The 40 Percent Solution

An unprecedented 2020 fall term

Photograph of John Harvard statue, Harvard Yard, with cartoon balloon question mark, about uncertainties surrounding the fall semester
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Following an academic year in which campus was hurriedly emptied over spring recess in response to the coronavirus, an oddly reconfigured community will reassemble at Harvard for the fall 2020 term. The College announced on July 6 that only 40 percent of enrolled students would be in residence for the beginning of the academic year—and they and their Crimson peers around the planet will take all their classes remotely.

Nor will many other students be present: the graduate schools of design, divinity, education, government, law, and public health had previously committed to autumn online instruction (the education school will be online for the entire academic year), as did Harvard Medical School for first-year students. Harvard Business School does plan to be in residence, with hybrid and online classes, but it may not know who shows up until well into August. Fellowships are disrupted, too; the Radcliffe Institute, for example, offers year-long appointments for a period of concerted research, leavened by interactions with members of one’s cohort—but this time, the networking and intellectual exchange will have to take place remotely.

The College

With memories of the abrupt spring transition still fresh (“The Campus, Quieted,” May-June, page 14), University and Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) leaders focused intensely on planning for the coming academic year amid unprecedented uncertainties. In an April 27 message, FAS dean Claudine Gay noted that Harvard would operate come fall on some basis—and framed the central issue thus: “Our most daunting challenge will be how and when to stage the return of undergraduates to their residential Houses.” Any course of action, she continued, would have to balance appropriately “a host of unknowns about the course of the pandemic, the availability of testing, our capacity to manage new outbreaks, and myriad other factors”: in other words, a path that would not risk a wholesale change of direction midstream again, while maintaining the health of students and faculty and staff members. And “because the pandemic will not be behind us,” any alternative under consideration, Gay said, would include “some degree of remote instruction.” In contrast to the 10-day pivot to Zoom courses effected in March, the faculty would use the four months during late spring and summer “to reimagine the Harvard experience for students.”

On campus, students will have access only to their assigned dorm room and dining hall.

FAS’s scenario planning for the College (and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences—where the challenges do not entail much dormitory housing and communal dining) came to encompass nearly a dozen working groups. They engaged vexing issues that ranged from making the Houses and other facilities safe to managing enrollment, scaling up virus testing and tracing, considering the implications of the current crises for FAS’s next five years of operation, coping with its altered finances, and devising “remote experience AY 20-21” (online learning for the academic year).

By June 15, Gay was prepared to outline three options for undergraduates:

  • a “low-density” campus, accommodating perhaps several hundred students—a continuation of what transpired after spring recess, when those who could not practically or safely return home and continue their academic work remained at Harvard;
  • a medium-density plan with 30 percent to 40 percent of students in residence—immediately prompting questions about who would be chosen, and the conditions under which their campus lives would proceed; and
  • fully residential operation—a costly, logistically complex undertaking, contingent on the course of the pandemic and government policies, that would require Harvard to rent a large number of hotel and apartment rooms to accommodate students in less dense, socially distanced quarters. Even if those hurdles could be overcome, this seemed out of reach, given the external environment: Greater Boston had been hit hard by the coronavirus; Massachusetts has understandably chosen a very gradual course of easing restrictions on business operations and social distancing; and lots of Harvard employees rely on the old, dense MBTA public transit system to commute.

(For details on the options, see

The July 6 decision came shortly after the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus began growing explosively across much of the United States—including Florida, Texas, and California, from which many students come to the College. A message from President Lawrence S. Bacow, Dean Gay, and College dean Rakesh Khurana revealed that the plan to “bring up to 40 percent of our undergraduates to campus” would include all first-year students for the fall semester. The surprise, perhaps, came in the next sentence: “Assuming that we maintain 40 percent density in the spring semester, we would again bring back one class, and our priority at this time is to bring seniors to campus,” with first-years returning home to learn remotely in the spring. “[T]hose students who may not be able to learn successfully in their current home learning environment” would also be invited back.

Peer institutions unveiled similar schemes. Dartmouth anticipated a shifting schedule with “more than half” of students on campus each term, and each student present for two of three terms on a year-round schedule. Yale aimed for 60 percent of students in residence, with freshmen, juniors, and seniors in residence in the fall, and sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the spring. And so on. (A full report on Harvard’s plan, including the complete message from Bacow, Gay, and Khurana, and details of other institutions’ plans, may be found at [Update after publication of this issue: The College announced that only about 25 percent of undergraduates had accepted invitations to be in residence for the fall term—and about one-fifth may defer enrolling or take a year off; read a full report here.]

