“[Harvard is] a microcosm of the world … you will find echoes of the debates that occur elsewhere … on our campus. We have to push back at times and resist being drawn down to a level of debate in which people cease to listen and understand.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Larry Bacow’s listening tour

long read

On eve of inauguration, Harvard’s new president reflects on what he’s learning, what he’s thinking

An economist, lawyer, and expert on resolving environmental disputes, Larry Bacow was named the 29th president of Harvard University in February, and he has been on a wide-ranging listening tour ever since.

In recent months, Bacow has met with many members of the Harvard community to learn ever more about the institution where he has been a Corporation member, Hauser Leader in Residence at the Kennedy School (HKS), and president in residence at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), and where he studied for his J.D. at Harvard Law School (HLS), his M.P.P. at HKS, and his Ph.D. in public policy at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The Gazette spoke with Bacow in Loeb House — his temporary office while renovations on Massachusetts Hall were being completed — about getting to know the University “at a deep level,” his vision for Harvard in the coming year, and how former colleagues, family, and friends have prepared him for his new role. Bacow, who was once president of Tufts University, will be inaugurated on Oct. 5 in Tercentenary Theatre.


Larry Bacow

GAZETTE: What’s it like now to be a university president again after some time away from this type of post?

BACOW: It’s sort of like riding a bicycle — you don’t forget how to do the job. So the good news is that there have been very few surprises. I think that my time on the Corporation really prepared me well for this job. And looking back, for the last seven years, I’ve had breakfast or lunch monthly with [then-President] Drew Faust and [Provost] Alan Garber. And generally those meetings have been staggered, so almost every two weeks I’ve been seeing one or the other of them. Almost every time Drew appointed a new dean I would meet with that person just to provide advice and guidance on issues of academic leadership. So I have relationships with all the deans, which is nice.

Having chaired the Corporation’s Facilities and Capital Planning Committee, having chaired the Audit Committee, having chaired the Finance Committee, I also got to know all the vice presidents well. And to that I would add having served on the Campaign Executive Committee. So it’s felt, from my perspective, comfortable and familiar. That said, I still have lots and lots to learn about Harvard, so I’m still in full sponge mode.

GAZETTE: You took over from Drew Faust on July 1. What have your first few months been like?

BACOW: Well, the first few months were a bit unusual in that July and August are not a time of intense activity on most university campuses, so it was good for me in that I was able to immerse myself more deeply in some longer-term issues. For example, I have visited a number of our vast museums, and am starting to appreciate in a deeper way our responsibility as stewards of the treasures that have been entrusted to Harvard literally over centuries. I also toured our athletics facilities, and I’m getting to know other pieces of the University as well. I spent a lot of time early on with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences because I had to select a new dean of FAS. I’ve also been meeting with donors to the University and working on the search for a new vice president of alumni affairs and development. I participated in a Kennedy School event in Washington, D.C., where I had the chance to speak with many students and alumni. And I’ve addressed new first-year advisers in the College — I’m actually one of those people myself. I wrote to my students in August saying, “Please don’t be intimidated by the fact that I’m your first-year adviser, and I hope you’ll get comfortable calling me Larry. Everybody does.”

As the semester got underway, I was thrilled to be able to greet students during move-in day with my wife, Adele, and to take part in an event at Widener Library welcoming students enrolled in the First-Year Retreat and Experience orientation program. And it was an honor to speak at my first Harvard convocation in Tercentenary Theatre, and deliver remarks at the opening Morning Prayers of the fall semester at Memorial Church.

And the conversations are ongoing. I’ve been involved in the search for a number of new Harvard deans, and I have been meeting with the deans and administrative deans of each School, the University’s vice presidents, and the Corporation, and I held planning retreats — one with my leadership team and one with the Corporation — over the summer months. I’ve been working closely with Provost Garber on academic planning, with Executive Vice President Katie Lapp on plans for Allston, and with many others on a wide range of issues. I’ve been connecting with public officials and higher education leaders, both in and around Boston and across the country. And I traveled back to my home town of Pontiac, Mich., to engage with students, educators, and administrators from local high schools, colleges, and universities to discuss the importance of higher education and to announce a collaboration between Harvard and the University of Michigan that aims to help combat poverty and stem the opioid epidemic.

So it’s been a busy time.

GAZETTE: You mentioned the search for new deans. Both you and former President Faust have appointed a number of them in recent months. How do you see these deans helping advance the mission of Harvard?

