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A Faculty Meeting “Unlike Any Other”

5.6.20

Photograph of Claudine Gay

Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

The president in an open-collared shirt and pullover. The dean of the College sporting headphones. A peak of 271 participants logged in (a huge number for a faculty meeting)—perhaps eager to see colleagues, hear more about the dismal University financial projections released earlier in the day, or simply finding a way to pass time during another social-distancing afternoon. Thus the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) conducted its final regular faculty meeting of the year (after omitting the April session) on May 5: remotely, via Zoom, the technology that has been the medium for professors to teach since March 23, and for students to learn, from Alabama to the West Coast and indeed around the planet. The virtual gathering combined frequent allusions to the unprecedented circumstances with substantive work—focusing mostly on teaching, as it happened, plus the implications of the pandemic for Harvard’s future work. That other lurking crisis, global climate change, cropped up in the discussions, too.

Convening in the COVID-19 Era: Finances and Operations

Faculty members signed in to a virtual waiting room that superimposed the meeting agenda on an image of the (empty) Faculty Room in University Hall. “If I had a gavel, I would pound it,” said President Lawrence S. Bacow, opening the gathering at 3 p.m. FAS dean Claudine Gay, too, referred to a meeting “unlike any other that has come before.”

During her remarks, Gay reviewed the working groups, under the direction of dean of science Christopher Stubbs and registrar Michael Burke, that are examining how academic operations might be conducted this coming fall. With colleagues, she said, they are conducting “scenario planning” for curriculum, class scheduling, and facilities, as well as for coronavirus testing and contact tracing. Their work is being complemented at the departmental level, and in coordination with directors of undergraduate and of graduate studies.

Hanging over their work, Gay continued, are the financial projections shared that morning by executive vice president Katie Lapp—including a projected $750-million shortfall in budgeted revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and the potential for furloughs and layoffs. “The numbers are large and sobering,” the dean said. No single or few changes in the faculty’s operations would be sufficient to address its challenges. As many actions are taken, Gay said, FAS must be guided by its values, including “empathy for our students and all members of the community” and continued high aspirations for teaching and research. Everyone has made sacrifices already, she said, including suspending searches for new faculty members and forgoing increases in compensation. More sacrifices are to come.

Bacow thanked Gay “for her leadership throughout this process”—and indicated that the process of adjusting to new constraints was, in a baseball analogy, “in the bottom of the first inning or the top of the second.” He also thanked “the faculty for all your efforts this semester”—a period unlike any other he had seen in his 43 years of professional life in higher education. He cited the pivot to remote teaching; the swift relocation from offices, laboratories, and other workplaces; and the need to “work from home”—often while also caring for family members, children, and elderly parents. “I also recognize the disruption this has caused to your scholarship,” the president continued, recognizing the forced distancing from labs, libraries, museums, offices, and fieldwork. “We have all had to adapt.” (On this latter point, he held out some optimism, referring to the provost’s May 4 message on the process for planning to reopen research facilities.)

Beyond the immediate disruptions, Bacow, too, pointed to the sobering financial outlook, involving University and school rebudgeting for next fiscal year, compared to assumptions that prevailed just 60 days earlier. The diminished revenue “will require us to make a number of hard choices,” beginning with the belt-tightening steps outlined April 13: salary freezes, elimination of discretionary spending, and review of capital projects to identify candidates for deferral. He stressed the importance of protecting Harvard’s teaching and research mission, and of remembering that “This University is its people.” In adjusting to the new circumstances, Bacow emphasized trying to protect Harvard’s people, even as “There are likely to be changes we have to make”—thoughtfully and with compassion.

Importantly, he drew a distinction between temporary financial challenges, which the University has the capacity to absorb (see here for background), and changes that are “likely to be much more permanent” and therefore associated with long-term adjustments in Harvard operations. (Although he did not go into further detail, the headline figure—$750 million less in revenue than anticipated—likely combines such different effects as the current cessation of residential continuing and executive education—representing an immediate impact on Harvard Business School’s large executive-education operations, and FAS’s Extension School; the current, but surely temporary, curtailment of much sponsored research, and the associated federal and private funding for those costs and “indirect” costs such as buildings and facilities overhead; and, at least for a considerable period, diminished distributions from the endowment and lessened philanthropic support.)

Of course, planning and budgeting are attended with “enormous uncertainties” (such as whether students will enroll this fall in the expected numbers, affecting tuition, room, and board revenues, and the associated expenses; and travel and visa restrictions on foreign students, who make up a large share of most of the graduate- and professional-school cohorts—again affecting tuition and fees). Given the financial straits and the unknown pandemic circumstances under which Harvard will operate come fall, Bacow said, it is “unlikely to see things return to normal, to the status quo ante,” before September. He promised to maintain frequent communications with the faculty, and thanked their leaders for steering FAS through its challenges. Around the University, he said, “People are just working nonstop” to prepare for the fall semester, and to “reimagine new ways to be excellent” in the months and years beyond.

Teaching

In its formal business, the faculty had to decide on several matters pertaining to teaching—including the routine, and unanimously approved, votes on the Extension School’s course offerings and the Courses of Instruction for the next academic year. There was one interesting side note: as the background materials prepared by Extension School interim dean Henry Leitner observed:

[T]hese are not normal times, and it is hard to plan when we don’t know if we will be able to conduct courses on campus or if we will continue to work remotely. It is likely that we will offer only online (web conference) courses in the fall, with the hope that we will be able to offer some on campus courses in January and spring. It is also likely that we won’t offer any online courses with required weekends on campus in 2020-21, because we are concerned about the risk to students who would be flying in from around the US and the world. 

