A Month After Campus Emptied, Bacow Considers Plans for the Fall Semester, Looks Back on Decision to Send Students Home


UPDATED: April 15, 2020, 7:31 p.m.

As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic forces universities across the country to plan for possible continued disruptions to education, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in an interview Monday that Harvard is considering “lots of different scenarios" for what its upcoming fall semester might look like.

Bacow told Harvard Magazine last week that the University is “focused on the fall,” and that schools are identifying dates by which decisions on enrollment and teaching have to be made. However, he fears that by the time decisions have to be made, there will still be “a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

Amid uncertainty around the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic, other Massachusetts universities are also planning for possible changes to the semester. Boston University announced in a statement posted to its website Friday that, if public health officials deem it unsafe to reopen campus in the fall, the university would consider postponing its upcoming semester to January 2021.


In a subsequent statement, though, BU Today editor Doug Most wrote that "Boston University is planning to resume its on-campus, residential program in the fall of 2020, following the recommended best health practices around the coronavirus pandemic."

During Monday’s interview, Bacow also recalled spending the morning of March 9 in a meeting with members of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing board — over Zoom, presenting and discussing his plans to move instruction online and de-densify the campus.

The next morning, affiliates across campus woke up to emails about the decision to move to remote instruction. The College advised undergraduates to move out of University housing within the week. Administrators at Harvard’s 12 schools also outlined their own contingency plans for graduate students.

More than a month after those decisions, Bacow said he, along with other University administrators — including Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 — considered a spate of options. He said they made a decision roughly a week after they first began discussing options extensively, with an eye towards an impending spring break deadline.

“We looked at a variety of different possibilities,” he said. “For me, the actual decision was not a difficult one largely because the costs of being wrong were asymmetrical; what was more of a challenge was implementing it.”

Even before states began issuing guidelines for the virus, Bacow said administrators were watching as different regions of the world began socially distancing themselves, thinking of COVID-19's implications for Harvard. A crisis management team, led by Lapp and consisting of administrative deans, began to focus on “logistical planning” in the event Harvard needed to send students home.

“Pretty early on we realized that if this virus came to Boston and came to our campus that we would need to at least plan for doing it,” he said. “As soon as other countries started engaging in social distancing, we started to imagine what it would mean for Harvard.”

Bacow also acknowledged the role of a scientific advisory group led by Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen, which consisted of Harvard faculty who he said rank “among the world’s leading experts in epidemiology, infectious disease, virology and public health.”

“In the end, it was a collective decision that was done in which Alan, Katie and I all came together,” Bacow said.

“I guess the final call was mine," he added.

While administrators considered plans for the rest of the semester, Bacow said he tried to keep William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, informed of their recommendations.

“We brought it to the Corporation... to both inform them of our recommendation and to make sure that they were comfortable with our plans to go forward,” Bacow said. “We discussed it. We presented it to them — presented the rationale to them — and they supported our decision.”

Harvard was one of the first universities to move classes online and implement measures to de-densify its campus. After its announcement, universities including Smith College, MIT, and University of Massachusetts Amherst took similar precautions — many announcing plans that mirrored Harvard's that same day.

Bacow said that ultimately, in light of the spike in coronavirus cases after the University's decision, he believes keeping everyone on campus in Cambridge would have been the wrong choice.

“We would be putting lots and lots of people at risk,” he said.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RuoqiZhang3.