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President Lawrence S. Bacow to Step Down in 2023

6.8.22

President Lawrence S. Bacow speaking at Commencement May 26, 2022

President Lawrence S. Bacow addresses the 371st Commencement, May 26, during year-end celebrations that brought joy to thousands and helped the community heal from the continuing pandemic.
Photograph by Jim Harrison


President Lawrence S. Bacow addresses the 371st Commencement, May 26, during year-end celebrations that brought joy to thousands and helped the community heal from the continuing pandemic.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Lawrence S. Bacow, the University’s twenty-ninth president, announced today that he would step down at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year, concluding service that began in 2018, when he succeeded Drew Gilpin Faust.

The Announcements

In a characteristically unadorned note to the community (full text below), Bacow wrote of his intention to step down June 30, 2023, concluding 12 years of service on the Corporation and five as president—collectively, “the privilege of a lifetime.” Putting this latest chapter of his academic career in perspective, the president—a 1972 MIT graduate who then earned three Harvard degrees (M.P.P.-J.D. ’76, Ph.D. ’78)—continued:

When I first stepped onto this campus as a graduate student in 1972, I never imagined the outsized role Harvard would play in my life. Like just about everyone who comes here, I was in awe of the place—its history, its reputation, and its impact on all of American higher education. Fifty years later, I am still in awe but for different reasons. It is you that I hold in awe—our students who inspire me with their passion to make the world a better place; our faculty and researchers who push the boundaries of knowledge in just about every field of human endeavor imaginable; our staff who over the past few years have demonstrated resilience, commitment, and dedication that is nothing short of remarkable; and our alumni who shape the world in ways too numerous to mention. I have never been prouder to be part of this University than I am today.

There is never a good time to leave a job like this one, but now seems right to me. Through our collective efforts, we have found our way through the pandemic. We have worked together to sustain Harvard through change and through storm, and collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways. I will depart Mass Hall with many fond memories to share with my children and grandchildren, and Adele [Fleet Bacow] and I are looking forward to spending more time with each of them. 

Noting that he remains in office for another year, he looked forward to continuing the work of advancing Harvard’s teaching, research, and service missions. In the interim, he concluded, “[P]lease know how much Adele and I appreciate all that each of you does for Harvard and how warmly you have embraced us both.”

In a separate, extraordinary letter to the community (full text below), the Corporation’s departing senior fellow, William F. Lee, and the newly elected successor senior fellow, Penny Pritzker, wrote of President Bacow:

Harvard could not have asked for a better, wiser, more thoughtful, dedicated, experienced, and humane leader through these times of extraordinary challenge and change. 

Both of us have had the privilege of serving alongside Larry as members of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the University’s principal fiduciary governing board. Both of us were extremely pleased when he accepted the invitation to serve as Harvard’s president. And, having watched him lead Harvard these past years—with great inner strength, a steadfast moral compass, and a deep devotion to serving others—we have come to admire him all the more.

They cited his pandemic leadership; focus on advancing intellectual priorities; support for educational innovation and the extension of Harvard’s teaching to learners beyond the physical campus; continued renewal of University physical facilities, and stewardship of its financial resources in support of its academic mission; actions to make the community more inclusive and diverse; encouragement of “candid, mutually respectful discussion of difficult issues among people with different points of view” within the Harvard community; continued emphasis on Harvard’s role in bettering the wider world; and “by word and deed,” Bacow’s role in helping every member of the community “reflect on how we can direct our energies toward causes larger than ourselves.” Noting his insistence on crediting colleagues for Harvard’s accomplishments, they continued, “[G]reat teams rely on great captains. And—through the tone he sets, through the values he affirms, through the common purpose he cultivates, through the trust he builds, through the initiatives he launches and sustains—Larry Bacow is just that.”

