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Harvard CFO Says the University’s Revenues Have ‘Rebounded’ to Pre-Pandemic Levels

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Harvard Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer Thomas J. Hollister said the University’s revenues have “rebounded” to pre-pandemic levels, placing Harvard in a “healthy” financial condition, in an interview last week.

Last fiscal year, Harvard saw its revenues drop by $124 million — fueled by the reduction in room and board income due to fewer students living on campus — marking the first time the University experienced two consecutive years of declining revenues since the Great Depression. Despite the drop in revenue, an influx of current-use gifts and savings in operational costs allowed the University to finish the fiscal year with a $283 million surplus.

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After the return to in-person operations last fall, Hollister said revenues from tuition and room and board are back to 2019 levels, though he noted that not all revenue streams have recovered completely.

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“Some areas such as parking fees, service fees of various kinds have not rebounded fully back,” he said.

He also noted that record levels of inflation and “signs of weakness in the stock market” may decrease the amount of current use gifts and endowment contributions Harvard receives this year.

During the interview, Hollister also addressed the following topics:

Spending on Pandemic Measures

In recent months, Harvard has eased its Covid-19 policies, lifting its mask mandate and announcing it will discontinue all mandatory viral testing by May 10.

Though Hollister called the reduction of spending on safety restrictions “helpful” for Harvard’s finances, he said that the University continues to spend heavily on pandemic measures.

“Testing and tracing continues to be front and center,” he said. “But as the faculty learns and gives feedback on what's most effective, and how to teach in a hybrid fashion, reconfiguring classrooms is a lot of [the] spending that is being done and being planned for the future.”

The University also recently terminated its Coronavirus Workplace Policies — which expired on April 1 — ending emergency paid sick leave benefits and partial compensation for idled workers.

Hollister said financial considerations were not part of the decision, noting that Harvard’s idled workers are simply “back to work.”

Financial Aid

Last month, the College announced an increase in the financial aid threshold beginning with the Class of 2026 — promising families who earn less than $75,000 will pay nothing for the cost of attendance.

To address the increasing costs, Hollister said the Faculty of Arts and Sciences engages in “scenario planning” and tries to “stretch the dollars” to efficiently meet its needs, noting that funds for financial aid do not entirely come from the University’s endowment.

“Not all of our undergraduate financial aid is endowed, so the money does have to come from somewhere else,” he said. “ Often, it's the annual funds from donors that make up the shortfall.”

Hollister said “it’s not always easy” to effectively allocate money within the FAS budget. However, he said financial aid remains at the “top of the list.”

“The planners at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences make projections many years out,” he said. “They try to ready themselves to continue to fulfill that financial aid promise.”

Future Financial Uncertainty

Hollister said the pandemic still adds “enormous uncertainty” to Harvard’s financials, but praised the University’s continued scenario planning to ensure it remains prepared for changing circumstances. He also said Harvard is “affirmatively” prepared and planning for a possible recession, pointing to the University’s “recession playbook,” released in 2019.

“Harvard tries to be disciplined in our financial planning,” he said. “We've been doing that for many years.”

Hollister called the uncertainty of the pandemic one of the most “difficult and crazy” parts of the University’s financial planning in recent years.

“We try to ready ourselves in the event that things change,” he said. “And Harvard, because of its planning — and that's a credit to many throughout the University — continues to pursue its mission effectively in challenging times.”

—Staff writer Dekyi T. Tsotsong can be reached at dekyi.tsotsong@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Eric Yan can be reached at eric.yan@thecrimson.com.

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