Larry Bacow’s Parting Push

Allston, higher-education outreach, and free speech make for a busy conclusion to the twenty-ninth president’s Mass Hall tenure.

President Lawrence S. Bacow

During a regularly scheduled conversation at his Massachusetts Hall office last week—the last such occasion for this magazine during his five-year tenure—President Lawrence S. Bacow conveyed a flavor of the University leader’s daily multitasking, while also reflecting philosophically on issues ranging from Harvard’s higher-education role and relationships to free speech on campus.

With spring at hand and Commencement just seven weeks off, Bacow noted that he has been pursuing an active travel schedule, making up for gatherings with alumni and others that had to be deferred during the pandemic. Those trips have extended, in recent months, from California to the Middle East. On the home front, there are regular meetings to attend to, like those of the Corporation; an ad hoc review (for a prospective tenured appointment) scheduled the next day; continuing work with President-elect Claudine Gay on the transition, which takes place July 1; and the myriad details of his day job on campus.

Allston update. Among those details to which he had hoped to attend before concluding his service June 30, Bacow indicated, is the ceremonial groundbreaking for the “treehouse,” the University conference center on Western Avenue in Allston. That symbolic start to construction, earlier thought to be a spring event, will now occur in early summer—providing one of his first opportunities to return to campus after he leaves it.

More important is what is intended to arise alongside and behind the conference center: the commercial development of a hotel, two apartment buildings, and two office/laboratory towers—all part of the first phase of the “enterprise research campus” (ERC) for which Harvard has made Tishman Speyer the developer. The “treehouse” is seen as a sort of front door for the ERC as a whole. Regulatory permission for the project was granted last July 14, raising hopes that work could soon begin to make something out of the cleared site opposite the Harvard Business School campus. The vision for the ERC, and its design as an integrated development carefully planned by Studio Gang and shaped to satisfy community requests (including for more, and more affordable, lower-income housing units), traces to Bacow’s creation of the Harvard Allston Land Company early in his presidency and its designation of the developer in late 2019. So the beginning of construction would be an important milestone in Harvard’s now nearly four-decade-long assembly of parcels in the area and planning for their use.

That said, commercial real estate development is a long-cycle business, and a lot has changed during the past year. Rising interest rates have an adverse effect on the cost of both short-term construction loans and longer-term mortgage debt—significantly affecting developers’ anticipated rates of return—and U.S. rates have surged since early 2022. Leasing is a multiyear process, complicated of late by the reduced prospects for office spaces (in a post-pandemic era of remote work) and, in Boston, a huge surge in permitting for and construction of life-sciences labs. And recent U.S. bank failures (Silicon Valley, Signature) are thought to have tightened commercial real-estate lending further. Those general matters aside, Bacow indicated that the infrastructure for the site—which lacks a road grid, drainage lines, and other utilities—is subject to complex, multiparty negotiations and financing, and the developer’s final agreement on design details with the city of Boston.

In other words, an already long-term project is likely to become longer-term, to a degree that cannot be precisely determined now. Harvard is the ultimate long-term owner, and Tishman Speyer is a partner with a track-record for long-term, high-quality development in demanding markets like New York and Boston. So Bacow can expect to fling a shiny shovel of Allston dirt for the conference center sometime soon, but the second groundbreaking, for the bigger surrounding ERC buildings, will come at some later date. (Separately, he indicated, regulatory review of another Allston initiative of his presidency, the ART theater complex and proposed housing tower on North Harvard Street near Harvard Stadium, continues.) 

Harvard and higher education—and humility. As an experienced champion of American higher education, Bacow assumed the University presidency in 2018 extolling its importance to American economic and political life, and refuting challenges to its value and values—important themes in his installation address. Although he spoke out on behalf of international students whose participation in American higher education was threatened before and during the pandemic and worked behind the scenes in Washington and elsewhere to support the sector, those efforts were necessarily overshadowed for most institutions’ leaders during the COVID-19 crisis. 

So it is interesting to see Harvard’s outreach to other institutions re-emerge in new ways. One element is extensive engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities as part of implementing the work on Harvard and the legacy of slavery. Another is the recently announced commitment of the joint Harvard-MIT Axim venture—the result of the sale of edX in 2021—to bolster educational and career opportunities for underserved learners in partnership with the institutions most accessible to them (perhaps community colleges and regional universities).

In the recent conversation, Bacow suggested that Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning and the leader of the Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force, and colleagues were nearing development of a common technological learning platform for use across the University—and of possible application across higher education. 

Beyond their potential classroom relevance, Bacow continued, these efforts have a larger motive: “I’ve tried to make Harvard more approachable,” he said, “to act with humility, to be part of the higher-education community” rather than apart from or above it.

