Harvard’s wealth highlights two key questions for universities closing due to coronavirus

statue of john harvard
statue of john harvard

Harvard University, the oldest, wealthiest and most famous institution of higher education in the United States, has told students to leave campus, and is moving to online education for the foreseeable future. The university had already cancelled all events and trips that were not considered academically essential.

There are two huge, immediate challenges for Harvard. First and most important, what to do with vulnerable students —some from low-income backgrounds, others from overseas—who may not be able to leave campus easily. And second, how to deliver a remote education experience that is equivalent to the expensive, in-person learning upon which its reputation has been built.

Harvard College, the university’s school for undergraduates, has an old-fashioned system for organizing students’ accommodation, social spaces, and pastoral care. After their freshman year (year 1), students spend the remaining three years in one of the 12 Harvard houses, each named after a New England luminary. An email this morning (March 10) from university president Lawrence Bacow told students in Harvard accommodations to vacate the houses by March 15. There will be case-by-case exceptions, but most have to go.

An international student, who preferred to remain nameless, told Quartz that the order to leave campus is a shock. The student doesn’t know where to go or whether traveling anywhere is a good idea at the moment, let alone how to continue an expensive education which they’ve worked hard to access. “I woke up with 50 texts from panicking and confused friends,” the student said. “There is a lot of confusion about what ‘moving out’ and online classes entail. It’s all in a state of very uncomfortable limbo.”

In the student’s hometown, high-speed internet is unavailable. Educational technology platforms are helping to replace classrooms, at least temporarily. Harvard has proprietary edtech, successfully developed by its business school, putting it in an apparently strong position to move some classes online on March 23, at least for those who have access. Laboratories and studios can’t be replicated.

Around 40% of Harvard undergraduates receive financial assistance from the university. There are a lot of American students from low-income backgrounds, whose lives outside campus may not be stable. Some are undocumented, others are homeless. Not only is a Harvard education a way to support themselves and their dependents, life on campus is secure. There, they have food, shelter, and access to some of the best amenities in the world. The immediate future is now uncertain and stressful.

Even if Harvard puts a plan in place to mitigate the worst effects of the campus shutdown, it’s working with a $40 billion endowment. Most universities don’t have those resources.


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