Letters | the view from mass hall
When I took office in 2018, I thought I knew our University very well. I had been a graduate student, an engaged alumnus, a friendly competitor, and a near neighbor. After my presidency at Tufts concluded, I returned to Harvard to do some teaching and mentoring at the Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School. I also served as a member of the Corporation. When my selection as president was announced, I thought my appreciation was close to complete. What greater understanding could await me once I took office?
As it turns out, the more you know Harvard, the less you know Harvard. From almost any perspective, because of its breadth and depth, the University is profoundly and beautifully unknowable. There is no position within it—no perch on which one could stand—that affords a complete view of this extraordinary institution. Every day of my tenure, even those in the thick of the pandemic, brought opportunities to learn more, and I continue to learn more even after five intense years in Mass Hall. Being president provides a window into scholarship at the forefront of every discipline represented within our Schools, from theoretical physics to poetry, from public health to synthetic biology, from medicine to business, from jurisprudence to design, from education to theology, the list goes on—and on. Then, there are the magnificent holdings of our libraries and our museums, the complex histories of our buildings and our campus, and the diverse and dynamic aspirations of the members of our extended community. At Harvard, wonders never cease.
What happens around me in Cambridge has been complemented by activity everywhere else (and the more I traveled as president, the more I came to believe that “everywhere” is apt). It has been humbling to meet alums and others who are doing their utmost to shape the future in places around the world. As the son of refugees, I never imagined I would routinely meet with heads of state or leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, to say nothing of numerous celebrities, though our students are usually much better at recognizing them than I am. In each case, I have gained a new perspective on what Harvard means to people—and what Harvard does for people—and just how outsized a role we play, for better and worse, in the public imagination.
Whenever I see crowds of visitors touring the Yard and taking pictures of the John Harvard statue or of Johnston Gate, I always want to stop them and say, “No! That is not Harvard. Harvard is its people.” We each work to shape the institution and the disciplines represented within it—to make both better in countless ways. But, in the end, the University also shapes us. It makes all of us who work and study here better. Through our collective efforts—our teaching, scholarship, and service—we generate new knowledge that helps advance our understanding of the human condition and the world we inhabit even as that knowledge changes our lives. If I have three wishes for us, it is that we never become complacent, never become self-satisfied, and never fall victim to the belief that we have little to learn from others. A humble Harvard is a better Harvard, more readily embraced and respected by others.
Thank you for making the University the force for good that it is and for giving me so much to learn. I have been part of this institution for fifty years of my life, and I have never been more grateful for it than I am today. It has been the privilege of my career to represent Harvard and to advocate for our mission and our role in the wider world. I suspect my gratitude will only grow in the years ahead as I consider my career in retrospect. Having the time to contemplate the fortuitous accidents that led to my writing this column—and your reading it—is something I very much look forward to savoring come July.
Now, I take my leave and offer you a sailor’s wish for fair winds and following seas. And—if our ships happen to cross in the years ahead—please feel free to call me “Larry.” Everyone does.
Lawrence S. Bacow