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Letters | 7 Ware Street

A Quartet of Crises

November-December 2020

In retrospect, Harvard’s crisis during and after the Great Recession of 2008-2010 was a piece of cake. Yes, the University lost $11 billion to $14 billion in endowment and other assets, and had to incur costly debt, and devote more resources to financial aid to help squeezed families, and stop expanding its faculties, and delay major construction projects, and in other ways defer growth for a decade or so. But otherwise it remained identifiably itself: students studied, professors taught and researched—all the elements of a twenty-first-century university.

That sanguine interpretation has emerged, of course, only in the wake of a ginormous capital campaign and other benign financial circumstances, and especially in the context of the present dilemmas.

• Since the middle of last March, the coronavirus pandemic has made routine classroom teaching and learning impossible—an educational crisis. (For a report on how Harvard is adapting, see “School Goes Remote.”)

• The pandemic’s effect on the world economy, travel, and more precipitated with unprecedented speed a financial crisis that has had a larger, more immediate effect on Harvard operations than the protracted malaise that began a dozen years earlier. Hundreds of millions of dollars of executive and continuing education revenue, room and board fees, and now, this semester, tuition payments have been vaporized. At the same time, the institution is incurring enormous expenses for virus testing, socially distanced operations, building modifications, protective equipment, and remote-learning technology—with no known end in sight. For further details, see harvardmag.com/covid-fall-uncertainties-20.

• These challenges arise against the backdrop of an adversarial political climate. The federal regulations limiting enrollment by foreign students studying online (against which the University led effective litigation last summer—see “The 40 Percent Solution,” September-October, page 15) are emblematic of one battle: to secure crucial access to talent worldwide. Turning to money matters, the budget outlook—with crushing unemployment even amid staggering federal deficits—is obviously not propitious for any higher-education priority one could name: updating financial aid; sustaining sponsored support for research (a major feature of the economic recovery legislation after the Great Recession—whereas the current administration routinely proposes to slash such spending); or undoing the excise tax on certain endowments, including Harvard’s. No matter who is in the White House next January, the fiscal realities are grim.

• Finally, the nation’s overdue reckoning with racial injustice and other inequities connects consequentially to the University’s values. The private litigation against Harvard’s and other selective schools’ holistic admissions policies, now on appeal (see page 18), aims to undo affirmative-action practices the Supreme Court has upheld repeatedly. (Reverting to the political climate: the Department of Justice’s August letter challenging similar policies at Yale is a parallel effort, by the Trump administration, to achieve the same end [followed, after this issue went to press, by the filing of a federal lawsuit against Yale].) This University has long been committed to educating a diverse cohort of students who learn from one another’s lived experiences. It has made progressively larger commitments to assuring that those who come here to grow in wisdom are at least somewhat more representative of the socioeconomic diversity of a society that has become sharply defined by widening inequalities. And in the past several years, it has made more focused efforts to improve the ways the community includes and works for all its members—modeling, it hopes, a more promising future for society at large. It is notable that during the current straits, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay unveiled several racial-justice initiatives, including loosening the purse strings on faculty hiring (see harvardmag.com/racialjustice-steps-20), and then swiftly followed the central administration in appointing a senior officer for diversity, inclusion, and belonging (harvardmag.com/diversity-dean-20).

Although there is a pandemic, Harvard is not succumbing to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The University has exceptional human, financial, and physical resources. The issue, rather, is marshaling them now: a severe set of problems and challenges for the institution and its leaders.

How is one best to balance the short term—conducting some semblance of residential student experience, and the research enterprise—while preserving resources for, and investing in, Harvard’s long-term intellectual capital and mission? How to execute internal priorities flawlessly (people’s health and lives are at stake) while attending to urgent external demands—all without being able to conduct the face-to-face personal interactions essential to effective negotiation and problem-solving? And how to maintain focus, equanimity, and civility during a high-stakes national election of unprecedented ferocity?

Leaders are vested with responsibility, and paid big bucks, to tackle these challenges, if not all of them at once. One detects a bit of the personal costs of doing so in President Lawrence S. Bacow’s rueful quip, “So, how did you spend your summer vacation?” at the beginning of his semester-opening Morning Prayers—and of the values he is applying to the many tasks at hand (reported at harvardmag.com/bacow-openingtexts-20).

Knowing how to harvest and build upon the best of the new educational modalities—for however long the pandemic lasts, and beyond; navigating between an increasingly hostile political establishment and an impatient public under stress; modeling civil discourse while opening Harvard up to tougher conversations about its own prejudices and unexamined assumptions: these are among the long-term matters at stake. Members of the community ought to be rooting for good outcomes—and playing a role in helping to achieve them.

~ John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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