Nodding to future business, Lee and Pritzker concluded, “We will also have time, before long, to say more about the coming search for his successor. For today, please join us in thanking Larry Bacow for his extraordinary leadership and service—to Harvard and to higher education. He embodies a rare combination of mind and heart.”

Neither the decision nor the timing of today’s announcement are complete surprises:

•In 2017, Bacow, then a member of the Corporation and the search committee, agreed to its request that he be a candidate for the presidency and therefore come out of semi-retirement to serve. (He had been president of Tufts University from September 2001 through July 2011.)

•When he assumed his Harvard position, he retained all the senior officers (provost, executive vice president, and so on), rather than engaging in what would have been protracted searches to restaff, consuming a significant amount of time, attention, and energy—perhaps a hedge against a relatively limited-duration presidency. (In the event, having in place an experienced provost who is a physician and a seasoned executive vice president who knows everything about University operations proved invaluable when the pandemic upended every aspect of residential higher education in the late winter of 2020.)

•And there has been no sign of gearing up (or even planning) for a Harvard capital campaign, which would have had to be well under way by now had Bacow intended to launch and lead at least the first phases of such an effort—the conduct of which is a hallmark of essentially every university presidency today.

Early assessments of his presidency appear below, followed by a description of the context in which the Corporation will search for his successor, and an outline of the challenges the next Harvard leader may face. 

Major Themes of the Bacow Presidency

It is far too early for a comprehensive assessment of a presidency that is not yet even complete, but some initial perspectives are already in view.

The pandemic president. The first, of course, is the unexpected and sweeping impact of COVID-19 and the president’s response—beginning with his decision on March 10, 2020, to end residential operations as of the spring recess beginning at that week’s end; extending through the academic year 2020-2021 of remote teaching; and concluding, perhaps, with the resumption of in-person Commencement this May 26 and the emotional Commencement “celebration” for the classes of 2020 and 2021 three days later.

Early on in the pandemic, it merits noting, Bacow, who suffered a serious infection of the heart lining in 2004 and is also immunocompromised, endured a significant COVID-19 infection (as did his wife, Adele), followed by a breakthrough, milder infection this spring (ditto for his wife). Thus, in addition to the hard work of drawing on University scientists’ expertise to determine the need to suspend residential operation of a residential institution of higher education, and then focusing relentlessly on supporting safe resumption of research and subsequently teaching and learning on campus, Bacow had very direct experience of what was at stake.

In an introductory profile of the new president, this magazine called him a pragmatist, in the best sense of the word: someone whose modus operandi is, in his own words, to “Figure out what needs to be done, and then do it.” That approach was tested 10 days into his Tufts presidency by the tragedy of 9/11, and then seven years later, in the 2008 financial crisis. From experiences like those, he said in 2018, he had come to realize and to advise new presidents that “the biggest challenges they will face probably could not have been anticipated on the day that they were appointed.” And how. Beginning early in 2020, confronting an unprecedented health crisis that threatened the well-being of every community member and every aspect of the University’s operations, Bacow’s nimble, swift actions, clear communications, and unruffled demeanor proved to be invaluable assets for Harvard.

Modeling the kind of collective, community behavior he so often talks about, he typically sent joint emails about major policy decisions co-signed by Alan Garber, the provost; Katie Lapp, the executive vice president; and Giang Nguyen, the executive director of Harvard University Health Services. Emphasizing collective responsibility—the actions Harvard people had to undertake individually in order to protect public health—he and his colleagues repeatedly urged members of the community to respect others’ tolerance for risk, differing family health circumstances, and experiences of loss and grief. And modeling his constant exhortation to members of the community to think about the good they can do in and for the world beyond Harvard, he was proud that the discoveries underpinning two of the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines came from University scientists’ labs.

