What to Expect

The choices and challenges facing the University and the Harvard community

As the summer solstice approaches on June 20—the sun high, with shadows sharp and short—shadows of a different kind loom over the University and its community, as a fall semester unlike any other draws nearer. People across Harvard are working furiously to envision how to operate during the pandemic, and preparing to adapt the campus, research, and teaching and learning accordingly. Already:

  • Six professional schools have announced they will conduct teaching remotely during the fall term. One of them, the Graduate School of Education, will operate remotely for the full 2020-2021 academic year, and Harvard Medical School will teach first-year students remotely.
  • The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has outlined alternatives for the College ranging from a minimal student presence (perhaps 600 undergraduates in Cambridge, less than 10 percent) to full residential operation—with its options constrained by the availability of large-scale, frequent coronavirus testing and tracing; adequate supplies of personal protective equipment; and, in the full-operation scenario, off-campus accommodations (in hotels and apartments) for 30 percent of undergraduates, to maintain safe distancing. But under any scenario, normal operations would be constrained: think grab-and-go, take-out meal options, rather than gathering in dining halls; and almost all teaching conducted remotely, rather than risk bringing students together in classrooms and having them queue to enter and leave.

With those decisions made, or parameters for making decisions disclosed, what choices and challenges confront the community in the weeks ahead? Herewith, a brief roadmap.

FAS operations. FAS expects to make its decision and inform the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) about fall procedures by early July. As dean Claudine Gay’s June 15 community letter advised, graduate and undergraduate operations differ because of the residential nature of College life (Harvard Yard and House dorms, common dining spaces, extracurriculars). Laboratories, museums, libraries, and other collections are beginning to reopen—of crucial import to graduate students and their research. As part of that work, community members involved are being tested for the coronavirus (Harvard Stadium has been adapted as a testing center) and supplied with protective equipment; and workspaces are being modified, with access to facilities strictly controlled. Experience with testing, tracing, and protective and social-distancing measures will presumably inform the decisions about College operations (which are contingent, Gay said, on the availability of very large-scale virus-testing capabilities University-wide); SEAS has overlapping undergraduate and graduate operations, and is also juggling the complex, delayed transition to its huge Allston facility, occupancy of which is now scheduled for January.

Harvard Business School. HBS has yet to announce its academic plan for the fall. The eastern end of its Allston campus, consisting of four large facilities dedicated to in-person executive education, has been shut down since spring, essentially closing down one of the school’s major operations. (The others are its M.B.A. program and its huge publishing arm.) HBS faces a major concern for M.B.A. education: about 37 percent of enrolled students are international—all of whom may face visa and travel constraints this autumn. The school has offered all prospective matriculants a one- or two-year extension of their admissions, but faces a smaller cohort of students this coming academic year, whether in person (essential, in HBS’s highly interactive case-teaching classes) or online. 

Who will enroll? Apart from the special challenges facing international students (a major cohort for professional schools moving online, including the Harvard Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design), other students, if offered the opportunity to return to campus, will have to decide whether it is worthwhile to do so. Fall 2020 life on campus will not be like the residential education offered before mid March. Residential and extracurricular life will be governed by social-distancing constraints, and teaching and learning, as noted, will be largely, if not exclusively, by remote means.

Who will work at Harvard? As of June 8, furloughs and layoffs were widely expected, throughout the University—likely beginning with administrative job reductions this week, and then proceeding to unionized service employees and contracted workers who have been idled by the closure of dining facilities, residences, and so on. The latter furloughs and/or layoffs were expected on or after June 28, when the University’s extended pledge to continue paying them was scheduled to end. 

On May 5, executive vice president Katie Lapp raised the possibility of furloughs and layoffs, in the context of large decreases in revenue. On June 2, after announcing a $42-million deficit this fiscal year and a full financial impact on her faculty “in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” FAS dean Claudine Gay moved from the conditional to the absolute: “given reduced activities on campus, furloughs for fully or partially idled workers will also be necessary.” But on June 9, Lapp announced that the University would extend payment to the affected workers beyond June 28 and “will not be pursuing any furloughs or layoffs of our employees at this time.”

