The Upside

President Bacow remains positive despite the pandemic.

Portrait of Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow

Lawrence S. BacowPhotograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Not all leaders maintain a positive worldview, but many do, motivating themselves to do their hard work, and encouraging those they lead to engage and enlist their own energies. In the midst of a pandemic emergency that has upset essentially every assumption about how residential research universities can fulfill their missions (and made it much harder to pay the bills), President Lawrence S. Bacow has remained imperturbable. Although acknowledging over the summer that he had never worked harder during his four-plus decades in elite higher education, during a telephone conversation last week he spoke optimistically about Harvard now, during the crisis, and in the future. Highlights follow.

The fall semester. Bacow said that both last March, when Harvard made the early decision to disperse students from campus as the pandemic intensified, and on July 6, when the College announced that no more than 40 percent of undergraduates could be in residence this term, “People thought we were being too conservative.” The College aimed to have one student per bedroom, fully remote instruction, and the highest-frequency virus-testing regime of any university (three times weekly for resident students). As peer institutions announced plans to bring students back to campus for the new academic year, the University was criticized for timidity—but it was able to stick with its program as Penn, Princeton, and other schools had to pivot quickly away from most, or all, residential education. At that point, he continued, Harvard’s decision was criticized, internally and from outside, as “too aggressive—why are we bringing anybody back?”

In the event, the decisions he made, Bacow said, were “guided by a set of principles all along,” beginning with putting public health first, while recognizing that it is much easier to begin conservatively than to make aggressive plans (for repopulating the campus, for instance), only to have to roll them back—potentially on short notice. “I think it’s been a good policy,” he said.

“We’ve done really, really well in controlling the spread” of the virus, he said—with only nine cases among undergraduates, for instance, and none in the past three weeks.

Lessons learned. Those plans depended, importantly, on community members’ compliance with University standards for social-distancing, masking, and so on, and on the University’s ability to achieve its testing and tracing goals.

“Our students have done a remarkably good job of largely complying,” Bacow said, with only occasional slip-ups—forgivable for young people.

And institutionally, Harvard has been “able to sustain our high-cadence testing program” efficiently, so health experts have been able to get on top of any sign of infection. On average, he said, the turnaround time for tests from the time a sample is taken to getting results is 12 to 14 hours. (Samples are processed at the Broad Institute, the Harvard-MIT genomics institution, in East Cambridge.) On that cycle, test results get into Harvard’s management-information systems swiftly enough to be actionable. “The theory worked,” he said—“incredibly smoothly,” thanks to hard work throughout the institution to build an “amazing” logistics system.

On education. In addition to achieving those safety goals, Bacow noted, Harvard had recorded successes within the academic mission despite the unusual circumstances. He reinforced his enthusiasm for faculty members’ and students’ joint success in discovering “what it means to teach in an engaging way online,” and expressed hope that professors could “capture these lessons” and hold on to them for future use when the teaching returns to some new-normal context.

He also cited an example extending well beyond individual courses. The Graduate School of Education (GSE), he noted, principally offers one-year master’s-degree programs, for which students interrupt their careers. Dean Bridget Terry Long determined that for most students, offering a fall of online instruction, with the possibility of residential instruction in the spring, was unworkable: they could not rearrange their teaching or other career commitments on that kind of schedule. That reasoning underpinned GSE’s decision last summer to conduct the full 2020-2021 academic year online. Once that determination was made, he said, Long realized that giving students the option to earn their master’s over two years, remotely, might be feasible for a large cohort, who could continue working while studying at the same time. The Corporation agreed to a two-year waiver of the requirement to study in residence, the school reopened admissions, and, Bacow said, an enormous cohort of highly qualified applicants (whose work commitments otherwise precluded them from considering a GSE degree) sought to attend. GSE was able to be very selective in admissions, realized an extraordinarily high yield, and is thus, in effect, piloting online professional-degree education on a large scale, entirely because the pandemic forced it to pursue a new model.

That raises interesting questions, he said, about how to extend Harvard teaching to people whose circumstances otherwise keep them from taking advantage of it. 

Thinking spring. Although the decisions about the fall “turned out to be good ones,” Bacow said that, even with the lessons learned to date, prospects for the spring semester remain “clouded with uncertainty.” The professional schools have announced that they will continue to operate mostly online, but the College’s decisions—shaped by the challenges of housing undergraduates safely—are still likely to be made and announced in early December. Bacow cited the risks associated with colder weather, which will drive people indoors and closer together; the rising coronavirus caseload in Massachusetts, after months of seemingly successful control following the severe pandemic and thousands of deaths last spring; and the continuing challenge of sustaining infection control on campus through the scheduled end of learning in residence on November 22.

If everything progresses well, he said, the College would hope to bring a larger cohort of students than once anticipated back in the spring. (The July plan laid out as a possible option inviting seniors to return, in place of the first-year students resident in the fall, plus those whose circumstances require them to pursue their education on campus.)

Alongside Harvard’s experience, Bacow said, he was monitoring those of other institutions. “We can always learn from our mistakes,” he joked, “but it’s easier to learn from the mistakes of others.”

