Finishing Kick

President Bacow’s agenda during his last fall term

President Lawrence S. Bacow

Lawrence S. Bacow regularly ran marathons when he was Tufts president, and conducted an interview with a Crimson reporter while splashing along Memorial Drive on the wet Marathon Monday before he took office as Harvard’s leader in 2018. He no longer tests his body that way, nor does he resort as frequently to running metaphors. But it would be apt to characterize his approach to his final year in Mass Hall as the finishing kick of an intense presidency. During a conversation in his office on September 28, he reeled off a long list of fall-term priorities and engagements, anchored in the many academic initiatives begun in recent years—despite the overwhelming shadow cast by the pandemic. Among them:

Scientific and related research and education. The Kempner Institute—a broad and deep initiative focused on natural and artificial intelligence, and funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to the tune of $500 million during the next 15 years—held its formal, programmatic unveiling last week. Already, its faculty co-directors have outlined a program of research on algorithmic design, education of the next generation of scientists and researchers, and computation—all anchored in the engineering and applied sciences faculty, but reaching across University schools.

The Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability—backed by a $200-million gift announced last summer, and providing the support a new vice provost will need to marshal University resources to advance research and teaching—is progressing, and will share its work in a similar debut event in coming months. (A committee advising on how Harvard should organize and augment its teaching in the field, across the faculties, has just reported. And the institute will soon make its first major “research cluster” grants—for as much as $600,000 annually, and up to three-year terms; they are explicitly designed to effect interdisciplinary efforts to “take on climate problems that are narrow enough to ensure that concrete solutions emerge, but broad enough that the solutions represent significant progress in meeting the world’s climate challenge.”)

And the quantum science and engineering program has admitted its first cohort of doctoral students, as the renovation of 60 Oxford Street continues, building out a dedicated center for research and teaching. 

Together, these three programs represent more than $1 billion of commitments to new applied and basic research and associated educational programs, from undergraduate through postdoctoral training.

Harvard and the legacy of slavery. The sweeping report released last April is not merely a corrective history; it is a commitment to action, backed by $100 million in funding. When it was published, Bacow said, “You have my pledge that we will marshal this institution’s resources—our intellectual resources, our reputational resources, and, yes, our financial resources—to try and help repair the damage caused by slavery and its legacy.” Three Hundredth Anniversary University Professor Martha Minow, former dean of Harvard Law School and a scholar of international truth and reconciliation processes, chairs a committee responsible for implementation.

Among the many steps recommended in the report were supporting descendant communities by using Harvard’s educational expertise in “close and genuine” partnership with other institutions such as schools, community colleges, tribal colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations already engaged in this work; honoring enslaved people through memorialization, research, curricula, and knowledge dissemination, “in pursuit of truth and reconciliation”; and developing enduring partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, “in light of the invaluable role of HBCUs in the education landscape and the persistent underfunding of these colleges”—through visiting appointments and fellowships for faculty members, support for libraries, and exchanges of students. 

In the conversation September 28, Bacow forecast concrete actions on many such recommendations. Given the issues and the delicate nature of the relationships involved in undertaking them, he said, “I want Harvard, especially when we are partnering with other institutions, to act with humility.” Nonetheless, the depth in which he discussed the actions under way suggested his close involvement and interest in proceeding promptly on multiple fronts, even as the University takes care to be a respectful, genuine partner with others. 

•Fundraising. As the gifts for the Kempner and Salata institutes make clear, the 2021-2022 fiscal year was an extremely robust one for Harvard fundraising. Although the details will not become clearer until the University discloses its financial results for the year later this autumn, the combination of strong pandemic philanthropy generally, donors’ interest in social justice, and (until the end of last winter) favorable financial markets apparently combined to yield record sums for undergraduate financial aid, and new support across Harvard’s schools for work on inequality.

(The funds for College financial aid matter a great deal to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences [FAS]. On September 23, during the unveiling of former President Lawrence H. Summers’s portrait, much attention was paid to the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative he launched. Simplifying aid—students from families whose income is below $75,000 today know that they can attend the College free of charge—both encouraged such candidates to apply, and enabled them to attend if admitted. That model has spread across selective, endowed colleges and universities, and has greatly increased the number of lower-income and first-generation students now enrolled at Harvard and peer institutions. But it has also unleashed a sort of aid arms race. Princeton—the best-endowed institution, measured by endowment per student; fully endowed for financial aid; and now conducting a multibillion-dollar campaign—recently upped its tuition- and fee-free income threshold to $100,000. FAS is not fully endowed for undergraduate aid, meaning that the aid initiative must be paid for, in part, with unrestricted funds, like tuition revenue. So it will welcome, and no doubt pursue aggressively, significant additional support to keep up with the competition.) 

