Podcast Transcript: Is Harvard’s Approach the Best COVID Compromise? Interview with James Mathew

James Mathew

Summary: Harvard University Student Body President James Mathew explains to Daniel Barwick why he believes Harvard’s fall plan hits the sweet spot between safety and campus experience.

Dan:     James Mathew is entering his senior year at Harvard University and is the Harvard University student body president. Originally from the greater Chicago area, he is an entrepreneur, policy researcher, and creative thinker with a consistent focus on effecting social change. He is the co-founder of Got Food?, a mobile application that assists food insecure populations in locating nearby food availability sites across 27 States. He has interned at the National Minority Quality Forum and within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focusing on minority health outcomes and disparities. Currently, he is a fellow of Converse Incorporated, helping to develop and launch a social impact program aimed at global youth. You can follow James on Instagram @JamesAMathew. James, welcome to the podcast.

James:  Hi, Dan. Great to be with you.

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Dan: I’d like to begin by asking, what was the spring semester like for you and your friends?

James: It was challenging. Obviously it was like nothing that any of us expected. It was very disappointing to leave campus and leave what is our normal social reality there to come back to our homes. And in many senses, at least I know for me personally, almost regress into a sort of high school mode of living prior to even leaving for college. So it was it’s been an adjustment for sure.

Dan: What does your work as president of the student body at Harvard University involve, and how has COVID-19 affected that work?

James: Essentially, for us, student government serves as a liaison between the student body and the administration. So for me being the president of that student government, I essentially am the primary spokesperson of the student body. So a lot of the work involves communicating with the student body, you know, putting out surveys to understand their needs and what they would like to see from the administration, and then relaying those needs in the meetings that I’m able to get with those administrative members. In addition, there’s a considerable amount of projects that we run as a student government. Basically, we have funding that we’re able to dedicate to students and dedicate on initiatives that we feel could improve our campus. And so that’s another component of work that I oversee, but to speak to your point about the effect of COVID-19, it’s inherently made our work much more reactive than ever before. Last fall, when we ran on a platform with all these different ideas for what we wanted to implement on campus. We came in very hopeful and with plenty of these large goals, and then, of course, something like COVID happens. And all of a sudden, it’s not about these ideas that we ran on. It’s now just making sure that students are supported in some of the most vulnerable periods of their lives. And so it’s been a lot more of just advocating for where the need is rather than us executing previously planned projects.

Dan:     My understanding of Harvard’s current plan for fall is to hold all undergraduate classes online, and to only allow about 40% of students the option to live on campus over the next academic year, with freshmen returning in the fall, and then seniors having the opportunity to live on campus in the spring. I guess that would include you. Can you flesh out the details of that for us? And also, you’re welcome to correct me if I got any of that wrong.

James:  No, you’re correct. I can definitely provide a bit of context. Prior to that decision being made, we received guidance from the college that three options were being considered. There was a low-density model in which only students who communicated a significant need to be on campus for the fall would be allowed to come. It was the same model that had been implemented this past spring. There were still students that stayed on campus because, for some reason, they really needed to be there. There was the medium-density option, which was this 40% option that ultimately was chosen. And there was the high-density, which was essentially exploring if it was at all feasible for the entire student body to return to campus. So ultimately the intermediate choice was made to bring 40% of students, and how they chose to do that was by just guaranteeing one class campus housing, one natural cohort as they called it the freshman class, and then leave the remaining room there for students who for some academic reason needed to be on campus. So they basically opened it up for students to appeal for campus housing, if they felt like there was a learning environment issue for them at home that would impede their learning for the semester.

Dan: Did the student government participate in the creation of this plan, or has it taken a position on the plan?

James:  We did not participate actively in the creation. We were able to interface with our college administration, but a lot of this decision-making was happening at a very high university level, even higher than some of the deans of the Harvard College that we normally interact with as a student government leader. We were involved in the creation of the plan when we were provided with those three options; we did take a position in favor of the 40% option that was chosen. So we did get to use our voice a bit there. But we were not directly involved in the crafting.