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that amid national protests about police brutality and rising awareness of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and recession on lower-income service workers and people of color, and an announced protest by Harvard service unions, University leaders totted up the pending reductions in compensated hours and job losses and decided the near-term savings were not worth the likely reaction, externally and within the community. Certainly the affected service workers—dining servers and kitchen workers, janitors, and security personnel, both directly employed and on contract—are among the lower-compensated University affiliates, and those jobs are disproportionately held by people of color. It is unknown how proposed reductions in hours, furloughs, and layoffs might have been distributed, nor of what duration, but announcing such actions before FAS and HBS announce their fall plans might mean that furloughs planned for a couple of months suddenly morphed into furloughs extending into 2021, or vice versa—a bewildering hardship for those affected.

It is also possible, and to some degree also likely, that as data and decisions flowed up from diverse schools and units (after all, places like the Harvard Art Museums and the American Repertory Theater are affected too: they have significant staffs, and right now, no audiences or revenues from admissions and tickets), disparities emerged in how each workforce was affected—along with differences in decisions about how to cope with reduced revenues and higher costs, and new perspectives as the University’s overall job actions were aggregated. That is a natural, inherent, and in some cases messy consequence of Harvard’s high degree of decentralization 

Whatever the reason, the furloughs and layoffs being planned are off the table—“at this time,” as Lapp put it. If FAS and HBS operate minimally on campus this fall, that suggests the same discussions may recur later this summer or in the early fall. Moreover, financial savings not realized now may need to be made up later, prompting deans and their financial administrators to contemplate permanent, structural changes in the ways they operate, with ensuing layoffs. It is worth noting, at least among some of the unionized Harvard workforces, that furloughs may be effected more easily than layoffs—so the current state of play may represent a timing difference more than a permanent change of direction.

Atop existing measures (a hiring freeze, compensation freezes for faculty and nonunion employees, and an unsympathetic attitude toward discretionary spending), Lapp’s message pointed to the cost-saving potential of a voluntary early-retirement incentive program; encouraging employees to work down the balances in their accrued vacation time (which have to be paid out if employees leave or their jobs are eliminated in the future); and voluntary reductions in hours and pay of 10 percent to 50 percent. The potential savings cannot now be estimated, but in any event would not significantly address the issue of paying service workers whose jobs are suspended during de-densified campus operations.

How to pay for everything? Gay’s $42-million estimate for the deficit in the year ending June 30—and her forecast of much larger losses of revenue and increases in expenses in years to come—is a sobering straw in the wind. Forgoing furloughs and layoffs presumably worsens FAS’s outlook heading into fall, no matter what decisions it makes on campus operations. Given its mix of undergraduate and graduate students, enormous and costly facilities, diverse research programs, and more, FAS presents perhaps the most complex and daunting financial problems among the schools. Gay has at various times talked about building modifications, changes in ventilation, personal protective equipment, coronavirus testing on a large scale, and renting commercial units to accommodate undergraduates as potential cost factors—and FAS faces lost revenue from its own large extension school, and possibly from donations, as worries, too. But it is not alone. HBS leaders say they have closed a looming large deficit this fiscal year, but project $80 million of red ink in the year beginning July 1. And so on. The challenges remain—and are if anything mounting as the obligations to harden the campus against the coronavirus, protect community members, and project educational and research operations remotely extend into the coming academic year and perhaps beyond.

And what will Harvard Square be like? Finally, the absence or presence of Harvard community members will have a major impact on the surrounding community. Denizens of the Square may decry the enormous volume of tourists who visit to walk the Yard, buy a coffee, and load up on Harvard swag, but they support lots of local businesses—all of which have to be suffering from the abrupt, total cessation of international tourism this spring, and the continued dearth of visitors this summer. Come fall, if students and doting parents do not return, the pressure on those appealing, high-end coffee shops, the remaining bookstores, and other enterprises will only be amplified. A Harvard Square further depleted of indigenous local stores, and with empty storefronts, would be a less inviting commercial center for campus generally—and for prospective students at all levels as well.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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