As seniors reflecting on our time at Harvard, and as students deeply committed to public service and activism, we realize these past three years have been some of the most chaotic of our lives.
Through our work with the Phillips Brooks House Association and a number of progressive student groups, we have joined our teaching fellows and course assistants on the picket line; we have occupied the admissions office to demand an ethnic studies program; we have rallied for Harvard’s divestment from fossil fuels and the prison industrial complex; and we have mourned the loss of several radical faculty of color who were denied tenure, including Professors Cornel West and Lorgia Garcia-Pena.
And, of course, we have been living through a catastrophic pandemic. We thought that witnessing the failures of our political, economic, social, and public health systems would teach us a lesson: that it is our obligation to build a better world together, one where we interact with ourselves and each other in more just, equitable, and caring ways. We hoped that when we returned to campus, we would be greeted by this shared understanding that all of us must do better.
Instead, we returned to a state of post-pandemic amnesia, where our classmates and peers are, understandably, desperate to forget and move on from the death and destruction we have experienced. With the protection and security of our biweekly Covid tests, it’s become easy to pretend that the pandemic is over, a feeling only exacerbated by the apparent resuming of “normal life”: in-person classes, fully-functional dining halls, and social gatherings. But through this act of forgetting, we risk ignoring the lessons the pandemic continues to teach us.
Though the relative privilege and safety of the Harvard bubble might convince us otherwise, we are still living through the pandemic, and its disastrous effects continue to reverberate, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Workers who have carried the University through the pandemic — cleaning, cooking, and otherwise caring for students — are persistently sidelined, as the financial interests of the university take precedence over their well-being.
Dining halls are still reported to be monumentally understaffed despite the recent contract agreement between UNITE HERE Local 26 and the University, with some workers sharing that they are pulling 16-hour shifts and 90-hour weeks. Custodians, who were denied access to personal protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic. Harvard has repeatedly justified blatantly anti-worker behavior — threatening pay cuts, cutting healthcare, and refusing to accede to union demands — by invoking the economic exigencies of the pandemic.
It could not be clearer how dishonest these claims are. Just last month, the Harvard Management Company reported that the University’s endowment has soared to more than $50 billion — the highest it has ever been — and that it concluded fiscal year 2021 with an operational surplus of more than $250 million.
It is also clear to us that Harvard has shirked its responsibilities to not just those inside its gates, but also to those outside them. Its plan for continued expansion into Allston has been ambiguous at best, leaving residents and local politicians in the dark. Harvard owns a third of the land in Allston. As its expansion into the area drives up rental prices, Allston residents are demanding answers; President Bacow has refused to entertain them, citing his busy schedule.
At the same time, working at PBHA over the last year and a half has shown us just how much communities are struggling. During the pandemic, as students across the city were forced out of schools, PBHA operated our annual Summer Urban Program, supporting hundreds of youth — most of whom are low-income — academically, socially, and emotionally. At a time with high unemployment rates, we responded to requests for food support from more than a hundred families. And amid the housing crisis, we mobilized to give out grants to families at risk of eviction.
As we geared up in-person programming for the fall, we continued to witness the ruinous impacts of the pandemic — and, importantly, Harvard’s failures to act. In an August 2021 email, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana welcomed students back, urging us to “stay focused on the world beyond our campus.” As he writes, “we saw injustice, inequality, and human suffering during the pandemic that we cannot and should not forget.” But, somehow, even as the pandemic rages on, we seem determined to forget. To act as if the world has not shown us the pernicious effects of our self-serving ways.
The world has profoundly changed, whether we like it or not. And as much as we are excited to be back — to walk through Harvard Yard and wave at friends, to sit together at the Smith Center and laugh like we used to, to be in classrooms again and learn from our favorite faculty — we are also worried that we have learned nothing from the last 18 months of tragedy, ones that have revealed just how starkly social inequality persists.
Being at Harvard has taught us both many lessons on how to be, think, and act. One of Harvard’s lessons that we refuse to learn, however, is how to shirk our responsibilities to one another. Instead, we beg you all to think differently, to toss post-pandemic amnesia aside, and to take up the call of public service.
Farah M-A Afify ’22 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House and the President of the Phillips Brooks House Association. Ria Modak ’22 is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House and the Public Relations Chair of the Phillips Brooks House Association.