Finally, he expressed hope that the pandemic-induced upheavals in Harvard routines had taught the institution what it could do, and how it could change, when confronted by necessity. Thus the prompt pivot to online teaching and learning, the experiments with online degrees (formerly taboo), and the collaboration across formerly inviolable boundaries to make things happen, seemingly overnight, in this most tradition-bound of places. “Institutions tend to be organized to perform tasks they are currently performing,” he wrote in his doctoral dissertation. No one wants to repeat the experience of the pandemic, ever, but the sense of new possibilities and capabilities of a community brought unexpectedly together might well linger, with lasting effect, after this leader has left office.

The personal presidency. The second theme is personal. Throughout his time at the helm of this large, decentralized, and in many ways impersonal place (much larger and more decentralized than Tufts or MIT, his prior academic homes), Bacow reached out to members of the community in ways public and private. He spoke openly about his family background and his Jewish faith. He urged Harvardians near and far to be solicitous of one another at times of social separation, fear, and loss. And he communicated privately with a wide array of contacts and correspondents, sharing support and extending consolation at unexpected times and in often unexpected ways—typically signing off, “All the best, Larry.” By all accounts, that gift of empathy has been part of his makeup throughout his life, and has, as a result, been a salient characteristic of his leadership throughout his career.

Attending to Harvard’s Culture and Priorities

Other aspects of Bacow’s institutional impact are also apparent. One, surely, is a sweeping commitment to diversity and inclusion. In his installation address, in October 2018, the new president said that “failing to welcome talented students and scholars from around the world is to undercut America’s intellectual and economic leadership.” So it came as no surprise that as a champion of the intellectually inclusive university, he was a fierce critic of the Trump administration’s efforts to clamp down on international students studying at American institutions.

Internally, Bacow was intensely focused on modeling a diverse Harvard, with black women serving as deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the schools of education and public health, and the Radcliffe Institute; a woman dean of the design school; a black chief of the Harvard University Police Department and a Hispanic vice president for human resources—both with records of making their workforces more diverse and inclusive, and responsive to their communities; and the appointment of the University’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer. In April, the University committee he created issued its sweeping report on Harvard’s engagement with slavery, and its recommendations for ameliorative actions today. He has passionately made the case for a diverse student body, and the procedures necessary to create it, as the legal challenge to Harvard College’s consideration of race in its holistic admissions reviews proceeds to the Supreme Court this fall. The Corporation has become increasingly diverse during Bacow’s presidency, and he has chosen as Commencement speakers two women heads of state (Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern) and a woman who has been the distinguished leader of three academic institutions (Ruth Simmons)—including at Brown, where early in this millennium she pioneered a critical inquiry into that university’s past connections to slavery.

A second trait is a bedrock commitment to free speech and open, reciprocal discourse. His installation address emphasized that:

There are both reassuring truths and unsettling truths, and great universities must embrace them both. Throughout human history, the people who have done the most to change the world have been the ones who overturned conventional wisdom, so we should not be afraid to welcome into our communities those who challenge our thinking.

In other words, our search for truth must be inextricably bound up with a commitment to freedom of speech and expression.

Tied to untrammeled expression, he noted the institution’s and the faculty’s responsibility to help students expand their thinking—and help them

to appreciate that they can gain much from listening to others, especially those with whom they disagree. We need to teach them to be quick to understand, and slow to judge. 

Let me say that again: We need to teach our students to be quick to understand, and slow to judge. And as faculty, we owe this duty to each other, as well.

To paraphrase the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it is always wise to look for the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth. 

During the four years since then, sadly, the national discourse has become louder and more simplistic, and the talent for hearing sympathetically has attenuated. Bacow has never wavered from reminding the community that its reason for being is to model something better. As he told members of the class of 2022 at the 371st Commencement on May 26, their success depends on their humility, openness, and responsiveness to others:

Today, I want to challenge you…to save a seat for others, to make room for others, to ensure that the opportunities afforded by your education do not enrich your life alone. You will have more chances than most to make a difference in the world, more opportunities to give others a chance at a better life. Take advantage of these opportunities when they arise. Whatever you do with your Harvard education, please be known as much for your humility, kindness, and concern for others as for your professional accomplishments. Recognize the role that good fortune and circumstance have played in your life, and please work to extend opportunity to others just as it has been extended to you.

