FAS Pandemic Management Update

October 7, 2020

Dear colleagues,

Layered onto the normal rhythm of the academic year, this semester presents an entirely new set of activities to manage; namely, the adaptations required to pursue our mission during a global pandemic. At the level of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, we have created a management team to coordinate our School-wide response and a public dashboard to provide data on our campus conditions. In addition to regular convenings, I will continue to provide these periodic updates to the community on our management and planning activities.

Bringing students to campus and creating a communal living environment that is effective at containing the spread of the virus while also providing the support and community we strive to achieve through the residential experience at Harvard is one of the most complicated challenges we have had to take on, and has therefore emerged as a central focus of much of our planning. Though we are only a handful of weeks into the fall semester, planning for the residential undergraduate program in the spring is already underway.  In our July message, we announced that instruction would be remote for the entire year and described three possible scenarios for the residential program in the spring. They include staying the course with one class cohort on campus, bringing the senior class back to campus and shifting first year students to remote learning; increasing to more than one student cohort on campus; or inviting no class cohorts to return. As we have done this fall, across all three scenarios, we would invite back to campus students who, for a variety of reasons, could not continue to progress academically away from campus.

How we pursue the next step on our path back to full residential return will be informed by our experience on campus this fall, as well as the course the virus takes in the Commonwealth and beyond. Under the auspices of the Pandemic Planning and Response Group, we are actively reviewing our facilities adaptations, residential life, our public health practices, and the academic experience of our undergraduate and graduate students. We are also exploring considerations regarding the academic calendar. This work is being undertaken with the goal of announcing a decision about the spring undergraduate program in early December. While assessing the efficacy of our current practices is essential to our planning, just as important will be the state of the pandemic beyond Harvard at the time of that decision.

For those who have been watching the public dashboard, you have seen that the number of positive cases among the members of our community accessing campus has remained low—lower, in fact, than we had anticipated, given the experiences of other colleges and universities. The Community Health leads in the Houses and dorms have provided essential support as residential communities have adopted the required public health protocols that are so essential to limiting exposure to and the spread of the virus. As all those who live and work in our residential buildings can attest, these changes have been hard. Our residential experience is optimized to bring people together into a supportive, face-to-face community. It is a testament to the dedication, care, and resourcefulness of our residential staff and House faculty leaders that the sense of community has continued so successfully under these new conditions. And the positivity our students bring is an invaluable source of energy and motivation. I am profoundly grateful to all those who are working so hard toward a successful fall for our students in residence.

I would also like to recognize the ongoing work of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with departments and programs across the University, to support graduate students. The range of circumstances our graduate students face is broad. Students working with faculty who have restarted their campus-based activities may be advancing well in their research, while others, facing disruptions to travel plans and lacking access to much-needed resources, are not. The few students living on campus may be confronting feelings of isolation, while those living off campus may struggle to find quiet spaces in which to work or are juggling academics and family responsibilities. Regardless of their particular circumstances, we have been able to support graduate students across all programs by increasing access to resources and support. These include cohort building activities and virtual programming, enhanced advising, writing and fellowship workshops, expanded access to library materials and more. The Emergency Support Initiative has invested nearly $2 million in helping PhD students overcome academic disruptions caused by the pandemic, and the Office of Undergraduate Education has extended technology and other support to teaching fellows and identified teaching opportunities for advanced graduate students well beyond their teaching guarantee.

Finances are an important part of the context of our planning. For an endowment dependent School like the FAS, the Harvard Management Company’s recent announcement of higher than expected returns was welcome news. Of course, there are still many unknowns in the FAS financial picture, whether in calculating the ultimate cost of our pandemic response, or the impact on tuition, sponsored research and our other traditional sources of revenue. In November, the FAS Annual Report will provide a comprehensive view of our fiscal position, looking back on the results of last year and outlining how we are approaching the year ahead.

Over the last few weeks, I know many of us have been confronting the news that a beloved and trusted colleague is retiring after many years of service to Harvard. Nearly 160 members of the FAS staff community elected to participate in the Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program, and together they have invested 4,339 years in supporting our mission. These are long-serving leaders with tremendous institutional knowledge and experience, and their loss will be felt keenly by many. With this painful loss, we will be afforded an opportunity to look with fresh eyes at how we structure the work of our units and programs, in some cases for the first time in many years, enabling alignment with current academic needs and available resources. The Offices of the Academic Divisions and FAS Human Resources have resources to support organizational planning and, where replacements are deemed necessary, strong search practices so that our staff population reflects the diversity of talent that exists.

Seven months into the pandemic and I have not reconciled myself entirely to the new normal. I still miss the serendipitous encounters with colleagues in the Yard, lunch with my first-year advisees, a cup of tea with a job candidate at the end of their campus visit. But every morning, when I check the dashboard and see no new positive cases, I enjoy a moment of deep gratitude to all those who remembered to do their Crimson Clear, submitted their viral test on time, and continued all the other public health practices we rely on every day to protect the health and safety of our community. Your choices are what will determine whether we are successful in completing the semester according to plan and I cannot help but be proud of the choices our FAS community has been making. Thank you for all the large and small ways you are keeping Harvard healthy and on track for a full residential return.


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