Straws in the Wind?

Fall academic plans from four different New England institutions—and what Harvard faces

Logos for MIT, Yale University, Bowdoin College, and UMass Boston

As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) determines how Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will operate this fall—residentially, remotely, or some mixture—three very different New England institutions have just announced their plans or detailed principles for their own decisions: Bowdoin College, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Yale. Their decisions, specific to their own situations, along with earlier guidance from MIT, nonetheless highlight the factors FAS and Harvard Business School are evaluating as they prepare to announce, soon, whether and how their Cambridge and Allston campuses will be populated beginning in late August. Their decisions are no doubt being informed, and complicated, by the recent evidence that although COVID-19 cases are sharply declining in the northeastern United States, the incidence of coronavirus infections is increasing rapidly in many other states and nations around the world—from which Harvard attracts many students.

As reported, six University professional schools will conduct remote teaching and learning for at least this fall semester. FAS has outlined College possibilities ranging from as few as 600 undergraduates in residence (less than 10 percent of the total) to full residential operation (albeit with social-distancing and other personal-protection measures)—but all featuring largely remote instruction.

Around New England

Bowdoin, a liberal-arts college in coastal Maine—and thus relatively remote from the densely urbanized Greater Boston-Greater New York complex that has suffered the nation’s most intense bout of coronavirus infections to date—announced in a message from President Clayton Rose on June 22 (emphases added) that:

  • in the fall semester, it would host only first-year and transfer students, plus those who cannot practicably learn at home; a “very small number of senior honors students who cannot pursue their pre-approved projects online”; and student residential life staff members (all other sophomores, juniors, and seniors will be off-campus); and
  • in the following semester, “With priority given to seniors, if the fall semester goes as we hope, we expect to have our seniors, juniors, and sophomores return to campus for the spring semester, with the added possibility that our winter and spring athletes may be able to engage with their sports in some way. We expect that our first-year and transfer students will study remotely in the spring.”

Instruction. “Nearly all classes” (excepting first-year writing seminars) will be taught online, given the requirements of safe social-distancing and personal protection (and, of course, accommodating a student body that will be partly in residence but with the majority widely dispersed).

Athletics. Given the decision not to have many students in residence, Bowdoin “will not be participating in fall and winter varsity sports during the fall semester”—a decision that the college reached in advance of plans being developed by the New England Small College Athletic Conference, in which it participates. (Bowdoin expects the conference to detail ways in which coaches can work with athletes from each sport season during the fall, and expressed the hope that winter, spring, and “possibly fall varsity athletes” could participate and compete in some form after January 1.)

Health precautions. Students in residence—all in single bedrooms—will be required to use face coverings and to maintain physical distancing. Everyone on campus will be tested for the virus at least twice weekly and will be requiredto participate in contact-tracing.

Schedule changes. The semester will last 15 weeks, beginning September 2, but students will leave campus before Thanksgiving and complete their work online. Many institutions have adopted this measure to avoid students traveling home for the holidays and then returning to campus, possibly introducing the coronavirus from diverse settings, especially during what may be a concurrent fall coronavirus-seasonal flu season.

Tuition, room, and board are being maintained at the 2019-2020 level, and room and board charges are being reduced pro rata for the period when resident students are no longer on campus. (Those studying remotely are of course not being charged room and board fees.)  


UMass Boston could not be more differently sited. A largely commuter school (it has dorms for first-year students), it serves a local, urban population (many of them drawn from area communities that have been severely affected by coronavirus) and is heavily reliant on MBTA transit lines for accessing campus. Interim chancellor Katherine Newman announced on June 22 that the school would operate remotely—which may present greater challenges for students learning at home than for much of the cohort enrolled at Bowdoin and other private institutions. Newman detailed her reasoning (emphases added):

I write to thank the community for the thoughtful feedback we received on UMass Boston’s draft plans for starting the new academic year in fall 2020. Through your eyes, we see just how profoundly your lives have been impacted by the pandemic and how much you wish—as do we all—that we could turn this page and go back to all of the activities and friendships that are the stuff of life. We greatly appreciate the many expressions of support for the prioritization of health and safety reflected in our fall plans.

As you know, we are absolutely bound to abide by and adhere to CDC guidelines, and follow the recommendations of our federal, MA, and local health and governmental officials, knowing that circumstances remain fluid and largely unpredictable. Our deliberations have been undertaken with this fundamental requirement in mind.

