An Extraordinary Year

May 19, 2021

Dear colleagues,

As we reach the end of this extraordinary academic year, and in anticipation of sharing final plans for Fall 2021 later this month, I am writing to share some reflections on all that we’ve learned, as well as thoughts on the path ahead as we make our way back to campus-based operations this fall. We were presented with unimaginable challenges, and the pain and loss of this year were never far away. But we also saw things that gave us reasons to hope and to look to the year ahead with new eyes.

March 2020 was a leap of faith. Abruptly we left the familiar, our friends and colleagues and the campus backdrop of our lives, and took a plunge into the unknown. Teaching, research, work—everything moved online. As “plugged in” as we may have thought we were, for a few weeks at least, we were all beginners. We had to learn to unmute ourselves, to share our screens, and to find ways to stay connected, whether we were across town or time zones away. As communities across the world entered lockdown, we went back to the basics. We set guiding principles that would come to be the touchstone for all of our decisions in the months to come. Put health and safety first. Protect the academic enterprise. Leverage our breadth and diversity. Preserve access and affordability. More than words, they guided us as our learning community pulled together to figure out how we would continue our teaching and research mission in Fall 2020 without the campus-based, face-to-face engagement that has always been at the core of our institutional identity. With 12 working groups of senior faculty and administrative leaders, and more than a hundred participants in all, we established the foundational plan for a year of remote learning, public health protocols, and academic calendar changes—and, then, set it in motion.

While not every decision was a smashing success (hello, wellness days), we achieved important things together. We stayed the course with our announced plans and kept our small, campus-based community safe, with no viral transmission in our residential system over the entire academic year, and launched an online curriculum worthy of Harvard. We found ways to quickly restart research, learning from early lab-based efforts in Science and SEAS that informed support for faculty, research staff, and graduate students across our academic divisions. We mobilized resources to help our PhD students stay on track by offering financial support to advance academic progress and post-graduate opportunities, and enabled graduate students to access much-needed resources and quiet spaces in which to do their work.

We recognized the professional impact of the pandemic on our faculty, particularly those on the tenure-track who were actively working to build the research record necessary for a successful tenure review and provided them with appointment extensions, additional research leave, and flexibility on their teaching schedule responsibilities, particularly for faculty with children. The FAS joined in amended University staff policies, supporting pay and benefits for idled workers, allowing for flexible use of sick time, and creating new dependent well care benefits to cover schooling or care arrangements disrupted by the pandemic.

After the experience of this year, there can be no question that our most valuable asset, our not-so-secret weapon in successfully rising to meet truly new and difficult challenges is this very special community, with the wisdom and deep expertise of its members, and your singular commitment to the institution and to one another. Faculty rolled up their sleeves on all the nitty gritty issues, from financial modeling to air handling to hybrid teaching, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with administrative leaders to do analysis and inform decisions. In a singularly decentralized institution, we created new structures to help us manage and plan quickly and efficiently across units. We learned to share more information and share it more often, and to operate in a fast-paced learning mode, using surveys, focus groups, and pilots to make sure that the bets we placed were informed by timely and nuanced understanding of issues and priorities.

But we did more this year than just navigate the pandemic. We built and sustained momentum on a host of issues that are critical to our ongoing academic excellence. This included taking stock of our tenure track process, reviewing our professional conduct policies, advancing a racial justice agenda that has only become more vital and relevant, and pursuing a deeper understanding of our financial position and its implications for our future academic strategy. I am deeply grateful to all the colleagues who contributed to meaningful progress on these and other efforts this year.

This year has taught us important things about what we’re capable of, as individuals and as an institution, and encouraged us to question received wisdom about what’s possible. We discovered a nimbleness we didn’t know we had, as well as the power and clarity that come from centering the academic mission in everything we do. I am proud of the work we did together and am eager to hold onto the new ways we worked this year, even as the challenges of the pandemic hopefully begin to fade. As we look ahead to the start of the next academic year with increasing optimism, I recognize how truly challenging FY21 has been on so many levels. The personal and professional impacts have been far-reaching, with many still sitting with loss. I continue to be profoundly grateful to the FAS faculty, researchers, and staff for their creativity, resourcefulness, and tireless efforts, as well as their dedication to the FAS during an extremely challenging time. Together, we are more than weathering the pandemic; we are emerging as a stronger and more resilient community.

Looking ahead to Fall 2021, we begin the process of building to our new normal. The excitement of coming back together is palpable, as we saw with the smiles and tears of the faculty and students who reconnected in the classroom during the hybrid pilots this spring. There’s uncertainty, too. After more than a year, even this entirely abnormal situation has become familiar and leaving it has its own challenges. We can’t go back to the way things were. Instead, this is a time of transition to something new, to a way of doing things that has been shaped by all we have learned this year. At the same time, there are challenges we must rise to meet, in our society and right here at Harvard. Harvard’s responsibility to be better and stronger, to become the Harvard of the 21st century that society needs us to be, is only greater. This will be a time of experimentation, of re-making Harvard together, and while this year has given us confidence in the principles that guide us and our ability to change, there is no roadmap. It will be more messy, less “perfect” than we are accustomed to and I for one welcome that experimentalism. This fall we anticipate welcoming the largest incoming class in the history of Harvard College who will all be experiencing Harvard for the very first time. Let’s give ourselves permission to join them in seeing Harvard with fresh eyes. Let’s let Harvard be new to us, too.


Claudine Gay
Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences