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Letters | The View from Mass Hall

Beginning Again

September-October 2018

Lawrence S. Bacow


Lawrence S. Bacow

It was the summer of 1972, and I had one question on my mind: Will I fit in? I was twenty years old and about to begin a graduate degree program in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. As the first day of classes approached, I wondered about what I would discover in a new place with new people, confronted by new challenges and opportunities.

I found a truly extraordinary experience. My fellow students—two dozen remarkable men and women from across the country—had a wide range of experiences and viewpoints, and they taught me at least as much as the faculty members who offered us a veritable intellectual feast. Tom Schelling and a group of colleagues he memorably described as “distinguished misfits”—Francis Bator, Philip Heymann, Fred Mosteller, Dick Neustadt, and Howard Raiffa—challenged us not just to learn but also to lead, and a fabulous group of younger faculty such as Graham Allison, Mark Moore, David Mundel, and Dick Zeckhauser brought to the classroom inspiring ambition and energy. Every day was spent in the presence of greatness, and it was absolutely thrilling.

Forty-six years later, I can still remember the view from Littauer Center. We looked out over Massachusetts Avenue where Harvard Yard meets Harvard Square, a busy thoroughfare bustling night and day with pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. Room 220 is not a classroom anymore—today it’s the office of economist and Nobel laureate Oliver Hart—but it still reminds me of my earliest days on campus. It was not always easy. My classmates and my teachers tested me in more ways than I could have imagined, but the moments in which I struggled the most often led to the most dramatic personal growth. Harvard made me better, and I hope every student in every program today will find his or her time here as rich and as stimulating as I found mine.

Why do I share my story with you? Since the announcement in February of my election as president, I have been reading histories of Harvard. It’s a peculiar genre. It runs the gamut from prosaic recitations of facts to poetic explorations of values. But there is a single thread that runs through it and through my own experience as well. Harvard changes in looks but not in spirit; its vibrancy remains. The University evolves for the sake of its mission, driving the support of excellence, the provision of opportunity, and the pursuit of truth to the great benefit of all people.

Our work today is a continuation of nearly four hundred years of concentrated effort to improve. What more can we learn? What more can we do? What more can we contribute? These questions must guide us as we seek to do more good for more people across the nation and around the world. I trust that you will join me—and your fellow alumni and friends everywhere—in considering these questions and in reaffirming the tremendous and lasting value of our University.

As I look ahead to my freshman year as president, I am filled with hope. There is no place I would rather be at this moment of enormous consequence for colleges and universities. I could not have asked for a better chance to express my gratitude to Harvard and my confidence in American higher education than the one I have been given. Let’s begin.