Third, in operational terms, Bacow created the Harvard Allston Land Company to pursue commercial development of the “enterprise research campus” across Western Avenue from Harvard Business School, now undergoing regulatory review (amid community concerns), and proceeded with plans to relocate the American Repertory Theater across the river. Against the backdrop of nearly nonstop pandemic planning and precautions, he was able to make progress on FAS’s quantum-science initiative; a multi-year, half-billion-dollar, interdisciplinary research program on neuroscience and artificial intelligence; and a new, University-level office to oversee and encourage work in laboratories and classrooms on climate change and sustainability, for which resources are being sought—all pillars of future discovery and teaching. 

Finally, perhaps the greatest immediate gift he bestows on any successor is viewing cautiously the endowment largess resulting from the robust financial markets in the wake of the pandemic, and therefore authorizing increased spending by the faculties, but at what he and the Corporation judge a sustainable, reasonable pace. Recent market conditions, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, make that caution seem prudent. Given the significant operating surpluses the University achieved in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, it would not be surprising to see more black ink, perhaps a lot of it, when the fiscal year ending this June 30 is reported next fall—a significant advantage for deans who hope to invest in their faculties’ core research and teaching functions. 

In the meantime, Harvard Management Company is now formally committed to achieving a “net-zero” level of greenhouse gas emissions from endowment holdings by 2050—requiring changes in both investing and in monitoring and reporting on holdings.

Unfinished Business

The president of course remains president for another year-plus. No doubt he would like to secure meaningful funding for the climate and sustainability work—something he mentioned prominently in an April interview

Other priorities he spoke of then include Allston projects: the new ART facility (the architect for the project was appointed in 2019, but the pandemic obviously intervened), and seeing the enterprise research campus advance with community and regulatory support. On the Cambridge side of the river, the new home for the economics department, funded by a gift from Pritzker, is a high-priority project. 

The report on the legacy of slavery came with an extraordinary $100-million commitment, endorsed by all the Corporation members individually. Having initiated that program, Bacow will likely want to oversee the steps toward implementing the recommended actions.

And in light of the changing circumstances facing graduate students, who are key to the institution’s and faculty members’ research ambitions, it would not be surprising to see a final-year emphasis on graduate fellowships and aid. As reported, Princeton (and other peer institutions) have recently augmented such support, and Harvard—in an especially expensive place to live—will very much want to remain competitive.

In Prospect: The Context for a Search

President Bacow’s announcement begins the process of searching for a successor, which will be the responsibility, first and foremost, of the Corporation’s new senior fellow, Penny Pritzker: Harvard governance and administration will thus be in new hands simultaneously.

From the governing boards’ perspective, a little longevity in Mass Hall might be a very good thing. Harvard has recently had a five-year presidency (Lawrence H. Summers, 2001-2006); a one-year interim presidency (Derek Bok’s return to office); the more extended term of Drew Faust—which was of course interrupted by the 2008 financial crisis, Great Recession, protracted recovery, and the restorative Harvard Campaign (2007-2018); and now Bacow’s tenure from 2018 to 2023—punctuated by the unprecedented pandemic. Looking ahead, a successful next president might be expected to serve nearly to the University’s four-hundredth anniversary, in 2036 (or, in extraordinary circumstances, through that momentous occasion). Counting the final years of Neil L. Rudenstine’s tenure, and Bacow’s successor, Harvard, which will then have had 30 presidents during nearly four centuries of operation, will have been led by six of them just since the beginning of this millennium. A photographer trying to capture an image of the University’s living presidents next spring may need a wide-angle lens.

