The Plaintiffs’ Law Association at Harvard Law School hosted a forum Wednesday discussing a class action lawsuit filed against Harvard in late June over partial reimbursement of tuition for the online spring semester.
Law School student Abraham Barkhordar filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts on June 22, demanding the University proportionally refund tuition to all students for the online spring semester and for any future online academic terms. The suit argues the damages caused by a virtual semester exceed $5 million.
The lawsuit alleges the online semester’s lack of in-person access and collaborative learning environment did not meet the quality of education students when they agreed to pay for their education.
The forum, which was titled “Suing Harvard: A Look at Plaintiff’s Side Class Action Litigation,” featured Barkhordar and two lawyers from the firm representing him, Warren T. Burns and LeElle B. Slifer. William A. Greenlaw ’17, the co-founder and co-president of the Plaintiffs’ Law Association, moderated the forum.
Barkhordar said students missed “small interactions” — such as meeting a friend in a study room or interacting with Harvard professors — and the “wonderful in-person experience that generations of Harvard lawyers” have had when classes were moved online.
Slifer questioned Harvard’s decision not to use its endowment to level unforeseen financial challenges the University faces instead of maintaining its tuition price.
"They are sitting on a very sizable endowment,” she said. “That should be the thing that they use on a rainy day, and if a global pandemic isn't a rainy day to dip into and help out students, I'm not sure what is.”
Law School Dean of Administration Matt Gruber wrote in a June statement on the school’s website that the Law school’s “financial picture will only become more dire” in the next fiscal year. Tuition makes up 42 percent of the Law School’s revenue.
“We expect that projected tuition revenues will fall as a result, in part, of our decision to forgo the planned rate increase,” the statement reads. “This coming year will again produce other significant shortfalls in revenue, including, among other things, substantial reductions in the University’s payout on the endowment and in dormitory revenue, as public health concerns will require us to keep more than three-quarters of our rooms unoccupied.”
“We will offset some of these revenue shortfalls by continuing to reduce operating expenses and travel, and by taking other actions such as eliminating salary increases for faculty and exempt staff. Among major categories of spending, only financial aid and LIPP are expected to increase next year,” Gruber wrote in the statement.
At the event, Barkhordar called the decision to freeze tuition instead of increasing it by the annual designated percentage “garbage.”
“Other schools like Princeton are doing 10 percent off in addition to not raising tuition,” he said. “It’s the absolute bare minimum.”
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal and University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on pending litigation.
Though the event was hosted by the Plaintiffs’ Law Association and Barkhordar is the co-founder and co-president of the association, Greenlaw noted the speakers’ viewers are their own. He framed the event as a “robust discussion” about the experience of filing a class action lawsuit and for “what it’s like handling this litigation.”
Burns, who is one of Barkhordar’s attorneys, described class action lawsuits as rooted in pursuing goals broader than one individual.
“Fundamentally, it comes down to class representatives, plaintiffs, and attorneys who are willing to take the risk of trying to get something done for a broader group than just themselves,” Burns said. “I think it’s more than appropriate to congratulate, celebrate Abe a little bit today because he is someone who has stepped into that role.”
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.