Dan: Well, I’m glad that you were able to share a position with the university before they officially adopted it. Was that discussion among the students contentious? Was there a consensus on that option? I’m just wondering how close the vote was?

James:  You know, I think the majority of students did appreciate this decision; I think everyone knew that a full return to campus was very unlikely. It was not something we were seeing really at any other institution, at least our peer institutions. And it was something that, you know, raised a lot of red flags from a health and safety standpoint. At the same time, the low-density option as we had in the spring was, of course, not something that students enjoyed. And so I think this option here to allow some portion of our student body to return to campus and for us as a college to learn what our capacity was this fall, and see how we’re able to handle the different restrictions and health procedures, and hopefully then have that hopefully have a successful fall inform our plans for the spring, ideally to bring more students back, but they are holding off on that decision just because there’s so many between now.

Dan:     I’m just curious with the freshmen returning in the fall, what is the actual procedure for them returning? Is there some sort of time period in which they have to isolate, or is there some sort of way of temporarily halting the class experience while everyone’s health is determined after they arrive?

James:  Even starting with the move-in procedure, they are already taking precautions. Typically, there would be one move-in day for the entire class for this year. This first year of class, they are providing a range of dates about a week where different members of the class will be assigned a given date. So they’re spreading out that move-in so that it’s not as condensed. That’s kind of the first step they’re taking for health concerns. And then, yes, students will be tested upon reaching campus, and regular testing will actually continue throughout the entire time that they’re on campus. And it will be quite rigorous. There are going to be several restrictions on the buildings that each student is able to use, the dining halls they’re able to access, where they can go around campus, certainly where they can go beyond campus. That will be very limited. So there are a number of measures in place that frankly speaking make you wonder just, you know, how exciting it’s going to be to even be on campus. Of course, students love that in theory, but I think more and more as we’re seeing what it means to be on campus during COVID-19, it doesn’t sound all that great.

Dan: What kinds of additional support is Harvard offering to students, both for students living on campus and for all its undergraduate students that are faced with learning remotely for the foreseeable future? Because under this plan, most would be learning remotely, and I’m not sure what sorts of support that Harvard plans to offer for those students to make their Harvard experience as good as possible.

James:  So there are a couple initiatives that come to mind. The first one I referenced before, but want to reiterate what they called a learning environment questionnaire. And this is something that they disseminated to the student body as soon as the decision came out, inviting students with challenging circumstances at home to apply for campus housing, whether that was issues with WIFI or just in stable households, you know, just challenging family members, just you know, whatever the range of circumstance might be. There was that questionnaire that they sent out inviting students to appeal if they felt like they needed it.

Beyond that, there have been some areas where students have tried to work as a student government, I’ve tried to advocate and not been as successful. Tuition is an area that comes to mind. Students were quite upset to see no reduction in tuition, particularly looking at some other peer institutions of ours who had granted their students a reduction. So that’s been an area where I can say support has not been great, or certainly not what we wanted.

I will name an initiative called “Harvard Everywhere.” That was just announced by the college, and the idea of this college-wide program is to reinvent co-curricular resources and support in the current virtual time, recognizing that the majority of our student body is not in Cambridge, Massachusetts as usual. How can we bring Harvard everywhere? You know, kind of bring Harvard to students wherever they are located in the world. And so that currently looks like eight distinct workstreams around different areas from the academic engagement to the housing system, to health and wellness, the arts, athletics, these different groups of faculty, administration, and students now to basically brainstorm how programming can be tailored to our new reality, and essentially how connection and community can still be fostered in these unprecedented circumstances.

Dan:     You know, something occurs to me. I know that you do probably get regular feedback from students at Harvard. And in fact, Harvard made the announcement about this approach several weeks ago, during which time the pandemic across the country has undoubtedly worsened. I’m just wondering, have you noticed any shift in the enthusiasm for this plan among, for example, the students who would be expected to return to campus?

James:  I know that there are some concerns. I can speak quite personally; actually, my younger brother is an incoming first-year student at the college. And so I know even among my parents, they were excited to see that his first-year fall experience would be saved in some capacity. But now as we’ve seen the rates of cases increasing, I know that they are a bit worried about that. But what I will say is Harvard, compared to several of its peers, took a more conservative approach by only guaranteeing campus housing for one of their classes – many others guaranteed to some even three. And I think that that conservative approach that Harvard took, particularly seeing the climate now of worsening COVID, I think is going to prove to be quite a smart one.

