and stunningly good execution, measures like these have served as clear markers of the University’s commitment to communal safety and, plainly, keeping us alive.
Other actions have been more jolting — sending all students home with five days notice, and bringing back only one full class of students in the fall 2020 semester. These decisions garnered shock, dismay, and uproar. Their announcement could have been much smoother. Yet, unquestionably, time has proven them to be the right ones.
This is no small win. Whereas other universities were Covid hotspots — infecting students, staff, and the communities in which they’re implanted — Harvard wasn’t. Here, we have to give it up to our school which (yes, in part due to its handsome endowment) exhibited foresight, vigilance, and caution amidst a patchwork of collegiate approaches, some of which proved fatally poor.
And yet, this strong focus on campuswide health also took on extreme, pernicious manifestations at times; ones which caused punishing isolation that, at its worst, threatened to turn lethal itself.
Our community’s mental health has taken an extreme blow over the past year. We’ve been forced to opine on the subject numerous times, offering preemptive solutions, grieving irreparable losses, and trying to disentangle a pervasive crisis that both precedes and has been worsened by this pandemic.
One might have expected Harvard’s wartime vision to expand the inextricably linked psycho-emotional crisis Covid precipitated when it dislocated us from our campus home and support systems and violently flung many into crushingly isolated living. A radical increase in funding for mental health services seems sensible.
We wish a deep creative reimagining of how to best serve war-torn students materialized. Instead, our administration simply did too little. Condescending explanations about rising to the challenge are the most tangible of responses to emerge. Our instruction breaks, crucial at a time of blurring personal and academic lines and Zoom-induced fatigue, were replaced by disappointing and clumsily implemented Wellness Days that left most of us lukewarm at best. Worst of all, our Counseling and Mental Health Services failed to even attempt to support those who were unable or unwilling to enroll, disappointed many who did, and, to top it all off, told Asian American students dealing with a surge of pandemic-linked racial hatred that their “ancestors” suffering meant it’d all come out in the wash.
This past school year, the academic leniency of our first Covid-tinged semester vanished and, as students were expected to proceed with business as usual amid chaos, we suffered. This suffering, brought to the University’s attention via stunning, depressing statistics, was a crisis Wartime Harvard failed to meet, or even earnestly acknowledge.
Over the past year, Harvard and the rest of the country have been forced to reckon with the crushing nature of racism; awakened by murders which (brutally, oddly, maddeningly, effectively?) went viral and stirred something in the unaware. And while the murders of Black people at the hands of what is ultimately an entrenched system of white supremacy should have 1) not even been needed and 2) been more than enough to elicit decisive action against racism akin to those Harvard took for the sake of public health — of course, it wasn’t. Harvard’s response to the harrowing deaths, protests, and trauma of the past year was instead characterized by vague promises to “stand with” community members of color — promises which were broken on multiple occasions.
In the wake of a series of racist online remarks allegedly made by Government preceptor David Kane, Harvard chose to preserve Kane’s employment over the trust and well-being of its students of color. Apparently, the instructor’s supposed defense of Neo-Nazis and embrace of racial eugenics didn’t even warrant confirmation or denial by the University. Just a few months later, Harvard denied tenure to Cornel West, a pillar of the African American Studies department and one of the most respected Black intellectuals of our time; then, frantically offered it in the face of controversy. Only a handful of weeks after that, as community members mourned those lost in the Atlanta spa shootings along with the other victims of a yearlong increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, the aforementioned, blatantly insensitive, now-infamous advice from the University’s mental health services — “You may wish that you weren’t Asian, but remember that your ancestors likely went through similar or even worse incidents” — only further exacerbated the harm imposed on Asian students during this traumatic time.
Harvard failed to address issues of racial justice within its faculty, its curriculum, or its student body, even when opportunities for the University to demonstrate its support to communities of color were presented on a silver platter. Aside from an arsenal of well-meaning but ultimately toothless emails from deans, as the Black Lives Matter movement prompted institutional change elsewhere, Harvard’s Black students were left waiting for their University to care.
