A Hopeful Start

September 8, 2020

Dear FAS community,

We are one week into the start of this singular semester, and we have already achieved some important things together. The week of Opening Days brought much anticipated new faces to campus—some who are just beginning their Harvard journey and others returning to their “Harvard home” after months of uncertainty. The Science Center plaza was my favorite place to be that week. While it was a relief to see quick-moving lines as students navigated the elaborate move-in protocol, what was most welcome and most unexpected were the very things that distinguish a “typical” fall move-in—the radiating happiness and excitement of our first-year students and their parents’ pride (and sometimes joyful tears). There may have been less bustle in the Yard, but the energy and optimism were every bit the same. Being there, seeing it firsthand, lifted my spirit and restored me in ways I could not have imagined so many months into the pandemic. If there was ever a question of whether our months and months of preparations, the investments and adaptations, and the hard work of so many to realize this moment were worth it, this was the answer. We have missed our students, and being able to welcome this cohort has reminded us of the academic mission, full of life and promise, that we are united here to pursue.

Our residential students join a campus community that is settling into a new rhythm, one that includes regular viral testing, Crimson Clear attestations, masking, handwashing, and distancing. We are all getting used to smiling with our eyes and giving waves instead of hugs. Our campus looks different too, with new adaptations and signage as part of our “Keep Harvard Healthy” effort. But of all the many elements of our plan to control the spread of COVID-19 on our campus, the most important part is the choice each of us makes to put the health of our community first. As we have seen play out on other campuses, individual choices matter. Five cases can quickly become a thousand when members of a campus community pretend that this is just like any other fall semester. However, if we each choose to do our part, to meet the necessarily high bar that has been set to keep our community safe, we increase the likelihood of finishing out the fall semester on campus and open the possibility of inviting more of our community to return this spring. A successful move-in was an important milestone, and we have achieved it, but our efforts can be easily undone by choosing to attend large gatherings or ignoring travel restrictions. A successful semester will require vigilance and resolve. We know we are asking everyone, and especially our residential community, to meet a high standard in order to keep Harvard healthy. We are proud of the students who decided to accept the invitation to come to campus and to take this on, and we are committed to supporting their success in this anything but typical Harvard experience.

Our FAS community this semester extends well beyond Johnston Gate, of course. When classes started last week, our students joined a virtual academic community connecting remote learners around the globe. Through the courses our faculty have refined over the spring and summer, the academic excellence that Harvard is known for is taking a new form. Now more than ever, class is about community and connection, as well as learning. Faculty have stepped forward to embrace this moment, recognizing the challenges not only of the pandemic but also of racist violence, and our curriculum is bringing the disciplines to bear on the big questions of our time. Our remote format has opened new possibilities for pedagogy, bringing faculty together across the University into a new kind of Harvard classroom. While we all miss being across the table from our students, we are finding ways to use this new medium to further strengthen our teaching and curriculum in ways that are uniquely Harvard. Whether they are learning from campus or far from Cambridge, I am profoundly grateful for and humbled by the trust our enrolled students have placed in us this semester.

If you have not already, I would encourage you to visit the University’s public health dashboard which will soon be expanded to include additional information about our residential community. This page provides a quick snapshot of key indicators of how well we are managing the spread of the virus, including the number of positive cases on campus. The FAS Pandemic Planning and Response Group (PPRG) monitors these and other data in order to assess community conditions and identify where and when interventions are needed—from small changes at the level of a suite or building, to more significant operational decisions such as access to non-residential facilities or our campus density overall. PPRG’s management work is supported by strong public health protocols and close partnerships with our colleagues in Harvard University Health Services and around the University. This work continues to be guided by the same core principles we established at the outset of this crisis: to put health and safety first, protect the academic enterprise, leverage our breadth and diversity, and preserve access and affordability.

The work of the last few months has been some of the most challenging of my life, but also the most rewarding. Sometimes through trial you see the truth. What I have seen over the last six months is that Harvard is a place of unrelenting high standards, that embraces everything that can be gained from the best use of expertise and data, and that is alive with a profound commitment to our academic mission. As a member of this community, it has inspired me and given me confidence in what we can accomplish together. The challenge before us is a significant one. But so is the opportunity. I am excited to get started!

Sincerely,

Claudine

 

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