Interim Report on FAS Fall Scenario Planning

June 15, 2020

Dear Colleagues, 

At the end of May, I announced that the FAS had launched an extensive scenario planning process to develop a range of potential options for how to bring students and scholarship back to campus, safely. We are on track to make a final decision about fall plans by July. Today, I am writing to provide an interim update to our community on the scenarios (or “pathways”) currently under discussion and the range of considerations that have informed them.

While the goal of returning to campus is simple, determining how best to achieve it is much more complicated. The members of the FAS Scenario Planning team, and the eleven working groups that support them, have been working tirelessly over the past several weeks to develop possible paths forward to adapt the pursuit of our teaching and research mission to the changed circumstances of the fall and beyond. I’m profoundly grateful for the tremendous expertise, vigorous debate, and many long hours that have gone into this work. In what is ordinarily a season of rest and renewal for our community, faculty and staff are going to extraordinary lengths to imagine what might be possible for the upcoming academic year and to chart a course for achieving that future, while maintaining Harvard’s uncompromising tradition of educational excellence and intellectual ambition. 

I want to start with an observation that can get lost in this discussion but is critical to keep in view—namely that our graduate and undergraduate programs are confronting very different situations. Like Harvard’s professional schools, our graduate programs must find ways to adapt their program requirements, like coursework, teaching, and research, as well as mentoring and apprenticeship, to a pre-vaccine world. These adaptations must account for a host of complications and limitations, from visa and travel issues for international students to access to collections and laboratories without which academic progress for some is simply not possible. For undergraduates, we must confront these same issues and also add another big challenge—the context of a fully residential program where 98% of our students live together in dorms and Houses and participate in a broad range of extracurricular activities in addition to their courses of study. As a result, particular focus has been needed on the unique challenges posed by our residential undergraduate program, and the differences among the pathways currently being considered are tied to this specific challenge.

In developing the pathways, the FAS Scenario Planning team has been 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. Guided by these principles, they have established a set of common objectives that each proposed pathway must meet. First, our plans are creating pathways to the eventual return of all undergraduates to campus. We are all eager to welcome students and scholars back to campus and recapture the residential Harvard experience that is core to our identity. The question is at what pace and under what conditions that return occurs. Second, we must deliver a truly excellent learning and growth experience for all students. We are committed to offering an excellent Harvard learning experience and will not move forward with a program that does not meet that bar. Third, we must build in flexibility to enable adaptation to changing conditions. One constant of the last three months has been the challenge of contending with a continually evolving public health context. Any plan for the fall must account for this and enable a quick shift in operations should that become necessary. And fourth, all scenarios must align with public health guidance. To that end, this process has benefited from the direct participation of Harvard University Health Services, as well as periodic review by the medical expert advisory board convened by Dr. Nguyen and the University Coronavirus Advisory Group convened by Provost Garber. This engagement has been critical to our understanding of crucial gating assumptions, such as Harvard’s available capacity for testing, as well as the development of density guidelines to determine our residential capacity. 

In light of the challenges before us, three possible pathways are currently under consideration for resuming residential operations. Each of these pathways shares the goal of bringing our students safely back to campus while envisioning differently how and at what pace they can return. They include a path that starts the fall semester with a low-density campus, much like our current state of operations; a medium-density path that brings 30-40% of undergraduates back to campus; and one that begins with a quick return to a high-density campus that would welcome back all undergraduates for the fall semester. These options are presented at a high level on the FAS Scenario Planning website, though not all of the many epidemiological, medical, infrastructure, and other assumptions implicit in them are described. I encourage you to take a moment to review them.

There are a number of gating considerations that will determine whether all three paths are viable choices. Harvard University Health Services is leading the development of a strategy to provide large-scale testing for the university community as a whole, which will require investment as well as an implementation strategy that meets the varied needs of all of Harvard’s Schools. Additionally, the University is leading the effort to acquire and distribute masks and other protective equipment that will be essential to carrying out the new public health practices these plans assume will be in place on campus. 

Importantly, all three pathways share a common set of assumptions. All pathways assume that regardless of where our students are living, whether on campus or at home, learning will continue to be remote next year, with only rare exceptions. The overwhelming reason for this decision is our commitment to protecting the academic enterprise and preserving academic continuity for all of our students. Continued remote instruction ensures that academic continuity for all students is maintained, even if travel restrictions, visa issues, or health considerations keep them away from campus. We also recognize the difficulty of holding in-person classes while still conforming to guidance from public health authorities. Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh has been leading a team dedicated to supporting our students and faculty and teaching fellows in learning and teaching remotely, respectively. Guided by student input and grounded in educational research and best practices, her team is providing training and resources as we build an online fall curriculum that prioritizes and enables meaningful interactions among students and between students and faculty and teaching fellows, no matter where they are living. Conveniently, deep engagement has always been the hallmark of a Harvard education and so investments here will have significant returns for years to come, including when we resume in-person learning.

All pathways assume a change to the academic calendar. While the two-semester system would be maintained, breaks during the semester would be removed to minimize travel in and out of the campus community during the term.

All pathways assume frequent testing of the campus community and changed campus norms that embrace new public health practices. Regardless of the pathway chosen, there is a recognition that our community norms will have to adapt for our public health practices to be successful. The greater Boston area remains a hot spot for the virus, and social-distancing, masking, and other public health practices will be a part of campus life for the foreseeable future. We will each need to make these practices a regular part of how we contribute to the health and safety of our community.

Regardless of the path we choose, some members of our community will return to campus this fall, and the campus they return to will not be the one they left in the spring. We have already begun the phased process of resuming our research activities in our labs, libraries, and museums that incorporates changes to facilities and community expectations that are adapted to public health guidance. We are learning valuable lessons from this process about how to reduce the risks of community transmission while maintaining a vibrant and active research community. Practices piloted during the resumption of research—like the universal masking protocol and baseline testing needs—are helping us determine what is possible for our residential experience in the fall.  

There are still many important things yet to be determined, and many important aspects of our situation that remain unclear. Our final decision will benefit tremendously from community insight. The Academic Divisions and SEAS continue to convene faculty conversations with departments. Surveys, focus groups, town halls, and other mechanisms for graduate and undergraduate student input have been implemented, and discussions with student advisory groups continue. If you have not already, please share your ideas and perspectives here: All messages are routed to appropriate working groups and archived.

The planning process has demonstrated for me not only the power but the necessity of the liberal arts. We have brought together the foremost experts in epidemiology, data privacy, infectious disease, history, economics, astrophysics, literature, evolutionary biology and more who are rolling up their sleeves with our administrative leaders to model scenarios, identify risks and mitigations, and, most importantly, keep our mission front and center as we plan for the future. Beyond this decision, Harvard has an unparalleled ability and a responsibility to bring broad expertise and a commitment to truth to bear on the challenges before us as a Harvard community and a society as a whole. There is important work to do, and I am eager to settle on the path forward.