BACOW: Well, Drew was very kind to involve me in the selection of the deans of the Graduate School of Education and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She managed those searches. I did not. But when she got down to a handful of final candidates, she invited me to meet with them, and she asked for my opinion before making a decision. I had known Bridget Terry Long for many years from my time at the Ed School. But I didn’t know Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and I really enjoyed getting to know her through the search process. And then we had the retreat this summer, which was an opportunity for all of us — all the deans and the vice presidents — to really get to know each other.

I’m excited by the new people whom we’ve drawn into the administration. I think Tomiko, Bridget, and Claudine Gay, the new dean of FAS, are, first of all, each extraordinary scholars and teachers. Each is an experienced academic administrator already. Bridget has served as the academic dean of the Graduate School of Education. Tomiko has run the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute [for Race & Justice] at the Law School. Claudine has been dean of social science in FAS. So they are all battle-tested. They know what’s involved with academic administration. Each of them has taken on more responsibility, a bigger job, just as I have. There’ll be things which they have to get to know, just as I do. They will take a while to identify their priorities, just as I’m doing. So we’re all on this journey together. And I’m excited about working with each of them.

GAZETTE: What are your goals, your hopes for your first academic year as president?

BACOW: I would hope that not only will I get to know Harvard at a deep level this year, I also hope that Harvard will get to know me. I hope there’ll be lots of opportunities to engage with students, with faculty, with staff, with alumni, with our neighbors, with the leaders of the communities in which we are engaged, with our colleagues in Washington, who are so important to us at this point, who are shaping policy that affects not just Harvard but all of higher education.

I also want to get my team in place. I’m blessed that I’ve inherited a great group of colleagues from Drew. And the only positions I’m filling are those where people have retired. I’m also looking forward in this first year to participating in ancient and honorable traditions of Harvard — but traditions which I have not yet experienced personally as president. I am looking forward to the Harvard-Yale football game. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to welcome new faculty, new graduate students, to congratulate our faculty when they win major awards, as they most certainly will. I’m looking forward to congratulating faculty who’ve been promoted. There are many things that I’m looking forward to.

There’s a rhythm to the academic year. And what I learned when I went to Tufts is that each institution does things a little bit differently. And until you’ve been through one full academic cycle, you’re still always learning and it’s always new. And once you’ve been through a cycle, then you can step back and absorb things in a slightly different way. But the first time through is always special.

GAZETTE: It’s been suggested that Tufts’ size might have made it easier to connect more directly with faculty, students, and staff. Harvard is much bigger, with its “every tub on its own bottom” reputation. Do you have any concerns about that?

BACOW: At Tufts every tub also sits on its own bottom. And although Tufts is roughly half the size of Harvard, it’s still a good-sized place. It’s not a small liberal arts college. It’s not Amherst or Williams or Bowdoin or Bates. It’s a university, with seven schools on three campuses with a number of affiliated teaching hospitals. There’s no question Harvard will be different. But difference is good. It makes life interesting.

GAZETTE: You mentioned Harvard’s history, and looking forward to certain traditions. When do you feel it’s important to respect tradition, and when is it important to break from it?

BACOW: Well, I’ve spent part of my summer reading histories of Harvard. And one of the things you learn when you read those histories is how much Harvard has changed over the centuries. And every decade brings more change. So in some ways you could say the only tradition we truly honor is change. So in many ways, I hope to continue a tradition of change, of reflection, of thinking about how Harvard can be the very best Harvard it could be, and to stimulating conversation about how we continue to adapt to changing circumstances.

Leadership, in my mind, is about managing change. If you’re not managing change, you’re not leading: You’re presiding. And I did not take this job merely to preside over Harvard.

“I would hope that not only will I get to know Harvard at a deep level this year, I also hope that Harvard will get to know me.”

GAZETTE: Looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest opportunities, the biggest challenges?

BACOW: So let me start with the challenges. I think the biggest challenge, as I alluded to in my remarks when I was announced as the next president, involves trying to change the narrative about higher education in this country. I fear we’re at a point where all of higher education risks losing public support, which we cannot afford to do, unless we do a better job of making the case that we exist to create opportunity for others, to advance the interests of the nation and our communities, that our search for truth necessarily involves both a commitment to excellence as well as a commitment to new ideas, and freedom of speech and expression. One can’t hope to identify new truths unless you’re willing to consider that you might be wrong.

