As I got ready for my morning run today, I thought about how I might maintain a safe distance from others who happened to be outside—wasted effort, as it turned out. The banks of the Charles were almost empty, and I had the chance to do some serious thinking. Running is one of the few times I am alone with my thoughts. It is when I think hard about big problems, when I compose my speeches, and when I think about what I want to say in messages like this. Today, I decided that I just want to say, “thank you.”
The scope and scale of recent events is almost inconceivable. It is difficult to believe that just last week we announced our plans to relocate students off campus. Eight days later, we have very few students left in residence. Teaching has moved entirely online for the remainder of the semester. Small and large gatherings have been cancelled or postponed, and almost all offices have been cleared out for the foreseeable future. All of these efforts required a huge amount of planning, decision-making, work, and understanding by everyone. Students had their lives turned upside down as they quickly packed up; said their hurried and, in some cases, tearful goodbyes; and tried to make plans to return home, if they could, with the help of many staff under very trying circumstances. Parents also had to scurry to help bring their kids home and are now adjusting to having their Harvard students once again living and learning in close proximity. Over the past week, I witnessed countless acts of kindness as students helped other students, volunteers assisted with the move, and alumni chipped in and offered students who cannot work from home a place to sit while they take classes remotely.
You have also had your lives turned upside down. Faculty have had to move all of their teaching online, quickly reconfiguring their courses while mastering new technology. They have also had to figure out how to keep their research programs moving forward in an environment where they can no longer routinely access their laboratories, our libraries, and other scholarly resources necessary to do their work. Staff have put in long days—and long nights—to make sweeping change in almost every area of the University possible. Meanwhile, individuals in our biomedical community are working nonstop with partners near and far to develop rapid diagnostics, vaccines, and treatment options for the coronavirus, and healthcare providers at our teaching hospitals have begun to confront the realities of the pandemic on the frontlines. In the background, children who are no longer in school are making our Zoom meetings some of the most entertaining meetings in University history. It is truly remarkable, given all this, that we are still moving along smoothly.
At times like this the world looks to Harvard for leadership, intellectual and otherwise. Your good work—done efficiently and quickly—has emboldened leaders throughout higher education to act decisively, creating ripples that, with any luck, will inspire bold action in other sectors across the country. I recently joined the presidents of MIT and Stanford in calling on more communities to adopt some of the measures you helped to speed at Harvard. Any success that results from our appeal will be yours to celebrate when we finally have a moment to pause and reflect as a community on everything that has happened.
For now, please accept my deepest thanks. Over the course of my career in higher education, I have never seen such a magnificent display of intensity and persistence as I have seen at Harvard over these past few weeks, and I have never been prouder to be a member of our community. The only thing that outshines your efforts is the decency, humility, and kindness with which they were undertaken.
The Talmud says that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world. When the situation we find ourselves in has passed, there will be no way to calculate the number of lives your actions have saved. It was the thought of that unknowable figure—undoubtedly growing greater by the day—that gave me reason to keep moving forward this morning. May it quicken all our steps in the weeks and months to come.
To each of you, thank you for your good work, your caring, your understanding, and your patience. Together we will meet this challenge.