There is no easy or right way to be an anti-racist institution, but after the failures of this past year, it is imperative that Harvard apply the same wartime approach to the pandemic of racism as it has to the threat of Covid-19. The time for incrementalism and emailed platitudes is over. Only the possibility of radical change remains. When the news cycle moves on to a new tragedy, as it numbingly already has, Harvard must prove its sustained commitment to communities of color even out of the spotlight — because for students and faculty of color, the “war” against racism is never truly over. Beyond its current and at times admirable work in reckoning with its racist past, Harvard must also look to building a more just and equitable future. The construction of a multicultural center on campus and the establishment of an ethnic studies department are good and necessary places to start — even if both are, at this point, painfully overdue.
Speaking of overdue, during this trying year, our sometimes annoyingly apolitical institution has been pushed into the national political arena.
Early on in our public health nightmare — at some point between the initial toilet paper shortage and the eventual emergence of mask-burning — our university chose to take a brave stance for the sake of our international peers. In the face of draconian, cruel, and unnecessary migration restrictions that would have prevented international students from residing in the United States if their courses were fully online (as many were for the duration of the pandemic) Harvard spoke up. We did so in a dramatically effective, distinctly Harvard way: The University, along with our fellow Cantabrigians at MIT, sued the federal government and legally intimidated the Department of Homeland Security so swiftly that the restrictions were promptly dropped before the suit could reach trial.
That victory alone is meaningful and worth celebrating and exhibits a more than welcome degree of political prowess and ambition. Yet our board (our institution, perhaps) isn’t known for leaving things with a pat on the back. Harvard has now flexed its political muscle, and we’re eager to see them do so again. We want more of our administration making us proud through being both effective and morally courageous.
We might urgently need them to do so very soon. The Supreme Court will decide within weeks whether to take up the anti-affirmative action suit brought by Students For Fair Admissions against Harvard for our race-conscious admissions system. If it does, our brave efforts to defend racial diversity in our student body will face its biggest challenge yet. We can only wait anxiously and hope that Harvard, once again, rises to the occasion.
This year’s clear demonstration of Harvard’s full political potential only makes our shortfalls more glaringly obvious. We are still puzzled and annoyed by our university’s refusal to accept roughly $16 million worth of federal relief funds, as we simultaneously threw contracted Harvard workers under the suddenly-unemployed-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic bus citing financial strain. Here, we bowed to political pressure dished out to score anti-elite points rather than in good faith and showcased Harvard’s glaring disparity in how it dignifies students versus staff.
This year has also been marked by Harvard’s continued commitment to not divest from fossil fuels, despite growing pressure from a majority of students and faculty. Climate change is arguably the most existential crisis of our generation, fundamentally changing the planet as we know it and upending billions of lives across the globe. Harvard must divest and take action against the threat of climate change which signals to other institutions the importance of divesting in order to protect current and future generations from climate change. The conundrum of Harvard continuing to invest, literally, in a fossil-fueled future it simultaneously claims it means to eradicate cannot stand any longer, particularly as peers like Oxford University and Yale University set themselves to divestment.
Harvard has acted swiftly and effectively against another existential threat this year. So why can’t our institution do the same for climate change? There’s no vaccine for the corporate greed that underpins our clawing financial dalliance with fossil fuels. Perhaps the University does not view climate change as an immediate danger (yet?) whereas Covid presented itself as something immediately large and looming. Climate change has this same potential: Through its calamities, lives will be changed forever and people will face irreparable harm. They already are. We hope Harvard, already too late to lead, recognizes this crisis’s urgency before it is too late.
During this past torturous, unprecedented, winding, trying, dramatic, revealing, and, above all, long year, Harvard has been tested: stretching to accommodate newfound responsibilities and — sometimes necessarily, sometimes glaringly not — abdicating others.
The pandemic has shown us that our dear and often doggedly bureaucratic institution can act decisively in response to challenges it deems urgent enough. On Covid, we applaud Harvard. With the end near, it seems we can start to let our guard and masks down. But issues beyond the immediate, and beyond pure life and death, also raise to the level of crisis.
Harvard has made clear it can move mountains. Our university’s usual role as a passive spectator to the crises beyond its ivory tower, and its reluctance to engage thornier issues at home, are conscious, changeable choices. A campus where workers aren’t paid embarrassing wages, not funded by environmental carnage, and one where racism is addressed head-on, not swept under the rug, can come to be if Harvard acts as it has shown it is able to throughout the pandemic. Failing to do so in the future — acting like all pain beyond catching Covid is somehow acceptable — would constitute an unacceptable denial of the agency we know Harvard has.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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