I think that we face a particular challenge at this moment because of the coarseness of public discourse throughout society. We need to commit to civil discourse on this campus and on all other campuses. But we’re a microcosm of the world that we live in. And so frequently you will find echoes of the debates that occur elsewhere heard in debates on our campus. We have to push back at times and resist being drawn down to a level of debate in which people cease to listen and understand.

We face a challenge at this particular moment because there are those who wish to limit how we make important decisions about the nature of those admitted to Harvard College. We find ourselves defending important principles — that diversity matters. It matters because we learn from our differences and it’s a pathway to excellence. Unfortunately, there are those who seek to narrowly define what constitutes excellence and thus who gets admitted to Harvard, so that’s a challenge.

I think we face challenges in figuring out how to capitalize on the extraordinary intellectual opportunities that present themselves to us when we have limits to what we can do. My colleague Bob Rubin, whom I served with on the Corporation, is fond of saying that Harvard can do anything, but Harvard can’t do everything.

Beyond the financial resources that we have available to us, which are substantial, there are other limits on what we can do. There are 24 hours in a day. Try as we might, we can’t expand the time available to us. I like to say the scarcest resource on any university campus is faculty time. How that gets focused, where we decide to invest our faculty resources, is a decision that presidents don’t make, deans don’t make — the faculty make for themselves, but hopefully make it as part of a conversation. It’s a collective conversation about where the great intellectual opportunities and challenges lie. But it’s still a finite resource, so that’s a challenge for us.

The intellectual opportunities are also great. We are creating new tools which allow us to answer questions people have never been able to answer in the history of mankind. Whether we’re talking about CRISPR technology, which allows us to edit genes in ways that we’ve never had the capacity to do, or whether we’re talking about LIGO — Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — how ’s that one [laughter]? Actually, I learned about LIGO over 20 years ago when it was first proposed by my MIT colleague Rai Weiss. Rai won the Nobel Prize this past year for the success of LIGO in establishing the existence of gravitational waves, which had been hypothesized by Einstein but never proven. What’s really, really exciting, though, is that now we have the capacity to combine this new observational tool, LIGO, which can detect gravitational waves, with a new generation of telescopes that help us see what’s happening in the universe, and with new radio telescopes that allow us to understand different parts of the non-visible spectrum. By combining these tools, we are now able to understand and explain cosmic events in new ways, so it’s a very, very exciting time in physics.

We are just starting to understand and appreciate what we can do in terms of data science with big data sets. We have the computational power that allows us to ask and answer questions in areas of science, medicine, social science, even the humanities, which we’ve never had the opportunity to consider before. It is a very exciting time intellectually. These represent great opportunities for us.

GAZETTE: What do you envision for Harvard in Allston?

BACOW: Allston is an enormous opportunity for Harvard. I’m very excited as we get ready to open up the Science and Engineering center and the new ArtLab. We’re also about to move forward on the Enterprise Research Campus. It’s my hope, over the course of this next year, that we’ll be able to further a number of additional academic initiatives in Allston. I’m very excited about that.

I’m also excited about the opportunity to collaborate with some of our neighboring institutions. President Rafael Reif invited me to speak to the MIT Corporation at their spring meeting about how Harvard and MIT might work more closely together. I invited Rafael to come speak to the Harvard Corporation this fall. I’ve been having conversations with my old friend and colleague Bob Brown, who now is president of Boston University, about ways in which we can also collaborate. I look forward to engaging with my other peers at neighboring institutions and talking about what we might do together — all very exciting.

I’m also excited about the opportunity to engage and partner and work with some of our sister institutions around the country in important ways, just as we are doing with our colleagues at the University of Michigan.

GAZETTE: Another challenge and a priority for you is how to make college affordable. How do you view that challenge, and where does financial aid fit in?

BACOW: Well, economists are fond of distinguishing between price and cost. And while financial aid helps to lower the price of a college education, it does nothing to lower the cost. The good news is that through the good efforts of [former presidents] Larry Summers and Drew Faust, we’ve been able to greatly expand the amount of financial aid available to our students. I applaud their efforts and hope to continue their good work. But I also think that we need to be attentive to costs that tend to drive increases in tuition. So I look forward to working with my colleagues on the faculty, with the deans and with others, to find ways in which we can operate more efficiently, to find ways we can enhance the quality of education but without necessarily also making it more costly.

