When an institution changes its mind: Harvard alumni edition

Harvard University and most other large institutions don’t reverse decisions very often, which is what makes this story worth telling. Earlier this year, the Harvard Alumni Association announced that it was ending a popular service with alumni who graduated in 2021 or earlier: an email forwarding address on the @harvard.edu domain. Here’s the message I received in September:

harvard alumni email forwarding

The unsigned message went on to say that “alumni email forwarding was introduced in the 1990s and no longer functions well with most email service providers,” noting issues with spam filtering and delivery that the HAA is unable to resolve. We were advised to let  all of our contacts and services that still used the forwarding addresses to change them to another email address before our post.harvard.edu or alumni.harvard.edu accounts were switched off.

There was understandable alarm and frustration in the alumni community. Some people really depended on the email forwarding address to stay constant even as they switched jobs or ISP domains. Switching is no small task, either. For alumni who use the email forwarding accounts, myself included, it’s a chore to figure out which services use the EFL and then switch them over to a permanent address. Alerting classmates and friends is also inconvenient, and hoping that they will update their address books is unrealistic.

A few weeks ago, we got another message from the HAA, this time from the outgoing director, Philip Lovejoy:

As I have often said, Harvard alumni and volunteers are the heart of our community—and your voices are critical to so much of our work. In recent weeks, we have listened carefully to thoughtful feedback from many alumni and volunteers about our plan and have decided not to move forward with the discontinuation of Harvard’s alumni email forwarding service. You will be able to use your email forwarding address as you have been doing previously and beyond December 1.

He noted that the technical issues that had precipitated the original decision were still unresolved, and we alumni should be aware of these challenges and take appropriate action. Alumni can find out more about these concerns and make changes to their account (such as updating the destination address) on the HAA website email forwarding page after logging on.

But the fact that Harvard changed its mind on this matter in response to feedback was a breath of fresh air. Some alumni activists praised the HAA in the Crimson:

Sally J. Wolf ’97, who worked with Huang to protest the deactivation, said she was “pleasantly surprised” the University quickly changed course. Still, she acknowledged functionality issues associated with the forwarding services and said further change is needed.

“They were reneging on a promise that they made with words like ‘lifelong’ and ‘permanence,’” Wolf said. “I am hopeful that going forward, that we can all collaborate — that we, the alum, some representation of alumni voices, can collaborate with the HAA and the school to co-create a solution that is ideal and also one that feels fully inclusive.”

Petition co-creator Chris J. Nicholson ’97 called the original decision to deactivate an “unfortunate misunderstanding.”

“It’s to [the HAA’s] credit that they recognized that this was an error and moved kind of quickly to reassure alumni that it will be fixed,” Nicholson said.

Now, if the University would only get moving on the Extension Studies issue