Plain Speaking for What Comes Next


“Harvard will be open for fall 2020,” University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote to all Harvard affiliates last Monday. But looking more closely at this “important” and “clear” decision, uncertainty remains about which parts and schools of Harvard will be open, whether the opening will be online or on-campus, and when the fall semester will actually begin.

In the series of emails sent by the Provost, the Dean of the College, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, we are made acutely aware of how “large and complex” Harvard is, how this generates “a great deal of uncertainty,” and how a chorus of administrators who are equally baffled are thankful for our help, patience, flexibility, commitment, creativity, and partnership.

We previously urged the University to be transparent about their decisions, asking administrators to “raise the bar for effective and frequent communication,” and we acknowledge and appreciate these efforts to communicate. But effective communications should not require deciphering and should not leave students with vastly different interpretations of what the University is thinking. We appreciate the complexity and uncertainty of the situation at hand, but communicating this problem does not require a hefty, cryptic email wrought with complexity and uncertainty that mirrors the broader situation. If the administrators know nothing other than that Harvard will operate at some — perhaps reduced — capacity next semester, then communicating that, and just that, suffices.

But more than just this communicative logjam, the emails missed out on a chance to do something substantive. While details about what a fall semester will look like are subject to changes in the course of the pandemic, there are principles that must be reasserted in the midst of uncertainty. In their emails, administrators — correctly — emphasized that the wellbeing and safety of our community is paramount, but they should have done more to address the specter of significant equity challenges that hang over the possibility of an online fall semester.


When the College announced an emergency universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading policy, Dean Gay cited “the apparent equity concerns” and the fact that the pandemic has, simply put, changed everything. Come next fall, these challenges will still be present, if not worsened by the evolving public health and financial crisis.

By posing the possibility of an online semester without acknowledging any of these challenges, these announcements wasted the opportunity to address them, and took it further by suggesting that improvements to an online environment could make it comparable to the real one. We remain convinced that no system, no matter how innovative and perfected an online education experience it may be, can make up for the central role that Harvard’s campus plays in our normal education. Being in the same place provides a level ground for all students to interactively learn from professors, graduate students, and each other. Whether it be one’s time zone, access to technology, mental and physical health, or living situation, there are few sufficient online substitutes.

In addition to our concerns about our educational experiences, this announcement also leaves in the air student concerns about financial aid and financial security. For students working on-campus jobs, especially for those who rely on them to support themselves, an online semester may mean the loss of essential income and the possibility of having their education put at risk. In light of another potentially chaotic and unfulfilling semester, the lack of official guidance about how financial aid measures will apply if students take voluntary leaves of absence remains concerning.

We hope the administration works to move beyond vague emails and a two-question survey whose value as a genuine inquiry into student opinion seems limited. As before, we insist that the administration should consult students in a more meaningful way and strive for greater clarity in its communications.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.