Documents from a lawsuit Harvard and MIT filed against immigration authorities on Wednesday reveal new details about the reasons behind the decision to continue instruction in an online-only format with just 40 percent of undergraduates back on campus in the fall.
Harvard announced the plan just before Immigration and Customs Enforcement released new rules — now challenged by the suit — that bar international students who take online-only courses in the fall from receiving visas or residing in the country.
University Provost Alan. M Garber ’76 wrote in a court declaration that his training as a physician helped in his advisory role for Harvard's decision, which he wrote was “made with the dual objectives of providing the best possible education to Harvard’s students while limiting the spread of COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff.”
Garber, who declared he will testify to these matters if asked, explained that Harvard decided its plan to continue remote learning was the only “feasible” solution.
For example, he noted that the median age of Harvard’s faculty is over the age of 60, meaning they could be at higher risk for complications from the novel coronavirus. He also added that many staff members — including those in close contact with students like dining hall workers — could be at increased risk because they “live in communities where the rates of complication from infection of COVID-19 are highest.”
In the declaration, Garber also focused on the “difficult — if not impossible” logistics of halting the spread of the virus in lecture halls and classrooms.
“With respect to classrooms, we determined that it would be costly and time-prohibitive to install the necessary ventilation systems to prevent the spread of the virus, or to otherwise configure most classrooms to ensure safe distancing,” Garber wrote.
He also revealed that Harvard concluded it could only provide “quarantine and isolation capacity, with limited social distancing,” to 40 percent of undergraduates, and that it could likely not “prevent students from deviating from practices known to reduce the spread of COVID-19” — like wearing masks and social distancing — at a normal density.
Though the resulting move to conduct online-only instruction has since put the University’s international students in jeopardy, Garber wrote that administrators thought they were acting in the best interest of international students when they made their plans.
Garber noted the plans were informed by what administrators assumed would remain the federal guidance: on March 13, ICE issued an exemption that allowed students to remain in the country even if they were completing only online courses. At the time, the exception was said to be “in effect for the duration of the emergency.”
“Because a significant portion of Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate student community is comprised of international students, the ability of students who hold nonimmigrant student visas to continue their education at Harvard also played a key role in our decision-making process,” Garber wrote.
Since finding out about the change in federal policy on Monday, Harvard has not altered its fall plans. But with immediate condemnation from University President Lawrence S. Bacow and a lawsuit filed against ICE on Wednesday, administrators have made it clear that they malign the move.
Vice Provost for International Affairs Mark C. Elliott wrote in his declaration for the lawsuit that the guidelines could cause significantly fewer international students to enroll at the University, which he wrote is detrimental to Harvard.
“Harvard and its students benefit enormously from the participation of international students,” he wrote. “Indeed, many of Harvard’s curricular programs depend critically on the presence and diversity of international students.”
He pointed out that approximately 47 percent of Harvard Kennedy School students are international students, which he wrote brings “unique viewpoints about different approaches to governance and policy.”
The University will be financially harmed if international students do not enroll, Elliott added. Nearly 50 percent of Harvard Graduate School of Design is international, so “losing the tuition of even a portion of those students would be significant to GSD.”
Elliott also wrote about some of the potential challenges international students may face if they cannot return to campus, such as being drafted into their home country’s armed forces, abuse based on their sexual orientation, inadequate mental health resources, excessive costs, unreliable internet access, and time zone differences.
He also noted that while offering hybrid classes affords domestic students the ability to choose if they will expose themselves to COVID-19, they do not afford an equal choice to international students.
“Although a hybrid program might allow domestic students to select only online courses if they have health conditions that place them at a greater risk (or simply want to avoid the greater risk of infection that in-person instruction imposes), under the July 6 Directive, F-1 students are denied this agency,” Elliott wrote.
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