June 03, 2020

Dear Incoming Students,

I hope that you, your families, and your friends are doing well despite the challenging conditions across this country and around the world.

I am writing now with important information about the fall semester. After a great deal of deliberation, we have concluded—very reluctantly—that the Kennedy School should move forward with exclusively remote teaching and learning this fall.

Many people at Harvard Kennedy School have been hoping and preparing for a return to on-campus learning in the fall semester. We have been relieved to see that hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 are declining in Massachusetts, and therefore that the state government is allowing a phased reopening of some activities. Harvard University is developing plans for campus life regarding physical distancing, mask availability, self-reporting of health status, testing, contact tracing, and more. At the Kennedy School, we are upgrading technology in older classrooms to support a combination of in-person and remote learning, installing touchless faucets in bathrooms that do not yet have them, and modelling alternative class schedules to minimize congestion in hallways and permit the cleaning of rooms between classes.

However, after reviewing the situation very closely, we have determined that even this extensive planning and preparation cannot overcome all of the obstacles we face to safe and effective learning on campus.

Many considerations have played a role in our decision, but two have loomed largest in our minds. One is that the degree of distancing we expect to be required in the fall would preclude the usual on-campus experience for students, despite all of the workarounds we can devise. Given our physical spaces and the activities we normally pursue, maintaining distance and eliminating crowded settings are more difficult for us than for many offices and businesses. We would need to severely limit students’ access to campus, teach a substantial share of class sessions remotely, and significantly constrain in-person gatherings, including in spaces such as the Forum and the dining area—which is not the campus life we value and seek to offer.

The other key consideration is that, despite the best precautions we can take, there would remain a substantial risk that the disease would flare up on our campus, and the limitations on campus life would leave us little flexibility to respond to such a development without closing campus again. We were impressed this spring by our students’ commitment to protecting not only themselves but also other people who might be more vulnerable, and we would not want to undercut that commitment by risking the health of our students, faculty, and staff and of the Greater Boston community of which we are a part. Further, asking students (and their families in some cases) to take the risk of traveling here from all over the world, finding places to live, and then potentially reversing course partway through the semester would be very unfair.

While I am resolved that this course of action is the prudent one, I am nonetheless somewhat disappointed about it. Like you, I am eager for us all to be together in person. And like you, I am hopeful that conditions with the coronavirus and knowledge about it will improve sufficiently in coming months to allow for closer physical interaction while still limiting the risk of contagion. But I am sure we agree that our plans should be based on realistic expectations, and with the beginning of the fall semester now less than three months away, I think that realistic expectations impel us toward remote teaching and learning. Our chance to be together in person will need to wait. I very much hope that we can be back on campus in the spring, although I cannot promise that today given all of the uncertainties about the pandemic. In any case, we will offer instruction remotely during the spring for students who are still unable to travel to campus.

Fortunately, many faculty and staff members at the Kennedy School are already working hard to make remote learning during the fall semester an exceptional experience—albeit a different experience than we are accustomed to. We are working not just to replace what might have happened in person, but to create new opportunities for you to engage with our faculty and with each other. Although we cannot be together in person, we are confident we can be together—learning and building community—online.

Remote learning begins this summer, with our new mid-career summer program launching next month and dozens of new summer workshops for all incoming students to interact with faculty launching in the next few weeks. We are also developing new ways for you to get connected to the School and to each other, so you can begin to know your classmates and the exciting world of which you are now a part.

For the fall, we are reimagining parts of our courses and other activities to take advantage of technology’s possibilities rather than just live with technology’s restrictions. We intend to deliver high-quality, rigorous course offerings of the sort that attracted you to the Kennedy School. Our faculty and staff members with the greatest expertise in online teaching and learning design will be working with their colleagues through the summer to develop creative new approaches to the wide range of courses we offer—including greater faculty-student engagement in small groups, more peer-to-peer engagement, more visits by senior policymakers with opportunities for personal interaction, and more. We also recognize that our students generally come from nearly 100 different countries in any given year, and we are working to make learning accessible wherever you live. In addition, our faculty and staff members are developing new academic and non-academic lead-ins to the fall semester, including offerings that focus on learning across differences and including diverse perspectives. Moreover, the team in Degree Programs and Student Affairs will be collaborating with students to design new ways to build community and foster interaction between students outside of class.

All that said, we understand that a semester of remote learning is probably not what you were hoping for when you decided to begin your education at the Kennedy School in the coming year. Therefore, we are giving you another opportunity now to choose to defer before starting at the School. In contrast with our usual approach to deferrals—which requires that students demonstrate individual hardships or compelling alternative uses of their time—these deferrals are available to all of you who would prefer doing other activities in the coming year rather than being part of the Kennedy School remotely.

As you contemplate this decision, please note that tuition for the coming year will remain as previously announced. In contrast with our usual approach, financial aid awards can be carried over until you enroll. Also, because of space constraints on campus, if many people choose to defer, some may not be able to come next year and may instead need to wait until a subsequent year; we will let people know about the timing later this summer.

Because we need to gain a clear sense of our fall enrollment soon, this broad opportunity for deferrals will be available only through Monday, June 15 (although requests for deferrals under our usual policies will continue to be considered thereafter). Debbie Isaacson, the Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs and Student Affairs, will send a note shortly with instructions for registering a deferral if you choose to do so. In addition, your program director will be in touch soon with information about an upcoming virtual town hall, which Debbie Isaacson and I will host. To aid you in your decision-making, we will post the fall’s course catalog within a few days.

I want to close by highlighting the remarkable work that the Kennedy School’s faculty, staff, and students have been doing to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. From effective public management to economic policy, democracy and human rights, international relations, and health policy, we have been vigorously involved in helping public leaders and officials around the world respond to this crisis. To get a sense of the scope and intensity of the School’s research and outreach related to the pandemic, please keep checking our web page reporting on this work and subscribe to our newsletter. To gain a broader view of the School’s response to the pandemic, including not only our research and outreach but also volunteer opportunities, the work of our alumni, and the changed operations of the School, see our overall coronavirus web page.

Of course, we continue to work on a broad range of other public challenges as well, including national security, climate change, economic opportunity, and much more. Recent developments in the United States remind us of the importance of our work on the broad, deep, and enduring impacts of racism and other systemic injustices; in the past few years, we have appointed more faculty members who are actively engaged in teaching, research, and practice on many aspects of racial inequity, including health, education, democracy, policing and criminal justice, and more. There is so much to do to make a better world, and we look forward eagerly to your joining us.

With my best wishes for a healthy and productive summer,


Douglas W. Elmendorf
Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy