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During Coronavirus Pandemic, Donors Mobilize to Aid University with Mounting Costs

Harvard alumni have donated to help aid students and the school with costs stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Harvard alumni have donated to help aid students and the school with costs stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic. By Aiyana G. White
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

For Harvard College students, financial costs mounted as they raced to pack their belongings and vacate their dorms after the threat of the coronavirus outbreak led to their abrupt eviction earlier this month.

In response, Harvard alumni stepped up with offers of support. Experts say, however, their willingness to donate may not last.

In a March 13 email to alumni, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Brian K. Lee wrote that some alumni had expressed an interest in aiding students and offered them a portal through which to donate.

“We have also heard from many alumni asking how to support students financially during this transition,” he wrote. “If you want to help in this way, you can make an immediate-use gift designated to areas of greatest need at the College. Contributions will be deployed immediately to support our students during this time of transition.”

After Pinney L. Allen ’76 saw Lee’s email, she said that she and her husband Charles C. Miller ’74 donated to the fund for “areas of greatest impact.” She also wrote to the Development Office asking how else they could support first-generation students.

“While individual health at this time is obviously the primary concern for all of us, one of the most profound and long lasting outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis will be the economic dislocation that follows and its impact on the life trajectory of Harvard’s first generation college students, many of whom may be called on to abandon their Harvard education to support their families,” Allen wrote in an email.

“We must work hard to make sure the hope and possibility they represent is not quashed; the call to support these students and their families must be loud and clear,” she added.

Alumni have donated thousands of dollars to help students meet certain costs, per University spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy.

To help alleviate the unexpected financial burdens of the move, Harvard College’s Financial Aid Office subsidized travel and storage for financial aid recipients.

College students with a financial aid package that does not require a parent contribution will be fully reimbursed for travel costs. Other students on financial aid will be reimbursed up to $750 — depending on their level of aid — with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis. The College will also provide up to $200 to assist students on financial aid with costs incurred by shipping or storing items.

Hundreds of alumni also offered personal assistance with housing and storage, while a few even showed up to campus to offer-in person help, per Hennessy.

Hennessy wrote that the University is “deeply grateful” to alumni who have supported students during this time.

“We are also deeply grateful to our alumni, who have reached out to support students and the Harvard community, and who are working tirelessly to support their local communities around the world as teachers, healthcare providers and first responders, scientists, researchers, administrators, and business owners, as we all work together in this critical public health effort,” he wrote.

Despite donations, as the national and global financial situation has worsened, experts say that philanthropy may suffer in the long term.

Christian Lundblad — a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — wrote in an email that the economic downturn triggered by coronavirus could result in “a reduced propensity for alumni and other external constituents (both large and small) to give to the university as they face their own financial constraints.”

Hennessy wrote that philanthropy “critically supports” the University’s mission.

“Philanthropy critically supports Harvard’s teaching, learning, and research mission,” he wrote. “Currently, we see the real impact of this support in enabling critical research; public health diagnostics and tracing; vaccine testing; crisis and policy expertise; economic forecasting; technology support; and innovation and discovery across the schools.”

Allen said that she harbors “competing” sentiments about charitable giving during a time of financial uncertainty, acknowledging that the downturn will likely hit her own finances “very hard.” Still, she said, she feels an obligation to give.

“I feel both a need to be cautious in my own giving, and at the same time, a need to remain open to giving and to do it in ways that will really help in some important ways,” Allen said. She noted she likely would not make a “really large gift” at this time.

Philanthropic contributions across industries stand to decrease at times of economic crisis. A 2012 study from researchers at Stanford University showed that 2008's Great Recession resulted in significant declines in charitable giving, totalling a 10.9 percent decrease between 2007 and 2010.

The coronavirus crisis has already taken a particular toll on the higher education industry, forcing colleges and universities nationwide to send students home, switch to remote learning, and reimburse fees for room and board, among other changes.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, Harvard’s Chief Financial Officer Thomas J. Hollister said the pandemic will take a toll on all of higher education.

“Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the financial health of the higher education industry was under stress as evidenced by recent closures and mergers of schools,” Hollister told the Gazette. “The pandemic will put an additional, enormous strain on the industry.”

The United States Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus package Wednesday that allocated roughly $14 billion for colleges and universities.

Hollister acknowledged that Harvard is “relatively well resourced” compared to other universities.

Allen said she hoped alumni could donate to aid the school but acknowledged that the University “will probably have to cut back on some things.”

“I hope that we can — particularly in the case of Harvard — that alumni can step up and provide the resources that are going to be needed,” Allen said.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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

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