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How Will Harvard Change Post-Coronavirus?

Opportunities in admissions, online degrees, research, and more

September-October 2021

By the time you read this column, students and faculty and staff members—all vaccinated—should be on campus, or en route, to resume an in-person Harvard academic year. Some precautions will remain, but protecting people from the pandemic no longer looms as the community’s foremost priority.

Does that mean nothing has changed? One hopes not, because that would waste the opportunities spawned by a severe crisis. (In an opinion essay in this issue, Brian Rosenberg, a thoughtful leader in higher education, challenges Harvard to take advantage of the times.) Scanning the terrain, alterations small and large come into view.

Consider admissions. Even as the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the Students for Fair Admissions appeal in its thus far unsuccessful litigation against the College’s practices, Harvard this fall is again waiving the requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores: the coronavirus made it difficult to sit safely for such tests. So far, that waiver is temporary—but the long shadow cast by the Educational Testing Service (organized and initially chaired by Harvard President James Bryant Conant, in pursuit of his egalitarian, meritocratic admissions agenda) may be fading.

The University of California regents have directed creation of a new test to better measure college readiness; if it is not in use by the fall of 2024, the system will scrap standardized testing outright. Among other criticisms, the testing regimen put in place to make admissions fairer is, ironically, now widely seen as skewed toward students of means who can afford prep courses and tutors. If testing ends, litigation based on arguments over such scores could become obsolete, too, forcing progress toward truly holistic assessment of applicants—beyond the arid numbers (SATs and GPAs) that loom so large today.

For those admitted, the pandemic has hastened online learning on an unprecedented scale. Through HarvardX, the institution had tinkered with projecting its teaching across the globe, then started learning how to generate revenue from it (see this issue for a report on the disposition of edX). Harvard Business School Online, predicated on users’ willingness to pay, took the concept further. But with the temporary need to teach remotely, impelled by COVID-19, Harvard has crossed the Rubicon. With the Corporation’s blessing, the Graduate School of Education offered its master’s degree (normally one year in residence) as a two-year virtual program. That instantly made it more appealing and affordable to more mid-career applicants.

If the University’s pre-pandemic experience with fast-growing, lucrative professional- and executive-education programs is precedent, the viability of Crimson degrees-at-a-distance won’t go unnoticed. The vice provost for advances in learning, who had a lot to do with the business school operation, is directing a University task force on post-pandemic instruction (see “The Future of Teaching,” July-August, page 18); Bridget Terry Long, dean of the education school, leads one of the working groups—and her school in late June introduced its first fully online master’s degree, in education leadership, opening for enrollment in the fall of 2022. Surely the potential for online degrees is percolating elsewhere at Harvard, too.

As for graduates, the return of in-person Commencement and reunions cannot come soon enough, though perhaps not entirely as they were in the good old days (through May 2019). It seems more natural to have the honored guest speakers speak to the huge morning crowd in Tercentenary Theatre, the precedent set during the virtual 2020-2021 graduations, than to revert to the custom of dispersing and reconvening for the Harvard Alumni Association annual meeting in the afternoon torpor following celebratory lunches. And following the novel programming of this past June, the alumni are assessing how well their separate meeting, reunions, and guest speaker served their needs (see harvardmag.com/comm-kevin-young-21). Breaking the ties between new graduates and elder alumni will have a sentimental cost. But given the swelling ranks of the latter, the logistical and social gains might well be worth it.

And what of the University’s research and civic missions? Indulging in a bit of speculation, Harvard Management Company might report strong, if not socko, investment returns on endowment assets early this autumn. After the initial market swoon in response to the pandemic, stimulative fiscal and monetary policies have boosted asset values. President Lawrence S. Bacow et al. signaled better conditions on June 7, awarding nonunionized central administration staff members a $1,500 bonus—plus a 2.5 percent merit pay increase for 2021-2022, after a year of no compensation increases and tight limits on hiring. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences and other units may emerge from the pandemic financially weakened. But very constrained distributions from the endowment (see “A Fitter Fisc,” July-August, page 19) and robust investment returns might engender a quick recovery.

What could the place do with a little spending money? The investment in quantum science and engineering (see harvard.mag.com/quantum/phd-21), propelled by donor support and potential grants, is one model. Are other academic initiatives teed-up: in data science, or scholarship on inequality, or (at long last!) a coordinated research program on climate change? Does Bacow have plans to reinvigorate his inaugural plea for universal student access to public-service opportunities?

Remember, this is the institution that created everything from Sesame Street to the national campaign for designated drivers—and more recently, developed the knowledge underpinning the COVID-19 vaccines. Surely the University has more such tricks up its sleeve, if the means and the will exist. As the pandemic evolves from an acute crisis to something more manageable, it will be worth staying tuned to see what emerges across Harvard—in admissions, classrooms, celebrations, and laboratories.

~John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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