GAZETTE: Sticking with challenges, Harvard is often engaged in pretty contentious issues and with people with very strong opinions on either side of any sort of debate.

BACOW: Really? Nobody told me that before I took the job [laughter].

GAZETTE: In a recent Harvard Magazine interview, you said that if you are in the position of telling people what they have to do, you’ve already lost. But how do you balance being the person who gets to have the final decision with negotiation and with consensus?

BACOW: Well, I also mentioned in the article that I learned from Tom Schelling, one of my mentors in graduate school, that you don’t need to get everybody on board. You just need an unblocked coalition, enough people supporting you so that you can move forward.

I do believe that anytime you need to assert your authority to get something done in a collegial organization, you’ve lost. You need to be able to persuade people that you’re making principled decisions. So I intend to always lead with the rationale for my decisions. I also recognize that I need to listen well because I know I’m not infallible. I’m counting on my colleagues to help educate me, to tell me when I’m about to make a mistake — or alternatively, to say, “Here’s a better way to accomplish the same objective that you may not have thought about.” I also believe that good people are entitled to change their minds, so you need to be open-minded about how to approach major decisions.

Most of us tend to view the world through our disciplinary lenses. There are times that doing so can help because they bring things into sharper focus. But there are also times that you need to take the glasses off, because those same lenses can sometimes be narrowing. They may not allow you to see dimensions of problems that you’re not naturally inclined to see, so I hope my training as a lawyer, an economist, as somebody who’s studied dispute resolution will prove helpful in trying to move issues along. But I also hope that my colleagues will help me see things from other perspectives.

GAZETTE: You’ve spoken about the importance of inclusion and diversity. How do you see the work of Harvard’s Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging?

BACOW: In August I spoke to the Board of First-Year Advisers. I told them that if they were going to be good first-year advisers, they needed to transport themselves back in time to when they showed up at college on their very first day and to remember their level of anxiety. Would they fit in? Would they make friends? Would they find their niche? I think everybody who comes to a place like this worries about that. It is certainly true for first-year undergraduates. It’s true for first-year graduate students. It’s true for first-year faculty members. It’s even true for first-year presidents.

So inclusion and belonging, in my mind, is partly about building community. It’s about helping people to see themselves as part of Harvard when they look at Harvard. Great institutions find ways of capitalizing on the full range of ideas, experiences, backgrounds, and personalities to create a great community. There really is no community if everybody thinks alike, if everybody comes from the same place, if everybody has precisely the same experience, the same set of interests. Ultimately, diversity not only makes Harvard a more interesting place, it enhances the learning environment for everyone.

GAZETTE: In keeping with the theme of inclusion, how do you see Harvard working with its surrounding communities?

BACOW: We are embedded in multiple communities, including Cambridge, Allston, and in the Longwood area. I’d like to think we are a good neighbor in each of those communities. We all live and work together. Many of the people who live in those neighborhoods also work at Harvard. We send our kids to local schools, and many graduates of those schools ultimately come to study at Harvard. Finally, many long-term residents of Cambridge and Boston came here years ago to study and decided to settle here.

Adele and I are good examples. Adele grew up in Florida. I grew up in Michigan. We both came to Boston to go to college, and neither one of us ever left. One of the things that makes Boston such an interesting place is that we are the only major city in the country where the dominant institutions are the nonprofits: the universities and the hospitals. That’s one of the many things that gives Boston its special character, and it makes it such an interesting place. But I also think it brings with it a special responsibility for us institutionally to make sure that we are always a good neighbor.

GAZETTE: In terms of your future career, I think I read that your mother was the first one to recognize the teacher in you — and that your parents were very indulgent with your endless questions.

BACOW: Oh, I used to drive them crazy — crazy. I would ask question after question after question. And my mother always used to say, “And then we’d answer it, and you’d say ‘But suppose this and suppose that,’” so they were very patient with me as a kid growing up. I was a very, very curious kid. I was a tinkerer.

GAZETTE: I know you had a Heathkit [assemble-it-yourself electronics device] when you were young. Was there an “aha” moment that sparked your interest in science?