Many members of our community expressed their approval and support for the plan to continue to operate remotely. They noted that they themselves or members of their family are at risk, especially in Black and Latinx communities nearby that have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19. Social distancing is hard to do on public transit. These respondents agree that a remote semester in the fall, while not perfect by any means, is the safest alternative given the pandemic we must deal with.

At the same time, we heard from many students who were not fulfilled by remote instruction and truly miss being in class. They worry about maintaining motivation when they are alone or have to study in places that their families need for daily activities. The quiet of the campus library, the atmosphere of academic engagement, really matters and they are longing to have it back. Some are convinced that campus safety can be preserved by social distancing or medical testing.

Some universities have elected to remain remote as we have (e.g. the entire California State university system, the largest in the country, our local counterpart, Harvard [Editor’s note: in instruction; decisions on whether students will be in residence are still pending], and UCLA …). However, a number of private universities in our region have announced they are coming back “on ground.” Students asked why are those campuses able to manage the risks while UMass Boston leaders believe this is not feasible for us?

We know other universities have made different decisions, and we respect that. They know their campuses, programs, and students. In important respects—especially the extent of daily reliance on public transportation and the prevalence of COVID-19 in the communities they serve—these institutions are very different from UMass Boston. Medical and public health professionals—whose guidance, direction, advice and opinions we must be bound by—have made it clear that each university campus is unique and must tailor its plans to their particular circumstances.

UMass Boston’s physical location and transportation patterns, as well as its relationship to the surrounding, large urban area, make it difficult to execute and enforce standards vis a vis social distancing and health/safety rules compared, for example, to a fully residential campus in a more removed setting.

Beyond that…[o]ur community members commute every day from some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in the commonwealth, those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. We have a responsibility to ensure their safety and that of their older relatives.…

While we appreciate the good intentions of those who feel they can abide by wearing masks or social distancing, even a cursory examination of public behavior makes it clear that many are resistant to the very practices that will help keep us all safe. 

Comprehensive weekly testing of a large urban population of commuting students, faculty and staff, isolating those who are infected from their fellow students, colleagues and family members, and quarantining at scale would be very hard for our campus. Opinions vary on how necessary it is to invoke such a strict standard for a largely commuter campus, but we feel that our community deserves a significant degree of caution given the many unknowns about this virus. 

For all of these reasons, we have concluded that it is important to stick with the plan we articulated two weeks ago. Certain lab courses in the sciences and nursing courses that require the use of the simulation center will remain on campus. The rest of the curriculum will be delivered to you via remote instruction. 

We want to assure you that fall 2020 is going to be a vibrant and engaging semester. As I write, faculty are reworking their course plans, developing new methods of interacting over electronic platforms. They are conducting workshops to learn from one another about effective techniques for stimulating discussion, working through problem sets, maintaining robust contact with their students, and encouraging break out groups. The libraries are supplying materials that are new and interesting to incorporate into their classes. Everyone will be encouraged to participate in clubs and student activities online, including wellness “clinics” and, perhaps, e-sports or other electronic games. If the public health conditions permit it, we will bring some limited student activities back to Columbia Point in the middle of the fall term. But not unless we are sure it is safe for our students, faculty and staff, and for those with whom they live beyond the campus. 

Yale made it a trifecta for such announcements on June 22, as Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College, Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School, and Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, disseminated a joint message on a “residential/remote model of instruction” for the fall—combined with changes in course selection and the semester schedule (which will, like Bowdoin’s, conclude in-person instruction at Thanksgiving). Final decisions on the semester and details await a message from Yale president Peter Salovey in early July. 

Instruction. Yale will follow a model like the one that Harvard has outlined: “classes will primarily be offered using remote modalities,” to serve both students who are in residence and those who are not. If practicable, certain lab-based and studio courses may have in-person elements, with social-distancing. This residential/remote model, the deans wrote, “presumes that the public-health situation will permit students to return to campus. However, it allows us to transition relatively swiftly and seamlessly to a fully-remote scenario if the public-health-situation requires.” If resident members of the community become infected with the coronavirus, necessitating quarantining or isolation, they could continue their educational activities. The remote option also accommodates those who have obligations to care for family members—and protects students and faculty members who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Course pre-registration. Like Harvard, Yale College has a liberal system of course shopping. Like Harvard, it has been exploring a move toward pre-registration, to help plan teaching spaces better and assign cohorts of teaching fellows (among other presumed benefits). In Yale’s case, for this fall (a year earlier than initially planned), “Given the constraints created by the pandemic, and as a remedy to the unpredictability, volatility, and logistical difficulties of the traditional course selection period, Yale College will adopt a pre-registration and advising system that provides more advance planning while preserving students’ ability to explore and discover new courses.…Information on courses will be available to you in August, and you will be able to submit your initial course selections before the term begins. In addition, you will continue to have the ability to shop, drop, and add courses through the first week of classes.” (emphasis added)