In what turned out to be an important detail, Harvard announced that to maximize equal access to instruction for both those resident and those studying from home, and to minimize the health dangers (in-person teaching, queueing to get into and out of classrooms), “all course instruction (undergraduate and graduate) for the 2020-21 academic year will be delivered online. Students will learn remotely, whether or not they live on campus.”

With that, Harvard appeared to have sketched a workable architecture that permitted teaching and learning to proceed on some basis, despite the persistent pandemic, while remaining sufficiently flexible, should the public-health outlook deteriorate or improve, to carry on at least for a fall semester ending just before Thanksgiving (with online finals to follow). Subsequent decisions by other institutions (ranging from the University of California, Berkeley, and private liberal-arts schools there, to many of the colleges based in and around Atlanta) to retreat from planned residential semesters and resort hurriedly to remote operation as the coronavirus spread rapidly around them, seemed to confirm the wisdom of the path that the University and peers had chosen.

Thin ICE

Immediately it became clear, though, that the University’s plans remained vulnerable to at least one other contingency: adverse federal regulation. U.S. visa rules prevent international students from gaining access to the country by enrolling only in online courses—a way of gaming the system. During the spring pivot to remote education nationwide, those rules were relaxed: recognizing that students legitimately enrolled in campus-based programs were suddenly learning online only as a result of the public-health crisis, they were permitted to retain their visa status and pursue their coursework while remaining in the country.

On the day of Harvard’s July 6 announcement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) promulgated new fall 2020 guidance, including the chilling decision that nonimmigrant students “attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.” They would not be issued visas to enroll “in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester,” nor would U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit them to enter the country. Those still in the country would have to depart “or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.” Otherwise, they could be deported.

On its face, the guidance seemed aimed more at punishing residential institutions that chose a temporary course of online instruction for reasons of health and safety—a matter of political contention amid the national discourse on reopening the economy—than at serving a legitimate visa purpose. About 5,000 students across Harvard suddenly seemed at risk, through no fault of their own.

President Bacow’s immediate reaction was tempered. Citing the “well-being of the University community” in Harvard’s decision to move to online instruction, he said that the new ICE guidance “undermines” that thoughtful effort “to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic.”

On the morning of July 8, Harvard and MIT filed suit to block the ICE policy, and were rapidly joined by supportive briefs from other schools. Harvard’s statement explaining the rationale for its action was markedly more critical than Bacow’s initial reaction, noting:

By all appearances, ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes…notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so, and to force such a reopening when neither the students nor the universities have sufficient time to react to or address the additional risks to the health and safety of their communities. The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible.

In a letter to the community, Bacow characterized the ICE ruling as issued “without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness.” He wrote bluntly, “We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal.” (Read a detailed account at

Apparently, that legal reasoning was sound. On July 14, as the parties were about to present their arguments in federal court, the judge announced that the administration had agreed to rescind the ICE ruling and allow international students to remain in the United States even if their courses were entirely online. That result, given the fraught politics of immigration policy impinging on a matter directly concerning higher education, became the lead story in the next day’s New York Times and Boston Globe.

But not quite “Case closed.” On July 21, Dean Khurana dispatched a message to first-year international students, conveying the “difficult news” that they would not be able to come to Cambridge for the fall semester. The reversal of the ICE guidance pertaining to continuing students, already enrolled, he wrote, does not apply to any incoming students who require F-1 student visas and whose institutions plan fully remote instruction. Harvard College is among these.

Khurana said that Harvard had sought workarounds, but hybrid or limited in-person instruction might not protect international students from subsequent orders to leave the country, and raised health questions for the community. Nor could the College guarantee that the regulatory requirements could be altered or overturned in time. (Indeed, on July 24, ICE issued guidance to the effect that “new or initial nonimmigrant students who intend to pursue a full course of study that will be conducted completely online will likely not be able to obtain [a]…visa to study in the United States.”) Therefore, he wrote, entering international students should plan to study from home or defer admission. He extended the deadline for deciding to do so until July 31, with a guarantee of campus housing when they finally enroll.

Also on July 24, Inside Higher Education reported that 17 states (led by Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia had filed suit to enforce the Trump administration’s July 14 agreement to rescind the ICE rules. The suit alleged that formal notice of rescinding the policy had not been published, and that the field manual for consular officials (directing them to reject visa applications from students whose schools have online courses of study) had not been amended. Such details, of course, can freeze prospective students’ plans, atop their justifiable concern about the course of the pandemic and the availability of reliable travel options in case of future need.

