Beyond the Crisis Du Jour

President Bacow’s perspectives on “playing long ball” at Harvard again. 

President Lawrence S. Bacow
President Lawrence S. BacowPhotograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard University

During a meeting on the morning of April 15—Good Friday, and before the first Passover seder he celebrates with family friends—President Lawrence S. Bacow said he was pursuing the “balance between managing the crisis du jour and what I call playing long ball”: advancing Harvard’s teaching and research mission. That the ensuing conversation touched on the wildly diverse subjects that occupy a president—the University climate initiative, the forthcoming report and conference on Harvard and the legacy of slavery, Allston development, free speech on campus, and more—and took place in person, for the first time in more than two years (and without masking), all testified that this spring is indeed a new beginning. Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues, coping with the endless crises it imposed on a residential academic community no longer commands the almost exclusive attention of the institution’s leaders. Among the topics he raised:

Climate initiative. Bacow cited the work vice provost for climate and sustainability James Stock had under way, from wide consultation with faculty members and alumni and assembling an academic advisory group that reaches across Harvard’s schools, to advancing climate education. The most important near-term outcome of this work, one senses, will be to build capacity for research and education that draws upon all the University’s resources—and so applies interdisciplinary thinking and policy solutions to what is the most complex technological, economic, political, and cultural challenge humankind has ever faced. 

Good work is already being done individually in most of Harvard’s schools, and in many cases across disciplinary and school boundaries. But the University’s professed strength is its ability to bring its collective expertise in law, public policy, business, public health and medicine, basic and applied science, education, religious studies, and the broad range of humanities and social sciences to bear on climate change and sustainability in a concerted way. Stock’s new office, and his expertise in the field, are the most focused Harvard-wide effort to bring this about, and bear watching closely in the months ahead.

Harvard and the legacy of slavery. This presidential initiative, begun in 2019 under the direction of Radcliffe Institute dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, plans a conference on its work and findings April 29. Its broad scope—encompassing historical inquiry, contemporary campus resonances of the University’s past engagement with slavery and Jim Crow-era discrimination, implications for the schools’ curriculums, and more—suggests both a substantial scholarly accounting and actions beyond the initial phases of the public effort to come to terms with Harvard’s origins, begun in 2016. In the wake of Brown University’s pioneering “Slavery and Justice Report” (2006) and the Yale & Slavery conference held last October, Bacow’s personal commitment to the Harvard project, and Brown-Nagin’s role as leader (she is a preeminent historian of the civil rights movement) have set the stage for a forceful report and application of its findings to the Crimson community of today and in the future.

Research: the Kempner Institute. During the pandemic, Harvard managed to make progress on intellectual initiatives, from urgent research on COVID-19 to the nascent quantum science initiative. Perhaps none looms larger than the $500-million Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence, announced last December. During the governing boards’ meeting at the beginning of April, Bacow said, he took the members on a tour of the 25,000-square-foot laboratory space being fitted up for the program in the Allston science and engineering complex, at which the faculty co-directors, McKay professor of computer science and statistics Sham Kakade and Moorhead professor of neurobiology Bernardo Sabatini, described their work.

Allston. On the subject of Allston and Harvard’s planned enterprise research campus, being commercially developed by Tishman Speyer, Bacow had news to share. Harvard Allston Land Company has appointed Carl Rodrigues as the new leader for the University’s work on the project, effective May 2. He succeeds Thomas Glynn, the founding CEO, who stepped down last year after three years in the post. Rodrigues was most recently senior policy adviser to New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development (he managed the city’s real estate policy, and served as liaison to the department of parks and recreation) and chief operating officer of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. He has been involved in projects spanning affordable housing, commercial offices, parks, infrastructure, and nonprofit and cultural entities—all good training, one imagines, for the complexities the high-profile Allston development faces.

Those complexities have become more than the physical challenges of developing a landfilled site surrounded by the Allston neighborhood, highway infrastructure, and the Business School campus. Of late, Allston residents have pressed the University to unveil plans for its land beyond the initial phase of the enterprise research campus; to guarantee construction of a higher proportion of affordable housing units than Boston requires; and to make substantial open-space commitments. They may have found a sympathetic ear with the election of Boston’s new mayor, Michelle Wu ’07, J.D. ’12, who campaigned on alleviating Boston’s punishing housing market. 

Bacow said that the University was working with the new administration, which is still getting itself organized (indeed, the city’s chief development regulator announced his retirement April 14), with executive vice president Katie Lapp and vice president for public affairs and communications Paul Andrew most deeply involved. “Communities don’t speak with one voice any more than universities do,” Bacow said. “We’ll work with folks, as we have in the past—but there are limits to what we can do.” He pointed to the University’s commitment to make 20 percent of housing units affordable (Boston requires 13 percent; Allston advocates have sought 33 percent) and cited its insistence that there be minority participants in the capital (ownership) structure of the enterprise research campus development, among other community investments already made (the Harvard educational portal) or pledged (a massive sewer line to drain stormwater). But he reiterated, “There are limits to what we can do, and we need to move forward with this project.” Doing so, he noted, is also “putting land on the tax rolls.” One suspects that the president and the mayor may have to work things out directly, but, Bacow said, “It’ll get done.”

