The Harvard Kennedy School’s Class of 2022 is set to graduate in May, but some students don’t want to leave — at least not yet.
Members of the two-year degree programs at HKS said the virtual 2020-2021 school year and this year’s reduced in-person programming left them with an inadequate HKS experience. Since October, more than 160 members of the Class of 2022 have signed a petition for an additional “flex” semester.
HKS offered the Class of 2021 a flex semester option, which allowed graduated students to return to the Kennedy School for classes last fall and spend additional time with their classmates. Current students, who also spent time at HKS learning remotely, are calling for the school to extend a similar option this year.
“We spent a full year — and more than that really — in online learning, which made it a lot harder for us to build social connections, build connections with our professors and other faculty and staff here at the Kennedy School, attend events, and just really get the most out of our education,” said Peter T. Skopec, a second-year Master of Public Policy student.
During negotiations with student representatives that took place last fall, the Kennedy School administration rejected the request for a flex semester.
“We will not be offering members of the Class of 2022 a Flex Semester opportunity,” HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote in an email sent to student government leaders in December.
But Harvard’s decision to go remote during the January term amid the Omicron surge led to an increase in student support for a flex semester, according to Arielle R. Exner, executive vice president of the HKS student government.
Exner pointed out the Class of 2022 has now spent even more time online than the Class of 2021, which was offered the flex semester.
Despite growing student support for the option, Exner offered a gloomy assessment of the state of talks between students and HKS administrators since the December exchange.
“Currently, the negotiations are pretty much nonexistent,” she said in an interview Monday.
HKS spokesperson James F. Smith wrote in a statement that the Kennedy School granted a flex semester to the Class of 2021 “as a one-time accommodation because they confronted a sudden and unexpected shift to virtual learning when the pandemic hit.” He cited “the broadest range of student needs” as a reason to return to “normal academic scheduling.”
The high number of HKS students during the fall semester was challenging for some faculty members, according to HKS professor Kathryn A. Sikkink.
“For some of us, it was difficult to deliver the high quality of teaching that we expect here at the Harvard Kennedy School with an unexpectedly large group of students,” Sikkink said.
In the Dec. 6 email, Elmendorf said “the negative impact of granting this option, on the Kennedy School and on future students” was the reason for denying students a flex semester.
“It's sad to think that our presence on campus for another semester is seen as the burden,” Skopec said.
Nadezda “Nadya” Yusyuz, a second-year Master in Public Administration student, said she was “very frustrated” Dean Elmendorf used the presence of the Class of 2021 on campus during the fall as a reason to deny her class a flex semester.
“It means that our experience was even worse — even in the view of the dean,” she said.
Exner conceded it was unlikely a flex semester would be granted this late into the spring, explaining it would pose challenges for students and the school.
Exner said she is now focused on negotiating with the administration about “alternatives” that would benefit students, such as extending HKS resources to students after their graduation, increasing social gatherings, or providing financial assistance.
“It shouldn’t always be on student government and other students to bring solutions to problems,” Exner said. “And that consistently has been the case.”
“I would really love to see the administration come to us with some options and some solutions to discuss and consider,” she added.
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.