Dan:     Are there any other issues that you would say concern Harvard students at this point?

James:  You know, there are a couple; one of them is the idea of maintaining a sense of community. I know that one thing we saw last semester, when students were forced off of campus, was just a slight worsening in mental health. And when we were talking to students and collecting some data, we just saw social connection as a reason, and, and likely a cause of, some of those worsening measures. And, I think students are wondering how, particularly for members of the sophomore and junior classes, where potentially they could be off of campus for a full school year, I know students miss their friends, miss their communities on campus. And so that is a large concern. Another one is around grading. In the spring, when the school became virtual, grading policy was changed from its normal letter system to that of a satisfactory/unsatisfactory model, pass/fail, essentially. The idea there was to recognize that students were going to be facing some challenging circumstances and that when in their homes, many students would not be able to perform to their full academic potential. Now, the issue with this semester that has several students concerned is the return to the normal grading policy of letter grades, but for many students, not a return to campus. So kind of the same homes that they’re in, potentially the same circumstances that were considered and weighed into the decision in the spring, and yet not the same grading policy to protect them this fall. And so I know students are concerned about that, mainly.

Dan: I know that the situation is a fluid one, and I know that you can’t know the future. I’m curious, though, if students see this plan as one that will be durable as we go through this process. Let me give you a little explanation of the background of that question. In my last podcast, I had two faculty members from Penn State on, who openly described Penn State’s plans as a charade; that everyone sort of was taking for granted that when students returned in the fall, that there would be some period in which presumably infection would spread, and that ultimately the school would have to just revert to entirely online instruction and send everyone home. And so they regarded the return of students as a bit of a bit of a charade, in the sense that everyone felt that the ultimate outcome was inevitable. When I describe that to you, what do you think of? How would you compare their view to how you see where Harvard will go?

James:  Good question. You know, I think that genuinely there is still a significant amount of consideration that is being happening, at least at Harvard. You know, what I’ve found is that when they’ve said that they’re uncertain about the decision that they’re going to take prior to announcing the fall, or even now when they say they’re truly uncertain and unable to say what they’re going to be doing for the spring, just from the conversations I’ve had, it seems very genuine. It doesn’t seem like an act at all. It truly seems like they’re just trying to get the most updated information on the public health climate, right at the moment that they must make the decision just to best inform how to lead and create the safest environment on campus. And so, like I alluded to before, I do think that Harvard’s approach of playing it a bit on the safer side was a smart one because I think that it’s more feasible, especially as cases are worsening and I guess cases are rising. I think that the plan was a good one and other schools might be forced to change the plans that they came out with, I think, quicker than Harvard will have to change theirs again, just because they were a bit conservative to begin with.

Dan:     James, your extracurricular work revolves around food assistance, minority health outcomes, and other disparities. How has this work shaped your view of the pandemic or, put another way, how has the pandemic shaped your view of your work?

James:  It’s a great question. I think it’s in moments like these that we take greater notice of the disparities, both socioeconomic and racial, in health, that exists really all the time, but are just simply exaggerated during a pandemic. And so, you know, I think many have taken note. I know there’s a good amount of scholarship being produced on this, talking about the way in which COVID-19 has affected certain communities disproportionately, but it certainly has provided a real-life exercise, you know, almost a real-life learning environment, for some things that I would otherwise be looking at in a classroom. It kind of takes things out of hypotheticals or even theoretical work, and just makes it very, very real, and tangible to be in a circumstance where disparities are rampant.

Dan: My guest has been James Mathew, who is entering his senior year at Harvard University and is the Harvard University student body president originally from the greater Chicago area. He is an entrepreneur policy researcher and creative thinker with a consistent focus on effecting social change. You can follow James on Instagram @JamesAMathew. Thanks very much for being with me today. I really enjoyed our conversation. Good luck this semester.

James:  Thank you so much. Happy to be here.