Calendar. Yale will begin classes early, on August 31, and end them December 4. “All post-Thanksgiving activities”—the final week of instruction, reading period, and final exams—will be online, with the semester ending December 18.

A concluding note. Amid almost complete uncertainty about the conditions affecting residential education this fall, and the endless possible responses, the Yale deans observe—as many of their peers across academia might, too—that “The coming semester will be experimental and challenging in ways that we cannot anticipate. Some aspects of our plans will be successful; some may not. But we move forward because we value the community of learning that our students, staff, and faculty members help to build at Yale.”

Along the Charles…

As Harvard’s remaining decisions near, elements of those made on other campuses are likely to reappear. FAS dean Claudine Gay, as noted, outlined a spectrum of possibilities for residential College operations this fall, from minimalist to complete—but with the latter dependent on sufficiently favorable public-health considerations, and the ability both to do virus testing and tracing on a massive scale and to lease lots of alternative housing for undergraduates (to accommodate low-density, socially distanced accommodations). Harvard’s undergraduate student body has far more in common with Bowdoin’s than with UMass Boston’s, but it would appear to need testing capacity on a scale far beyond Bowdoin’s (of the sort UMass said it could neither muster nor afford). Harvard students, like those at Bowdoin, would, if resident, be in place; but lots of faculty and staff members would have to commute to campus from their home communities on the MBTA.

Some mixture of students permitted to be on campus at certain times during the academic year while others are away, and vice versa, could certainly be an option for the College. So could changes in the fall calendar. Athletics and extracurriculars are certainly in play (so to speak), as they are at Bowdoin and UMass—and as they may well be for Yale and some, but not necessarily all, Ivy peers. Much as Harvard’s schools may end up choosing diverse paths toward fall residence and instruction within the same University, the University and the Ivy League (with urban campuses like Columbia, and rural ones like Dartmouth) may end up in different places.

Nearer at hand, MIT has made such choices. In a June 17 letter, President L Rafael Reif outlined a fall with:

  • an “undergraduate residential population…much less than our normal capacity – conceivably as high as 60 percent, but likely much lower” (emphasis added);
  • “everything that can be taught effectively online will be taught online”;
  • individual rooms for all resident undergraduates; and
  • a modified schedule, beginning early (around September 1), with in-person instruction concluding before Thanksgiving.

For those in residence, life will be “very different,” Reif continued, with mandatory COVID-19 testing before returning to campus and regularly thereafter; mandatory public-health education; daily health-status attestations; mandatory masking; physical distancing; contact tracing; staggered scheduling and reconfigured works spaces; limited building access; prohibitions on large gatherings or lectures; and restricted travel.

Acknowledging frustration about “the persistent uncertainty of the situation” and the need to make decisions based on “incomplete, imprecise, and dynamic information,” Reif promised final details on undergraduate education no later than the week of July 6.

By then, Harvard’s FAS (and perhaps business school) communities will presumably have a clearer sense of which of these constraints, and adaptations, they face this fall, too.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

You might also like

“Edifying and Beautiful”

Botanical illustrations on display at Harvard’s rare book library

Sarah Ganz Blythe New Art Museums Director

Assumes Harvard post in August

Taking Climate Action at Harvard

Focusing on prime polluting industries, plus politics and policy

Most popular

Lord Mayor for a Day

Harvard's Michael Mainelli, the 695th Lord Mayor of London.

Heads of the Parade

And a precedent-setting eightieth Harvard reunion

Parks for Tomorrow

Bas Smets harnesses nature to cool cities.

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

Harvard Professor on Printmaking

An art historian analyzes an overlooked medium.

Dream Renovations to Harvard Yard Libraries

An ambitious plan for the next century of learning