BACOW: No, I’m very much my father’s son. My father was a ham radio operator. I became a ham radio operator. My father was an Eagle Scout. I became an Eagle Scout. My father liked to ski. I learned how to ski. My father played tennis. I played tennis. My father was a lawyer. I became a lawyer. So a lot of it, I think, probably came from my dad. Growing up, he was always tinkering with radios and other things, so I came by my tinkering honestly. I was also always fascinated with the natural world. I loved both math and science. But I learned in college that I was not cut out to be a mathematician, which is how I found my way to economics.

My mother always thought I would be a teacher. She thought I was good at explaining things. I had two early experiences teaching which helped me understand that I enjoyed it. One was in the Boy Scouts, where I taught cooking merit badge. And then I spent my summers in college teaching sailing. And I loved that. I loved being on the water, but I also enjoyed the actual teaching process. So I think my mother figured out I was a teacher well before I did. She wasn’t surprised when I decided to become a faculty member. My father had other ideas.

“Leadership, in my mind, is about managing change. If you’re not managing change, you’re not leading: You’re presiding. And I did not take this job merely to preside over Harvard.”

GAZETTE: What do you think they would think about you being the president of Harvard?

BACOW: Oh, I think they’d be both surprised and immensely proud. Nobody ever envisions their son or themselves ever becoming president of Harvard, so I don’t think they could have imagined this, but I like to think that they would be pleased.

GAZETTE: You’ve spoken about the importance of giving back. Is that something that they instilled in you from an early age?

BACOW: Growing up, both of my parents were civically involved and engaged, and were always focused on helping others. It was just in the air and water. I can never remember a time in which my parents weren’t emphasizing our responsibility to those less fortunate. I think a lot of that came from my mother, who had a very, very, difficult childhood during the war. But she was never embittered by her experience. To the contrary, I think she realized that she had survived for a reason, and so she decided to not only live life well and enjoy it, but also to try to help others who found themselves in challenging circumstances. My mother was always going out of her way to be kind and helpful to others.

GAZETTE: I know family is very important to you and that your wife, Adele, played a key role at Tufts during your tenure. Can you talk a little bit about the role of family in helping you balance your time amid such a demanding job?

BACOW: Well, we’ve been a team in everything that we’ve ever done. For years, I was known around Boston as Adele Fleet Bacow’s husband. She was far better known in her profession than I was in mine. And we’ve been blessed with an extraordinary relationship and marriage, with two wonderful children. Now my sons did something I didn’t think was possible: They married women up to the standards of their mother [laughter]. Our kids keep us centered. Adele keeps me grounded. We’ve been very fortunate, having lived in Boston since we were kids, basically, since we came here as freshmen. As a result, we have deep, deep friendships with classmates from college and graduate school who knew us well before any of this happened. They also help keep us centered and grounded, so I consider myself to be blessed.

GAZETTE: What are you reading currently?

BACOW: I spent the summer reading those histories of Harvard. I just finished Jennet Conant’s excellent biography of James Conant, her grandfather, and one of my predecessors. The book recounts not only Conant’s time at Harvard, but also his contributions to organizing science in support of the war effort during World War II. I generally read history and biography, with the occasional mystery novel thrown in for good measure. Before I got started on Harvard histories, I read David Maraniss’ “Once in a Great City,” which is a history of Detroit, my hometown, starting back in the early 1960s when it was considered the Silicon Valley of the United States — and what happened to the city over time. Before that, I read a great longer biography of Walter Cronkite. I’m still working my way through Winston Churchill’s massive multivolume history of World War II. I’ll read one of the many volumes and then I’ll leave it for a while and then come back to the next volume. I also have a growing list of books on my night table published recently by Harvard faculty.

GAZETTE: Is there one thing people would be really surprised to learn about you?

BACOW: I am an amateur juggler. Let’s put it this way: I used to entertain our kids’ friends at birthday parties on rainy days by juggling [laughter].

GAZETTE: I think that’s awesome.

BACOW: I’m a passionate sailor. I still run. I love to ski.

GAZETTE: Are you a black-diamond skier, or are you more of a look-at-the-view skier, like me?

BACOW: I used to be a serious skier. I did some racing in high school. I’ll still ski the black diamonds, but I don’t ski them with the same reckless abandon that I once did. I don’t go looking for the steepest, most challenging stuff on the mountain anymore like when I was younger. My legs and my knees aren’t the same as they once were.

GAZETTE: Is there one sailing trip you’d like to still take — any long-distance sail you’d like to do?

BACOW: I just love almost any time on a sailboat. I always say a bad day on the boat beats a good day in the office [laughter].