That new president will be faced with setting strategy for the institution; no doubt, with pursuing new resources to implement the strategy, through a gargantuan fundraising campaign; coping with constraints on admissions practices likely to result from the Supreme Court ruling in the Students for Fair Admissions litigation (an opinion that might come down right when a new president is settling in); likely rebuilding her or his Mass Hall staff (Bacow named a veteran insider to succeed executive vice president Katie Lapp this spring); scurrying to complete unfinished business (case in point: helping FAS find nearly $1 billion to complete House renewal with the staggering Eliot-Kirkland project), all while managing costs (a Bacow mantra, and one he is quick to admit has resisted easy resolution)—perhaps amid a recession; addressing the pressure to extend online education (and doing something useful with the $400-million proceeds from the edX sale) [Clarified June 8, 2022, 3:35 p.m.: Net proceeds from the sale, after expenses, were about $700 million, which funds reside in a new nonprofit under Harvard and MIT’s auspices, so the University is not directly controlling $400 million, or more correctly $350 million, following the sale.]; and, to say the least, navigating an increasingly vitriolic political environment in which it is a strategy in many quarters to attack elites, higher education—or, best of all, elite higher education.

The search will take place against a background of many openings. Among research institutions with announced vacancies are Columbia, Dartmouth, MIT, New York University, Tufts, and the University of Michigan (plus several excellent colleges). The Harvard presidency is, of course, among the most prestigious in higher education, but no one informed regards it as a walk in the park—and the 2017-2018 search took an unexpected turn late in the deliberations. Given the competition for rare talent, the Corporation may regard the present moment as a good time to find a leader from among a cohort of prospects whom a few years ago they decided needed more seasoning. In light of the challenges academic leaders at all levels have navigated during the past few years, that annealing, and not just the addition of a few more annular rings, may make for a solid candidate pool.

•••••••

But for now, one thinks of the unexpected crises this president faced, and met. During last year’s online graduation exercises, Bacow, speaking from a lectern in front of Mass Hall, joked that it was a place “where I haven’t been for 440 days and counting.” (In fact, the place was being renovated when he began his presidency, so he set up shop initially in Loeb House, where the governing boards meet; and then his pandemic exile from his office extended beyond May 2021.) Now that “Larry 29” is once again securely in possession of the place, he is relinquishing it, a year hence.

The timing seems right. Not only does a thorough, proper search take a long time, with, one hopes, a period for the appointee to gear up for the job. Today’s announcement comes just after the May 26 and May 29 Commencement celebrations and the June 3 Harvard Alumni Day brought tens of thousands of students and recent graduates, family members and friends, and longer-term alumni joyfully back together with those they love, and on ground that has become hallowed for all of them.

Having made so many families so happy, Larry Bacow has now set a path back to a doubly earned retirement, and to more time with his own—including Adele Bacow, their two sons and their families, and the Bacows’ four grandchildren. Given the service he has rendered, under extraordinary circumstances, the University community collectively can only take pleasure in that prospect.

Read the Harvard Gazette account of highlights of Bacow’s presidency to date here.

 

President Bacow’s letter to the community

Dear Friends,

I write to tell you of my intention to step down on June 30, 2023, following twelve years of service as a member of the Corporation, including five years as your president. Serving in these capacities has been the privilege of a lifetime.

When I first stepped onto this campus as a graduate student in 1972, I never imagined the outsized role Harvard would play in my life. Like just about everyone who comes here, I was in awe of the place—its history, its reputation, and its impact on all of American higher education. Fifty years later, I am still in awe but for different reasons. It is you that I hold in awe—our students who inspire me with their passion to make the world a better place; our faculty and researchers who push the boundaries of knowledge in just about every field of human endeavor imaginable; our staff who over the past few years have demonstrated resilience, commitment, and dedication that is nothing short of remarkable; and our alumni who shape the world in ways too numerous to mention. I have never been prouder to be part of this University than I am today.

