Harvard Law School student Abraham Barkhordar filed a class action lawsuit Monday against Harvard asking for partial reimbursement of tuition for the online spring semester.
Barkhordar — a rising second-year student — filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts alleging the school provided a “subpar” educational experience following its transition to remote instruction in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The complaint demands the University proportionally refund tuition to all class members for the spring and for any future online academic terms — damages, the suit argues, that exceed $5 million.
The lawsuit claims the lack of in-person access to resources and a collaborative learning environment during the remote semester failed to meet the quality of education students were promised in exchange for their tuition and fees.
“While students enrolled and paid Defendant for a comprehensive academic experience, Defendant instead offered Plaintiff and the Class Members something far less: a limited online experience presented by Zoom, void of face-to-face faculty and peer interaction, separated from program resources, and barred from facilities vital to study,” it reads.
In an interview with The Crimson, Barkhordar attributed his decision to attend the Law School to his ability to interact with professors and students across campus and in class.
“A lot of law school revolves around a lively in-class debate — whether it's a heated argument or funny banter,” he said. “It’s just not the same over Zoom.”
The complaint also argues Barkhordar experienced a decrease in academic rigor and standards. The Law School shifted to a mandatory credit-fail grading system shortly after the transition to online learning.
“Such decreased assignments and reduced expectations in turn have reduced and negated the educational experience for which Plaintiff paid Defendant,” the complaint reads.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Warren T. Burns, one of the lawyers representing Barkhordar, said in an interview that the University approached the move to remote instruction with “pretty deaf ears” by not discounting tuition after the lives of students were disrupted.
“By continuing distance learning and refusing to refund or rebate tuition and fees, the University is, in essence, unjustly enriched as a result,” Burns said.
The lawsuit follows a June 3 announcement that the Law School, among other graduate schools at the University, will hold its fall semester online.
The school subsequently faced backlash after hosting a series of informational webinars about the decision in which administrators made comments about the fall semester which students alleged were insulting. The controversial statements during the webinars included a suggestion for students to use grants and loans to rent an office space if they need a quiet place to study remotely.
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in a statement at the time that students needed to determine what option was best for them.
“Ultimately, we indicated that every student must determine which options make the most sense for them, depending on their particular circumstances,” Neal wrote at the time.
Barkhordar said his decision to take legal action against the University stemmed from these comments and the administration’s handling of worries about the fall semester.
“The administration's response to students’ valid concerns has been really disrespectful,” he said. “To say the least, I wanted to take a stand against it and represent my classmates who are some of the most amazing, motivated people I've met in my life.”
The Law School administration did address tuition concerns on its website, noting that it already canceled its expected tuition increase, but that cutting tuition is a University-level decision.
Barkhordar’s complaint marks the second multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against Harvard for its online educational experience during the pandemic. Several other Ivy League schools, including Brown, Columbia, and Cornell, face similar class action lawsuits for tuition reimbursements.
LeElle B. Slifer, a Law School graduate and another attorney for Barkhordar, said she understands the difficult decisions and financial situation Harvard faces due to the pandemic but ultimately agrees that students should not pay for on-campus benefits they are not receiving.
“Harvard is being incredibly tone-deaf right now, and it's basically trying to profit off of these 18 and 20-something-year-olds, and that's just not fair,” she said. “We're just trying to get what's fair for the students who are taking out loans in their name.”