We offered 969 courses in 2019-20, more than 70 percent of them online (although some of these online courses had on campus components). We had 31,500 course enrollments, down five percent from the previous year. Because we have offered everyone the option of a full refund for spring courses through April 24, these numbers will no doubt go down even more. 

The substantive docket item, presented by dean of undergraduate education Amanda Claybaugh, was a proposal to sort out the processes for approving a student’s enrollment in different classes that meet at the same time. (This is permitted now for seniors who cannot otherwise fulfill degree requirements, where the professor is willing to offer compensatory instruction; or in the case of classes that meet simultaneously and offer recorded lectures but are disallowed for simultaneous enrollment by the automated class registration system—but both cases involve laborious Administrative Board reviews. And in the age of recorded lectures, many faculty members do not mind if students “attend” those classes that way, so long as they participate in exercises, problem sets, or other, more engaged learning experiences that are central to the course. Claybaugh’s proposal streamlines the approvals for these different kinds of conflicts.)

In the context of a spring semester shifted to remote learning via Zoom, the introductory language for the proposal was evocative: “[T[he faculty believes that active engagement in a classroom setting is essential to learning.” Claybaugh acknowledged that FAS members had learned a lot about online education since last convening in late winter—including acquiring a new appreciation for learning that is only possible face to face. The current motion, she was at pains to note, was not about the larger issues of remote and online learning. Rather, it focused on the small number of occasional exceptions, and how to resolve them efficiently. It was approved.

With that business done, the faculty also unanimously approved changes to language in the Handbook for Students, including the new procedure for simultaneous course enrollment (prompting Bacow to note, “The faculty are in an agreeable mood today”).

The focus on teaching as central to the professors’ work—and perhaps part of their agreeable mood—echoed Gay’s announcement earlier in the meeting of annual teaching prizes, a fixture of the last regular FAS gathering each academic year. For the full list of teaching and mentoring/advising honorands, see the sidebar. The headline awardees, the Harvard College Professors—recognized for “their distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching—in general education and within the concentrations, and in advising and mentoring students—as well as work in graduate education and research”— bear that title for five years, and also receive extra compensation to support their scholarship and a semester of paid leave or summer salary. They are:

  • Katia Bertoldi, Danoff professor of applied mechanics;
  • Glenda Carpio, professor of English and of African and African American studies;
  • Cassandra Extavour, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology;
  • David S. Jones, Ackerman professor of the culture of medicine; and
  • James Robson, Kralik and Lou professor of East Asian languages and civilizations.

Climate Change

Perhaps inevitably, in a year when University responses to climate change dominated so much of the faculty’s meeting time—culminating in the February vote in favor of a motion calling on the Corporation to divest endowment investment holdings of enterprises involved in fossil-fuel production—that global challenge arose during the meeting as well. During the question period, Vuilleumier professor of philosophy Edward J. (“Ned”) Hall—himself a Harvard College Professor, department chair, and a leading faculty proponent of divestment—addressed Bacow. He thanked and congratulated the president for his recent announcement that Harvard would make the endowment assets “net-zero” in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, calling the decision an “extremely important first step” in taking such considerations into account in Harvard Management Company’s investment decisions.

Hall then questioned the timing, calling the transition to 2050 “too slow” in light of the climate challenge, and asking for concrete, interim goals. He also asked why the Corporation had simultaneously declined to direct divestment of any fossil-fuel assets. Finally, he inquired about what provisions would be made to engage community stakeholders, including faculty experts, in the implementation of the new policy.

Bacow responded that the 2050 goal was an ambitious one for decarbonizing the investment portfolio, but that “if we can meet that goal sooner, we will,” with frequent reporting about progress along the way. He reiterated his and the Corporation’s conclusion that the policy adopted, addressing demand for and consumption of climate-changing energy sources, was broader and more effective than a narrow divestment measure, which aims at supply. And he said that as promised at the February meeting, he and the Corporation had taken time to consider the issues; had consulted widely with stakeholders, including faculty experts; and had exercised their fiduciary responsibilities in reaching their decision. Although the Corporation will continue to consult widely, Bacow concluded, as senior fellow William F. Lee had explained in February, “We have the responsibility” for making such decisions for the University—and cannot delegate them.

At the outset of the meeting, Dean Gay reported on elections to the Faculty Council. Among its new members are both Ned Hall and professor of the history of science Naomi Oreskes—another faculty leader in advocating divestment and other measures to respond to climate change. Even beyond the uncertain course of the coronavirus pandemic, global warming will surely remain on the faculty’s agenda, and the University’s, for the long term.

Into an Uncertain Future

With the faculty’s business crisply concluded in 45 minutes, Bacow, summing up the unprecedented circumstances since early March, as vividly exemplified in the meeting via Zoom, acknowledged, “This is not how any of us anticipated how this meeting would end.” Typically, the last regular meeting provides the occasion for an informal finale to the academic year, with friends and colleagues gabbing about highlights and summer plans. Not in 2020.

“I sincerely look forward to the day when we can all come together as teachers, as scholars, and as friends,” Bacow continued—the kinds of togetherness that universities foster. Harvard will overcome its current challenges, he assured, as its people are empowered to think of new ways to understand and combat the pandemic (in all its varied effects on different populations) and the obvious ways it has altered how people communicate.

He looks forward, he said, to assessing the impact on teaching and scholarship in the future, and doing so as a faculty. Until such time as all the members of the faculty can do that work together, he concluded, “I want to say thank you to each and every one of you”—individuals at that moment, each at their own computer screens, but still very much members of the Harvard community that did, and will again, come together in the academy.

 

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