Assuming such responsibilities, he said, does not always come naturally. Each new thing Harvard takes on makes the place more complex: in its role as a steward of knowledge and collections (library and museum holdings, historical artifacts), it cannot simply jettison past discoveries and intellectual breakthroughs. 

Even more important is the overarching matter of Harvard’s cultural persona. Although an informal, approachable person who insists on being called “Larry,” Bacow continued, he has deliberately “tried to pull down, if you will, this image of Harvard, image of the presidency, which is removed—is seen as different from everything else.” Beyond the obvious (“That’s not who I am. I never confuse the title with the person”), he has wanted to avoid doing anything that would “only reinforce people’s view of the title and the institution, which gets in the way of the institution being approachable.”

That is a work in progress, he conceded, but one worth pursuing—for the good of higher education, and Harvard itself. In that vein, one is reminded of Claudine Gay’s vivid formula during her remarks when she was introduced as president-elect last December 15. 

When I imagine Harvard in the years ahead, I see a University that is even more connected to the world.…The idea of the ivory tower is the past, not the future, of academia. We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it. And that means Harvard has a duty to lean in and engage, and to be in service to the world. Our people, our collections, our research, how we use our convening power in business and law and public policy, for all of that, our commitment must be to openness and engagement.

A good deal of that service and engagement is and ought to be in concert with other institutions of higher education.

Free speech. In light of heightened passions and controversies on other campuses (notably, the recent incident in which a visiting judge was prevented from speaking at Stanford Law School), President Bacow noted that any university or college could have such problems at any time. Harvard has not been in the headlines about speech controversies of late perhaps in part because “We do work at it, and I think every institution has to work at it. It’s important to stand for your principles, especially when they are tested.” As he has made clear from his installation address on, he has worked in academia throughout a half-century career because he believes that

[T]ruth has to be discovered, revealed through argument and experiment, tested on the anvil of opposing explanations and ideas. This is precisely the function of a great university, where scholars debate and marshal evidence in support of their theories, as they strive to understand and explain our world. 

This search for truth has always required courage, both in the sciences, where those who seek to shift paradigms have often initially met with ridicule, banishment, and worse, and in the social sciences, arts, and humanities, where scholars have often had to defend their ideas from political attacks on all sides.

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.

To make that a reality, he said then and in many different ways since:

As faculty, it is up to us to challenge our students by offering them a steady diet of new ideas to expand their own thinking—and by helping 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. 

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.

Throughout his presidency, he said in the recent conversation, he has tried to “model the behavior you would expect to see in others.” In service of that principle, Bacow continued, he has “resisted the urging by others to make public statement after public statement on all sorts of issues.” Although he has chosen moments and issues on which to address the public, especially where University interests are involved, “Harvard doesn’t speak with one voice.…Reasonable people can disagree, and the University ought to be a place where they can debate.” When the president takes a stand, he said, “That quashes debate rather than engaging it.”

During his March trip to the Mideast, he said, he met alumni in both Israel and the West Bank. Some of the former, he recalled, complained that he was not doing enough to respond to anti-Semitism, and some West Bank alumni complained that he was not doing enough to respond to views they see as hurtful to Palestinians. They presented “mirror images of the same issue.” In Cambridge, he said, “I don’t have a magic wand to wave over the campus and make all these unpleasant things go away.” Harvard is “a microcosm of the world we live in,” with all its deep divisions and passions—and so is every other campus. And Harvard’s leaders and faculty members “wouldn’t be doing our students a service if we protected them from all of this.” The University is not a bubble in which students’ “emotional immune systems” can, or should, be kept from developing before they go out into the wider, divided world.

Toward Commencement. One occasion on which those divisions might not be in evidence is the celebration on May 25, when a huge cohort (swollen by pandemic leaves of absence and deferrals) will graduate. After Bacow’s prior choices for Commencement speaker (a journalist, two world leaders, and an esteemed higher-education leader), this year’s announcement of actor Tom Hanks has met with kudos all around. As someone who pursued his education at Chabot College and California State University and has achieved at the highest level of his profession, Hanks may embody for the Harvard graduating audience some of those lessons in humility that Bacow wishes to inculcate. That he has done so while helping society to become more inclusive and tolerant—for example, through his Academy Award-winning role in Philadephia (1993) at a time when Americans were not widely accepting of those suffering from AIDS—matters, too. 

In a riven era, when discourse is subject to disruption and election outcomes are violently disputed, the fact that Hanks’s body of work has won near universal acclaim carries a certain value and message of optimism in and of itself. In Bacow’s selection of the speaker for his final Commencement—after a career full of dozens of them—one senses a deliberate parting message for the graduates and the Harvard community about hope for the future and the kinds of lives that can and ought to be lived.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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