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Presiding during the Pandemic

March-April 2022

Portrait of President Lawrence S. Bacow

President Lawrence S. Bacow

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


President Lawrence S. Bacow

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

During a conversation on December 16, just as the first half of academic year 2021-2022 concluded, President Lawrence S. Bacow assessed the necessarily dual nature of his administration. The pandemic, he acknowledged, had overshadowed life since January 2020. Given the Omicron surge, he continued, “Just when you think you can focus on something else, the virus rears its ugly head,” necessitating still more measures to protect community members’ health and sustain academic operations. Turning to the University’s core mission, he noted that Harvard had stayed the course successfully: students are learning and faculty members teaching in-person this year, and research operations, resumed beginning in mid 2020, continue apace. And despite the daily pandemic challenges he cited significant progress on intellectual priorities (see below).

From the decision to depopulate the campus in March 2020 through the 2021-2022 regimen (social distancing, masking, testing and contact tracing, and near-universal vaccination), Harvard’s safety protocols effectively limited infections and staved off unsettling course corrections—like the midterm return to remote instruction at other schools. Beyond the tangible health benefits, Bacow noted, the community’s embrace of effective protective measures mattered because “Everybody’s tired, we all have data on the impact this is having on student mental health”—and on faculty and staff members’ well-being.

Part of the fatigue no doubt stems from the fact that, as he put it, “All plans are subject to change.” Indeed, shortly after the conversation, he and his senior COVID leadership team advised the community that vaccine boosters would be required for the spring semester—the first in a series of surge-related announcements (see “The Omicron Semester”) aimed at making an in-person spring term possible.

But despite the depth of Harvard scientists’ expertise and their role in advising on University responses, Bacow said of Omicron’s advent, “My crystal ball is no better than yours.” Given the uncertainties, he said, “I wish I could tell you what the spring term will bring.” As of the press date for this issue, the Harvard Alumni Association had moved its February meetings, scheduled to be on campus, back online. The College plans a late-April Visitas weekend for admitted applicants making their final decisions on where to enroll. The ARTS FIRST celebration is on the schedule. But everyone will have to stay attuned to evolving public-health conditions.

All the obvious caveats aside, “I’m really proud of how the whole institution has responded to this,” Bacow said. “In the face of all this stuff,” he said of the pandemic (and perhaps other challenges, like economic upheaval, and the unsettled political situation in the United States and around the world), “good work continues to be done” consistent with the University’s mission.

 

Academically, the president said, there is much more to the University’s past two years than contending with COVID-19. He cited the quantum science and engineering initiative, for which upward of $100 million has been raised; the new program of research on artificial intelligence and neuroscience, underwritten to the tune of $500 million by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, unveiled in early December (see News Briefs); work on inequality and on climate change; and recognition of Harvard students’ and professors’ achievements, in the form of Rhodes and Marshall scholarships (see Brevia) and the National Book Award conferred on professor of history Tiya Miles.

That mission expanded geographically as the new engineering and applied sciences facilities in Allston were animated by the return of students this past fall. Nearby, plans are advancing for the new home for the American Repertory Theater and the enterprise research campus, and in turn commercial development unrelated to Harvard is booming (see New Briefs). The Allston campus, Bacow said, is no longer “somewhere over there.” Given the teaching and research presence, “It’s real now,” he continued, and “only going to become more real over the next two years.”

At the same time, work on important issues arising from the past has advanced, too. In recent weeks, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) discussed a comprehensive report on visual culture and signage, part of its equality initiative, and The University has received its report on criteria for reconsidering the names conferred on buildings, professorships, and programs (see News Briefs). And the initiative on Harvard’s ties to slavery, led by Radcliffe Institute dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, is expected to report this spring.

Turning to climate change, Bacow said he couldn’t be more pleased that the newly created position of vice provost for climate and sustainability had been accepted by environmental economist James Stock. “We didn’t have anybody at the center for whom [these issues] occupied 100 percent of their mind share,” he said. In Stock, he continued, Harvard had entrusted the work to a scholar of the field who is energetically committed to “what it takes to get something done.” Stay tuned.

As the University pursues such aims, the historic endowment results reported last fall—the 33.6 percent investment return and $11.3-billion gain in value—will, over time, bolster academic operations. Bacow said that rather than reacting in the short term by, say, making a special distribution to the faculties, the Corporation would retain a “collar” on such distributions, which are the University’s largest source of operating revenue. The normal funding formula (which smooths large gains and losses, buffering market volatility), he said, would yield an 8 percent increase in the distribution right away: an increase of about $200 million in spendable funds from the current level. But the collar would limit the increase in the distribution to a more sustainable 4.5 percent annual rate over a number of years, if the reported gains persist—still, substantially more funds than deans had been told to expect before these recent, outsized results. (See harvardmag.com/endowment-surplus-21.)

At the same time, Bacow indicated, the administration is examining things it might have to do, such as addressing the renewal of the two River Houses (Eliot and Kirkland) that have not yet been renovated per the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ debt-burdened construction plan.

 

At the University level, Harvard faces a significant change in governance this spring, when William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Corporation, concludes his service. The first term-limited rotation of a senior fellow and election of a successor—from Robert Reischauer to Lee, in 2014—worked smoothly, and Bacow said there are “excellent potential senior fellow” candidates on the Corporation now.

Lee has been a powerful leader, ranging from matters internal (he paired Corporation members with deans on an annually rotating basis, enhancing the governing board members’ understanding of the schools and the deans’ connection to the Corporation) to external (he served as counsel in Harvard’s defense of its admissions policies in the Students for Fair Admissions litigation, now headed to the Supreme Court). Bacow praised him as a highly valuable “thought partner,” and joked that “I wouldn’t be having this conversation…apart from Bill”—given Lee’s role, during the last presidential search, in persuading Bacow, then a Corporation and search-committee member, to become a candidate himself. (In the normal course of a senior fellow’s service, and the usual course of modern university presidencies, the new senior fellow elected this spring may be in the position of leading Harvard’s next presidential search.)

Such weighty issues aside, if the semester proceeds normally, there is a reward at the end. Harvard is preparing a full, in-person Commencement on May 26, and make-up Commencements for the pandemic-afflicted classes of 2020 and 2021 the following weekend. Bacow said he expects more College graduates than professional-school alumni to attend the special ceremony, but there is plenty of room to accommodate all takers. And, he said, “terrific speakers” are lined up for both May 26 and the following weekend—look for announcements in late winter or early spring. It would obviously come as a great relief, and joy, to the president and the community he leads if Harvard gets to that point with nothing more to worry about than whether the weather is clement on Commencement day.

Read more from the interview at harvardmag.com/bacow-future-22.

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