Does Harvard’s Announcement Signal “The End of the World”?

“Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world.”

So said the late Archie Epps (1937 – 2003), Doctor of Divinity and longtime, much-beloved Dean of Students at Harvard.

Well… Harvard is closing.

So is this really the end of the world?

In a way, yes. Yes, it is.

Lots to discuss, so let’s dig in!

I knew Dean Epps. He came to Harvard in the 1960s by way of Talladega College in Alabama, a “historically black college,” as the saying goes. Trained as a clergyman, Archie was engaging, witty, a gentleman and delightful fellow with a deep well of both Biblical and Harvard history inside his head.

His quip about the rarity of Harvard ever closing its doors was exactly on point. Founded in 1636, the sturdy old institution has survived wars, earthquakes, fires, floods, panics and plagues. Only the most serious disasters even begin to faze the place.

I was in Cambridge at one rare time when Harvard actually took a single day off, during the historic blizzard of 1978. Before that, the university had not closed since the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Harvard even stayed open during the notorious Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.

But Harvard recently — and abruptly — announced that it will close its campus due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Students were summarily told via email to pack up and leave within the week. Classes will continue online, as best as may be possible.

There’s a domino effect here. Other American flagship research universities, such as Stanford, MIT, Columbia, Berkeley and more, are following suit.

And with Harvard and others now closing doors and going online, we’re seeing a tectonic change in the country’s structure for higher education.

In other words, online education is now truly happening in academe. Within the next few weeks, as many as 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities will all but throttle the old and venerable residential learning model.

Face-to-face university teaching at mass-scale is over, at least for the duration of the current virus crisis; and likely much longer I suspect.

Spurred by the pandemic, American higher education has made a profound, multibillion-dollar, future-shaping institutional move.

Over many decades, American universities of all stripes created expensive cost and pricing structures. They built many expensive buildings and filled them with well-paid deans and administrators.

As a result, tuition at nearly all colleges and universities has long risen far faster than the rate of inflation. Student debt, of course, is a trillion-dollar national issue. And some might even call the higher education industry a “racket.”

Now, suddenly… schools are kicking their students — aka customers — off-campus to take classes online.

But much as Wuhan virus has begun to pop financial bubbles across the globe, it is now about to pop the academic bubble. When the current panic has passed, academe and its financial and social model will not be the same.

“The decision (to close campus) was not made lightly,” Harvard President Larry Bacow wrote to students, faculty and staff. “The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity to each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings.”

In other words, closing Harvard (and by extension, other schools that also close across the country) and shifting classes online fulfills two crisis management goals.

First, it eliminates many high-risk opportunities for mass infection. The student body will go home, or at least go somewhere else. If large numbers of people are not in proximity, they will not infect each other. At least, not on Harvard’s real estate.

Second, the closure reinforces the public health concept of “social distancing.” Closing shop keeps people from engaging in activities that require close contact with one another over time.

The idea is to prevent any outbreak from spiraling out of control, which makes sense. But it also represents a dramatic shift in how Harvard operates.

“The last time (Harvard) had to pivot our operations so significantly,” noted the Harvard Business School dean, “was in the 1940s, against the backdrop of World War II, when the school’s campus was turned over to military training.”

Harvard really had no choice back then, either. Class sizes were dropping due to the war, so U.S. colleges and universities transitioned into training centers for military personnel or sites for military-related research.

Colleges and universities underwent profound social and cultural changes during the war as well. For example, the late Marlon Billings, a professor of geology at Harvard, once explained to me how before the war, he’d teach a geology class to men at Harvard. Then he’d walk up the street to teach the same class to women at Radcliffe.

“When the war started,” said Billings, “we didn’t have time to teach the same class twice. It was silly, really. So we just brought the men and women together into one room to teach the class once. Then we’d go work on wartime duties. That was how Harvard first began to go coed.”

Of course, when World War II ended, so did use of campuses for extensive military training. But along came a new wave of students. Returning soldiers and sailors had the “GI Bill” to pay for an education. So they enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, fulfilling years of pent-up demand to finish school and move along into post-war life.

Apparently, Harvard thinks its response to the Wuhan virus won’t last nearly as long as World War II; that its current pivot will prove temporary. Send students home… have them learn online… then once the threat is over in a few weeks — maybe months — things will return to some semblance of “normal.”

That’s not how I see it playing out… “Normal” is history.

I’ve taken online courses at several universities. In fact, much of the course work for my degree from the U.S. Naval War College was online, with just a few sessions onboard the actual institution in Newport, Rhode Island.

In my experience, online teaching and learning can still be personal. But the outcome requires a different style of cooperation between faculty and students. As a commenter noted recently in the Boston Globe, online work requires “training, practice, acclimatization and tolerance for disruption. It isn’t done overnight for a few weeks followed by an equally sudden re-transition transition back to the traditional classroom.”

In other words, closing campuses is a shock. And transitioning to online classes is another shock. And trying to come back to the old ways will be still another shock, when and if we get there.

Now, consider the selectivity and high expense of top-tier schools like Harvard and others. People do not attend Harvard — or Stanford, MIT, Columbia, Berkeley and more — simply to learn stuff.

After all, these days you can learn a lot of math, economics, history, chemistry, etc. just by borrowing books for free from your local public library, supplemented by YouTube. Indeed, no less than Isaac Newton figured out the theory of gravity while he was on leave from Oxford, when the school was closed due to… yes… plague.

Instead, people attend Harvard, and other such schools, for the companionship of students, faculty and staff. There are various intangibles as well, like the general ambience of stately libraries and lecture halls, pathways past historic old buildings, or even rowing on the nearby river or running up and down the steps over at the football stadium.

In essence, one attends a “selective” school to soak it all in and rub elbows. But now, rubbing someone else’s elbow might make you very sick.

Yet by going off campus and online — even for a few months — universities across the land are rebranding, and perhaps not in a way they might have intended.

At Harvard, the administration is saying that a student can do “Harvard” without really “doing” Harvard. Just watch the professor online. Watch, perhaps, from your parents’ basement, or maybe even from the parking lot at McDonalds where you can crib Wi-Fi. There’s your Harvard education. Really? Seriously? Why not just buy a sweatshirt?

Okay… I get the virus issue. Safety. Prudence. Declarations of emergency. Public health.

But at the same time, something is dying off right in front of us. Universities are tossing the face-to-face angle of learning literally out the front door. And they are destroying the value-proposition that supports those high tuition rates and administrative fees. After kids clear out of the dorm rooms and move off campus, the magic and prestige of many places will soon be gone.

When this virus pandemic has passed — and doubtless, sooner or later it will pass — much will have been lost. Among the losses will be certain key myths supporting U.S. higher education. For many institutions, the “prestige” of the name comes from offering proximity to people and places. So what happens when the kid from Harvard is doing online homework next to a kid from State U, and both are sitting at the same table at McDonalds?

People who run higher education had better ponder this  quandary during the free time they’re about to have.

The way we do things in America — at universities and elsewhere — is about to be forever changed. Per the late Archie Epps, sometimes an act of God really is harbinger to the end of the world.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

P.S. – Feel free to forward Whiskey & Gunpowder to friends, family and colleagues. If you received this article from someone and would like to subscribe, click here.  Thank you.

You May Also Be Interested In:

Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

This “old rock hound” uses his expertise and connections in global resource industries to bring...

View More By Byron King