The public-policy agenda. Bacow was asked about the increasingly restrictive regulations issuing from Washington, aimed at limiting or preventing international-student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities. Referring to the litigation Harvard and MIT initiated (successfully) last summer against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidance that would ban students from studying at institutions offering only remote instruction (for public-health reasons), he said, “It was really, really interesting seeing who joined us in the lawsuit”: not just educators, but mayors and governors—and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The business community more broadly recognized the importance of making sure our higher-education institutions are open to students from abroad who want to come here and study,” he said. The only truly scarce capital, he continued, is human capital, and the United States ought to welcome talented people. Across the political spectrum, he said, many people understand this. The ICE guidance, and other recent announcements shortly before a presidential election, Bacow said, “lay bare the fact that some of these are designed to motivate a particular group of people to vote in a particular way.”

He has recently been outspoken in critiquing the new Department of Homeland Security proposal to restrict international students’ and scholars’ authorized period of U.S. residence to two or four years (rather than the prevailing practice of admitting students for the length of their course of study), which implicitly threatens those affected with the interruption of their legitimate course of study or work. As he wrote in a comment on the department’s proposal, “By casting a wide net and arbitrarily bounding international students and scholars, the proposed rule would create negative and cascading consequences for US research, scholarship, and training; weaken our national recovery and future competitiveness; and undermine our national response to global challenges in science, security, and public health. Harvard University strenuously opposes this rule.”

Bacow said he hopes the climate leading to such proposals will change, but that if it does not, he will continue to make the case, when and where appropriate, that the United States and higher education are “better off when we allow folks to pursue their decision to be educated in the U.S. or to be scholars here.”

He has also been passionate about making the case for supporting the country’s public institutions of higher education—which face truly draconian, even existential, challenges as state budgets are decimated by the pandemic and related recession. All across the sector, he said, institutions are in “very, very difficult shape fiscally,” and the announced deficits in Massachusetts, New York, and California are “stunning.” Because states, unlike the federal government, are required to balance their budgets, the fate of public institutions depends to a considerable degree on Congress passing substantial aid to state governments. Bacow has been engaged with the Association of American Universities and the American Council on Education, and in his personal contacts with legislators, in advocating for higher-education funding in any second stimulus bill, and for continued federal funding of research and financial aid.

Campus discourse. Against the backdrop of a harsh national election and the upwelling of concern about racial and socioeconomic injustice—in matters ranging from policing to the incidence of the coronavirus—Bacow and deans across the University have been at pains to encourage campus conversations on difficult issues, while modeling civil discourse. He pointed to the leadership being provided centrally by Sherri Ann Charleston, the newly appointed chief diversity and inclusion officer. Among the more visible of her efforts is a new series of community dialogues featuring pubic figures who have exemplified those values. It begins October 26 with former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick ’78, J.D. ’82, LL.D. ’15, and continues on October 30 with David Boies and Theodore B. Olson—who faced off as attorneys in Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court in 2000, but then collaborated to bring the landmark marriage-equity case before the Court.

The shield for Harvard’s office of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, now offering programs and initiatives throughout the University  community

In framing such programs, Bacow referred to his installation address, where he said, “At Harvard, we must strive to model the behavior we would hope to see elsewhere. For if we can’t talk about the issues that divide us here, on this extraordinarily beautiful campus, where everyone is smart and engaged, where the freedom to speak one’s mind is one of our defining precepts, where we are blessed with abundant resources and no one goes to sleep in fear for his or her life — if we can’t do that here, there is no hope for the rest of the world.”

The road ahead. The president said his view of the pandemic was “heavily influenced by my belief in the capacity of science and scholarship to change the trajectory of the virus.” The world will be dealing with the coronavirus for a while, he continued, but significant progress is being made on vaccines; development and deployment of inexpensive, rapid diagnostic tests (like those being used on campus, and much faster versions); and therapeutics and treatments. Will the pandemic be behind us a year from now? he asked aloud. No, but its effects will likely be less intense.

Longer term, he said, Harvard’s experience since last spring only underscored “the need and desire for people actually to be together” in communities like the University, beyond the relationships that they are conducting with others remotely or those in their households. “The College will still exist as a college,” he said. “More faculty members will make office hours online—and more students will take advantage” of the opportunity to meet that way (as they are already doing). More visitors will be able to “come” to campus virtually, and more student activities will extend beyond Cambridge—making for hybrid educational and extracurricular experiences like those already deployed, and beyond.

Overall, he said, “We will find more degrees of freedom to create educational opportunities for our students than we have,” but firmly within the context of residential learning and teaching.

How the institution will proceed in these directions may not be immediately apparent. The work done in past years to build financial reserves, increase liquidity, change management of the endowment, and plan for a recession had proven essential, he emphasized: even in the current circumstances, “No school is in financial distress—but all are feeling financial pressure.”

Given that pressure, Bacow said more changes will be forthcoming as needed, to match available resources to the academic mission. “The world changes,” he said, “and we have an obligation to adapt with it.”


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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