Turning to the University presence in Allston, he continued, the reaction to the science and engineering complex, where much of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is now based, has been uniformly positive, from the students who now take classes and study there, to parents who visited during the recent parents’ weekend. Rather than seeming a frontier outpost far from the center of the Cambridge campus, he said, “The planning that we did has actually worked,” in terms of transportation logistics, on-site food services, and more. And, to boot, the facility has been recognized as the most sustainable laboratory building in the world, Bacow noted.

Speech. Asked if he had any concerns about free speech on campus, Bacow acknowledged that there was wide interest in the subject—and said Harvard had not had any problems with speakers being prevented from appearing. The issue has come up recently, he said, in meetings with the Board of Overseers, his briefing for the Business School dean’s advisory council, his visits with members of Congress, and others. Other than two incidents—the Vietnam-era disruption of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s campus visit, and a divestment-related attempt to disrupt Bacow’s own talk at the Kennedy School in early 2019 (it was moved to a new site and proceeded)—he noted, “We’ve managed to avoid the kinds of issues that have plagued other places.” And, he continued, “We work at it.”

He cited Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana’s work with students and faculty members on a statement about the importance of intellectual vitality and free expression within the community (expect more on this next academic year), Law School dean John Manning’s fostering of Chatham House rules on campus, and so on. “We have an obligation to ensure that we have conservative speakers on campus,” Bacow said, mentioning recent appearances by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and U.S. Senator Tim Scott (Republican of South Carolina). “People don’t want to write stories about the dog that doesn’t bark,” he said.

Learning beyond campus. Asked whether, in light of the recent report of the task force on the future of teaching and learning, Harvard would embrace more nonresidential degree programs—a departure from current policy, to which exception was made during the pandemic—Bacow said simply, “Yes.” He qualified that by saying “not totally online degrees, but light-in-residence” programs. Based on the experience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which conducted its one-year master’s program remotely during the 2020-2021 academic year, Bacow said, “There are people we want to reach who have a very high opportunity cost” to take time away from their careers “to improve their own human capital.” In light of that interest and the demonstrated effectiveness of the remote degree offering, he said, Harvard can create and feel good about high-quality blended programs. “We should experiment,” he said, “and we should learn.”

Governance. Bacow said he feels “really good” about the recent election of Penny Pritzker ’81 to succeed William F. Lee ’72 as senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation. And the election of Tracy Pun Palandjian ’93, M.B.A. ’97, to fill Lee’s role as a fellow of the Corporation upon the completion of his service June 30 brings an “experienced hand” to the governing board, Bacow said, citing her leadership on the Board of Overseers and her participation as an Overseer in the last presidential search. “She knows this place really well,” he said. 

More broadly, Bacow continued, “The Corporation is a really, really high-functioning group” now, with diverse perspectives among its “extraordinarily accomplished” members. During its deliberations, he said, “Everybody checks their ego at the door.” Members “talk about literally any issue, openly and candidly, they disagree with each other, but we always come together.” In his prior experience with governing boards (as president at Tufts and as a consultant and adviser during the years between that presidency and his current one), he said, that kind of candor and comity is not a given. That it is now, here, is a strength for the University.

The feel-good stuff: Commencement. Finally, at the end of a successful academic year in residence, and the longer grind of protecting the community and sustaining its academic operations during the height of the pandemic—including his own initial bout with COVID-19, and a recent, mild breakthrough case following a trip to London—Bacow senses the opportunity for a kind of University victory lap. Beyond the resumption of normal Commencement exercises on May 26, with New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern as the headliner, the make-up ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021, scheduled for May 29 (with U.S. attorney general Merrick B. Garland ’74, J.D. ’77, returning to campus as the morning speaker) feels like a proper Harvard way of making amends for the graduation celebrations necessarily conducted online during the public-health crisis.

Lots of students are planning to attend, he indicated (initial requests for campus housing were due April 15)—and the University encouraged them to do so by extending financial aid to them. The intent is “a celebration for everyone, not just those who can afford to come back.” Students and their parents have been enthusiastic in response to both the opportunity and the scale of the celebration planned, including the guest speaker, House and school ceremonies, and more. Calling himself “proud of it,” Bacow is clearly looking forward to putting a proper conclusion to students’ Harvard experience, after the challenges and personal losses endured during the pandemic.


That he and Harvard can focus on doing so, instead of anxiously following the tally of positive PCR tests and updating campus health protocols, is a good indicator that the times really have changed—and that the University community can turn its attention to the myriad other challenges of making this place a more powerful center for teaching, discovery, and service in the years to come.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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