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Return to Normal Unlikely by September, Harvard President Bacow Tells Faculty

Before much of campus closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences held meetings in University Hall.
Before much of campus closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences held meetings in University Hall. By Thomas Maisonneuve
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard is unlikely to “return to normal” by September, University President Lawrence S. Bacow told the Faculty of Arts and Sciences over Zoom during its final meeting of the academic year Tuesday.

“It’s pretty clear to all of us that we are unlikely to see things return to normal, ex ante, by September,” Bacow said. “People are just working nonstop as we sort through the alternatives as we plan for the fall, reimagining new ways to be excellent.”

At the faculty meeting, Bacow reiterated the University’s plan to reopen its research facilities in phases, after ordering all FAS-affiliated laboratories to ramp down to only essential functions in March.

But he said the return of students to campus en masse will likely come later.

“We are working to stand up our research operations as fast as we possibly can,” he said. “We think it is possible to get this going faster than bringing students back in large numbers.”

He added that the effects of the pandemic on Harvard have only begun to materialize, and said more sacrifices will likely be necessary.

“To use a baseball metaphor, if this is a nine-inning game, it’s unclear if we’re in the bottom of the first inning or the top of the second,” he said.

At a meeting that FAS Dean Claudine Gay termed “unlike any other that has come before,” faculty attended from their homes via Zoom and used the “raise hand” function to be recognized to speak. They voted on motions via Zoom’s polling function.

The faculty unanimously approved the proposed courses of instruction for the fall semester for the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Harvard Extension School. They also passed a proposal to simplify the College’s rules for simultaneous course enrollment, allowing some courses to receive a three-year blanket waiver for students to simultaneously enroll in them without petitioning to do so.

While Harvard has announced that it will hold classes in the fall — whether online or in person — the FAS still has not decided what format its upcoming semester will take. Gay wrote in an email to faculty in late April that the FAS will reach a final decision no later than July. Meanwhile, the Extension School will likely hold its fall courses exclusively online, interim dean Henry H. Leitner said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Faculty have since begun planning in earnest for the possibility of continued online teaching, working with departments and FAS administrators to find ways to ensure academic continuity for students.

In Tuesday’s meeting, the faculty also approved changes to the College’s student handbook for the 2020-21 school year. They agreed to move the deadline by which students can withdraw from courses from the seventh Monday to the eleventh Monday of the term, and to prorate course requirements for students who conduct term-time study abroad.

The faculty also briefly discussed the issue of fossil fuel divestment. The FAS overwhelmingly approved a resolution in February urging the University to eliminate its investments in the industry; in response, the Harvard Corporation in April adopted a commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its endowment by 2050.

Philosophy professor Edward J. “Ned” Hall said during Tuesday’s meeting he and a number of his colleagues welcome decarbonization as a “very important first step,” but are concerned about the plan’s timeline and efficacy.

“Our concern is that this pace is too slow, and suggests an unrealistic hope that the climate system won’t force our hand well before then,” Hall said. “Climate scientists are continually shortening the time horizon for effective action, and a 2050 target date does not jibe with the urgency of our situation.”

Hall also questioned how the University could achieve decarbonization while still maintaining investments in fossil fuel companies.

In response, Bacow said the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — ultimately found the decarbonization plan, rather than divestment, to be in the University’s best interest.

“We believe we can have a greater overall impact if we can curb demand for fossil fuels rather than focusing on supply,” Bacow said.

Bacow also said decarbonizing the entire portfolio was an “ambitious goal” even on the current 2050 timeline.

“If we can meet that goal faster, we will,” Bacow said. “We pledged to report on our progress, and we will plan to do so on a regular basis.”

Correction: May 13, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Extension School's interim dean. He is Henry H. Leitner, not Harry.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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