Bacow also indicated that he hopes to secure support this year to launch a major University initiative on the future of democracy, perhaps along the lines of those other cross-school institutes.

•Affirmative action. With oral arguments before the Supreme Court scheduled for October 31 in the Students for Fair Admissions cases challenging consideration of race in undergraduate admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Bacow was emphatic in his defense of the College’s practices—as they have evolved through more than four decades of litigation that has upheld the University’s position. “We think we have made a really, really good case to the Court,” he said, with support from higher education associations, the business community, and academic researchers. “We continue to be hopeful,” he continued, “that the Court will sustain 40 years of precedent.”

Recalling testimony during the underlying litigation (Harvard won both at the initial trial and upon appeal) and recent amicus briefs in the case, he noted that rules that prohibited applicants from explaining their life experiences within their communities—as shaped by racial or ethnic identities—and their relevance to their applications, in effect are an infringement on their First Amendment rights. And given the Court’s concerns about historic precedents for contemporary law, he noted that Harvard’s brief for the October proceeding probed deeply into enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment—and Congressional legislation during the period granting benefits on the basis of recipients’ race (rather than on their status as formerly enslaved people or as descendants of enslaved people)—explicit precedent for consideration of race under certain circumstances.

“We’re not assuming we’re going to lose this case,” Bacow said. Whatever the Court rules, likely next summer, he noted, Harvard will comply—but it will “be true to the values of the institution.”

•Allston. Harvard recently applied for planning approval of the site for the new American Repertory Theater complex, at 175 North Harvard Street: south of the athletic complex, and across the street from the ArtLab. The gift for the project was announced in 2019. Bacow indicated that it was redesigned during the pandemic, but apparently those details have now ripened sufficiently to seek planning permission to proceed. Harvard’s master plan for the area previously envisioned a new basketball arena (a need that was met by renovating Lavietes Pavilion) and graduate-student housing. Thus, a change in use will have to be accommodated, but not a more extensive review that would have been required for permitting for a site not previously approved for redevelopment. On the Cambridge side of the Charles, the project is associated with renovation of the existing Loeb Drama Center, where the ART is now based, for College and FAS use.

With permitting in place for the first phase of the enterprise research campus—a nearly million-square-foot commercial complex encompassing high-rise residences, office or laboratory buildings, and a new University conference center on Allston acreage along Western Avenue, across from Harvard Business School—Bacow might hope to participate in a couple of consequential Allston groundbreaking ceremonies before he concludes his presidential service next June.

•Online learning. With full residential operations resumed, the community has been able to enjoy in-person teaching again. But remote education is, if anything, entering a new, and possibly more expansive, era. Bacow indicated that Harvard Medical School, for instance, has grown its continuing and executive education operations significantly, in part emulating Harvard Business School’s long-term success. During the pandemic, HBS was able to move a surprising share of those operations online, surprisingly quickly, and other University units are obviously taking note.

Separately, the sale of edX to 2U last year, for $800 million in cash, resulted in funding a Harvard-MIT nonprofit joint venture, capitalized with perhaps $700 million after paying off debt and expenses of the transaction, to devote to future online learning experiments, technologies, courses, and degrees. The nonprofit, currently named the Center for Reimagining Learning, is still being organized, Bacow indicated. (As a partnership, it requires agreement on aims and operations with MIT, which is undergoing a dual leadership transition of its own: President Rafael Reif is himself stepping down this December, and MIT Provost Martin Schmidt, who oversaw edX activities, departed to become president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute effective last July.) Presumably, plans for the new nonprofit’s goals and programs will be forthcoming as the two governing partners—at Harvard led by Alan Garber, provost, and Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning—refine their strategy.


That high-level overview from Mass Hall of course glides over the academic and other initiatives at Harvard’s individual schools. Nonetheless, the priorities Bacow outlined suggest that the University presidency remains marathon enough to more than occupy his energies during his final year—even before the seach committee indentifies his successor, and he turns to helping effect a smooth transition to Harvard’s new leader.


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