There came a moment last fall when Bill Lee just had to ask.
Lee, the Harvard Corporation’s senior fellow, chaired the search committee tasked with finding a successor for Harvard President Drew Faust, who will step down in June after 11 years at the University’s helm.
The committee presided over a process that was broadly consultative, sending out 375,000 emails seeking comments and suggestions, and speaking with hundreds of alumni, students, and higher-education leaders. Advisory committees were convened representing each of the campus’ main stakeholders: faculty, students, and staff.
The process worked, generating the names of 700 potential candidates. One name kept resurfacing: Lawrence S. Bacow, who spent a successful decade as Tufts University’s president, who had once been described as “perhaps the most respected university president in the country,” and whom Lee didn’t have to go far to interview: Bacow had been working diligently as a search committee member.
“We had heard from a number of folks during the interviews, suggesting that we consider Larry,” Lee said. “And then several members of the faculty contacted me directly and suggested, ‘What about Larry?’ I was in a car on the way home from the airport, and I thought to myself it would be irresponsible not to ask him” if he might be interested in the job.
Lee called Bacow and asked whether he’d consider joining the pool of candidates. Bacow discussed the prospect with his wife during a two-day car trip. When they returned, Bacow agreed to participate, and in December stepped down from the search committee. Bacow said Sunday that the challenging times facing Harvard and all of higher education played a role in his decision.
“I really see this as an opportunity to not just serve Harvard, but at this particular moment in time, to serve higher education,” Bacow said. “These are tough times, and it’s the first time in my lifetime when people have questioned the value of going to college, have questioned whether it’s a worthy investment for students and their families, questioned whether or not colleges and universities are worthy of our support.”
That skepticism, found even at the highest levels of government, caused higher education’s tax-exempt status to come under assault in recent months. In December, Congress passed and President Trump signed the first tax on university endowments, which provide critical support for campus budgets.
Bacow spoke after being introduced as Harvard’s 29th president on Sunday afternoon during a news conference at Harvard’s Barker Center. Bacow, who was Tufts president from 2001 to 2011 and previously chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was appointed Sunday by a vote of the Harvard Corporation, in consultation with the Board of Overseers. His presidency begins July 1.
In his introductory comments, Lee called Bacow “one of the most respected, insightful, experienced, and effective leaders” in higher education, one who other leaders come to for advice on hard problems. He is someone who the search committee “unanimously and enthusiastically believes was the best choice to lead Harvard forward.”
“Larry is an extraordinarily accomplished, admired, and forward-looking university leader, a respected scholar and a respected educator and a truly wonderful human being,” Lee said. “Harvard’s future will be in excellent hands.”
Lee thanked members of the search committee and others who participated in the process and also thanked Faust for her “extraordinary service and her extraordinary leadership.”
Bacow, a lawyer, economist, and environmental policy expert who served on MIT’s faculty for 24 years, not only knows higher education, but knows Harvard as well, Lee said. Bacow holds three Harvard degrees — a J.D. and an M.P.P., both earned in 1976, and a Ph.D. in public policy in 1978. He has served on the Corporation since 2011 and has been president-in-residence at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He’s currently the Hauser Leader-in-Residence at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
Bacow traced his appreciation of higher education to his family’s difficult history. His father immigrated to the United States to escape pogroms in Minsk in the Soviet Union. His mother arrived aboard a Liberty ship with few belongings shortly after World War II. She was the only member of her family to survive the Auschwitz extermination camp and the only Jew from her village to survive the war.
“When she arrived on our shores, she was all of 19,” Bacow said. “When I reflect upon my parents’ journey to this country, I realize how lucky I am. Where else can one go in one generation from off the boat with literally nothing to enjoying the kind of life and opportunity that I and my family have been fortunate to enjoy? It was higher education that made this all possible.”
Bacow will take the helm of an institution that is financially robust, nearing the end of a capital campaign that has raised more than $8 billion, topping its original $6.5 billion goal. Bacow declined to discuss specific priorities for his presidency, but said new opportunities exist in a variety of areas, offering as an example the expansion of Harvard’s campus in Allston.
Bacow said that when he arrived at the Kennedy School in 1972 as a 20-year-old graduate student, he thought that he might have been the beneficiary of an admissions mistake. It was during his time here, he said, that he discovered a love of teaching and of scholarship and developed the interest in higher education that put his feet on the path they still tread today.
“It was here that I discovered who I really was,” Bacow said. “I know of no place on earth with greater potential to help change people’s lives for the better, and I can think of no more exciting time [for] doing all I can — indeed I would say all we can — to help Harvard achieve that potential, not just for the good of our students but for the good of the world we aim to serve.”