On Campus, Constrained

And what will life on campus this fall be like for those who do come? It is not a ghost town: as the Commonwealth phased in its reopening guidelines, Harvard began repopulating laboratories, and the libraries began fulfilling requests to check out books, for pickup at Lamont: curbside delivery. Employees returning to work went for coronavirus testing beneath the stands in Harvard Stadium, and submitted daily attestations of their health status. Graduate students learned how their studies and research will proceed, often in physically modified laboratories, and within controlled-access buildings.

Undergraduates learned in the July 6 announcement that they will be “distributed across the first-year dorms and a number of upper-class Houses,” as yet unidentified, so they can be accommodated in single bedrooms with a shared bathroom. Campus access will be restricted, as will inter-house access to dining and to nonresidential buildings. Underscoring the health-related limitations, a July 30 letter to students, faculty, and staff members drew the brightest of lines: “Most students will not have access to physical learning spaces, including classrooms, laboratories, and libraries. Students living on campus will only have access to their assigned dormitory and dining hall.” No off-campus visitors, including enrolled students who are not in residence, will be allowed in University buildings.

To safeguard health, students will undergo viral screening upon arrival, and will be tested every three days while in residence (subject to change depending on the prevalence of coronavirus infections within Harvard and in the surrounding community). There will be daily attestations of symptoms; requirements to self-isolate if one tests positive; and a requirement to quarantine if exposed to a positive case. (Harvard has dedicated rooms sufficient to house 250 individuals in quarantine and isolation.)

The academic schedule has changed, too. The term will begin as planned on September 2, but move-in and end-of-semester move-out procedures will shift, so arrivals and departures can be spread across the student cohort to maintain appropriate distancing. Classes will extend across an expanded instructional day, enabling synchronous (live) teaching in more time zones. And as at other institutions, residence for the semester will conclude early, to avoid the perils associated with students going home for Thanksgiving and then returning with possible virus exposure after the holiday; reading period and examinations will take place at home.

Many usual activities and enticements are missing. In-person pre-matriculation programs are of course suspended. The Ivy League announced on July 8 that athletic competition would be suspended for the fall semester—and thus became the first of many leagues and conferences to take that step; decisions on winter and spring sports have not yet been made (see Details on other activities have yet to be released, but Prince­ton, which is allowing freshmen and juniors to be in residence in the fall (with sophomores and seniors taking their place in the spring), has offered plans that sound very much like Harvard’s. It announced that all student-organization facilities will be closed: student-group offices, theaters, practice rooms, the publication center, studios, and more. As of July 30 Harvard’s guidance was contingent on how the semester unfolds: “While we hope to make some performing art and recreational facilities available to students later this term, we are unable to do so at this time.”

(Acknowledging the changed experience, Princeton reduced its tuition charges for the academic year by 10 percent; Williams has cut its tuition bill 15 percent, and other schools have reduced their fees or held them flat with the 2019-2020 bill. Harvard College will maintain the term bill it set this past spring, however, with a 4 percent increase to $72,391 for 2020-2021; students not in residence will not, of course, pay room and board fees.)

What will fill the gaps? On July 23, Khurana sent a message to all College students acknowledging the disappointment felt by those not returning to campus this fall, and proposing a way to help overcome their concerns “about how you will stay connected to Harvard.” He invited them to work together to “reimagine our community” through Harvard Everywhere: a way “to reinvent the full range of Harvard co-curricular activities and resources—house-based activities, public service, athletics, arts, interest clubs, health and wellness—in ways that will reach you, wherever you are this fall.” Some would be online, but the effort also seeks to take advantage of local resources, connecting students to one another and to nearby alumni.

At the same time, Harvard has acknowledged the stresses and isolation the pandemic imposes on students everywhere—at home or on campus. On July 23, accompanying the release of the report by the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health, convened in early 2019, Provost Alan M. Garber said it had “thoroughly examined the challenges that our students were facing even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended their lives.” Today, he said, the needs that the task force identified (“for greater connection, for wider adoption of and help with self-care, for more accessible support in dealing with everyday struggles as well as mental health conditions, and for better coordination of mental health strategies across the University”) have been made “even more pressing by the uncertainty and isolation that everyone experiences now.” (For more information, see

Finding ways to house and feed students safely; deliver lively and interactive courses (including hands-on laboratory and art-making contents); scale up high-speed virus testing and contact tracing; attend to newly matriculated undergraduates’ physical and mental well-being amid unaccustomed constraints; anticipate and cope with rapidly changing regulatory and public-health requirements; and pay for and deliver all of the above—these and more now add to the responsibilities members of the community assume together when they try to assemble for this fall semester. It is a far cry from normalcy within the academy—and an echo of the larger chaos a tiny virus has wreaked across the globe.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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