There is never a good time to leave a job like this one, but now seems right to me. Through our collective efforts, we have found our way through the pandemic. We have worked together to sustain Harvard through change and through storm, and collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways. I will depart Mass Hall with many fond memories to share with my children and grandchildren, and Adele and I are looking forward to spending more time with each of them. 

There will be plenty of time in the year ahead to say goodbye. We all still have lots of work to do to advance our mission of teaching, research, and service. For now, please know how much Adele and I appreciate all that each of you does for Harvard and how warmly you have embraced us both. 

With appreciation,

Larry

William F. Lee and Penny Pritzker’s letter to the community

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Just earlier today, Larry Bacow announced his plans to step down next June as Harvard’s 29th president.

Harvard could not have asked for a better, wiser, more thoughtful, dedicated, experienced, and humane leader through these times of extraordinary challenge and change. 

Both of us have had the privilege of serving alongside Larry as members of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the University’s principal fiduciary governing board. Both of us were extremely pleased when he accepted the invitation to serve as Harvard’s president. And, having watched him lead Harvard these past years—with great inner strength, a steadfast moral compass, and a deep devotion to serving others—we have come to admire him all the more.

Larry is an adroit sailor, and having his steady hand on the tiller in these turbulent times has served Harvard exceptionally well. He is also a dedicated runner, and over these past several years, after hitting the ground running, he has managed to run a metaphorical marathon—often at a sprinter’s pace, on a course with more than its share of hills and hurdles. We know he is looking forward to a productive academic year ahead, as a culmination of his remarkable efforts to help Harvard progress from strength to strength.

A related Harvard Gazette article describes some of the many initiatives that have been launched, opportunities that have been pursued, and challenges that have been faced with the benefit of Larry’s guidance. Rather than repeat them here, we’d like to underscore some of the larger qualities and commitments that have made Larry such an outstanding leader during these unusually challenging times.

•He has led the University and its people through an unprecedented public health crisis, working relentlessly to keep Harvard’s core activities of education, research, and service moving forward under conditions that none of us would have envisioned.

•He has focused attention on how Harvard can best marshal its academic resources to shape new frontiers of inquiry and to help confront some of the world’s most complex and consequential problems.

•He has encouraged innovation in education—and sought to expand access to Harvard’s educational resources, so that they can benefit learners not only on campus but far beyond.

•He has worked to guide a renewal and expansion of our physical campus and to ensure a firm financial foundation essential to realizing our academic ambitions.

•He has summoned Harvard to become more inclusive, to embrace our collective diversity as a wellspring of excellence, and to face up to troubling aspects of our past.

•He has insisted on the importance of sustaining the flow of people and ideas across boundaries—both among Harvard’s schools and departments and across borders in the wider world.

•He has urged us all to consider how, at a time of widespread division and disharmony in society at large, a university like ours can best model ways to encourage candid, mutually respectful discussion of difficult issues among people with different points of view.

•He has consistently asked not just how Harvard can strengthen itself, but how Harvard’s academic and human capacity can contribute to a better world.

•And he has, by word and deed, helped each of us to reflect on how we can direct our energies toward causes larger than ourselves.

When people speak highly of him, Larry can be counted on to deflect the compliment by saying that leadership is a team sport and that he is blessed with a great team. He is right. Harvard is blessed with a singular community of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others whose aspirations and talents make all the difference. But great teams rely on great captains. And—through the tone he sets, through the values he affirms, through the common purpose he cultivates, through the trust he builds, through the initiatives he launches and sustains—Larry Bacow is just that.

We will have time to recognize him in other ways in the coming year—which, knowing Larry, we have no doubt will be a full one. We will also have time, before long, to say more about the coming search for his successor. For today, please join us in thanking Larry Bacow for his extraordinary leadership and service—to Harvard and to higher education. He embodies a rare combination of mind and heart.  

Sincerely,

William F. Lee, Senior Fellow (through June 30, 2022)

Penny Pritzker, Senior Fellow (as of July 1, 2022)

 

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