During an in-depth interview, Harvard President Larry Bacow looks back on his first year in office. He also discusses the importance of truth as a principle, his commitment to public service, and what he’s anticipating most at his first Commencement as University leader.
GAZETTE: It’s been just under a year since you took office. Is there anything that has really surprised you in that time?
BACOW: All the surprises have been on the upside. I knew and understood the job, and I knew Harvard pretty well before I took this role. In contrast, I had a lot more to learn about Tufts when I went there [as president]. But one thing that you can never truly appreciate until you sit in this position is the degree of interest in everything that goes on at Harvard. This really was driven home to me on my recent trip to China. I gave a speech at Peking University, and within hours it had been downloaded by half a million people. People are really, really interested in everything that happens here and everything the president says. I knew that intellectually, but until you experience it firsthand you can’t quite appreciate it.
The other thing that’s been really fun is getting to know the history of the place. For example, I work in a building that housed George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War, and I live in a house that was a military hospital for Washington’s troops during that same war. Everywhere you look at Harvard, you find history. I spent this past summer reading histories of Harvard, but now I am engaging with those histories in interesting ways, so that’s been fun.
And there have been some really special moments: welcoming first-year students in the Yard for the first time, and attending the annual Bridge Program ceremony, where we celebrate the members of our community who have become citizens in the past year through the good efforts of our students, alumni, and staff who have tutored them, and in some cases helped them learn English. That experience was quite moving.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know the faculty. For example, I met with faculty in different fields and areas to prepare for my trip to China and Japan. More recently, I have been meeting with faculty who are doing research focused on people who live outside of major U.S. cities — rural, non-urban America. It’s also fun once again to be reading tenure and promotion cases because it’s a window on the cutting-edge research that’s done in every possible discipline that’s represented here at Harvard.
GAZETTE: You mentioned your trip to China and delivering the speech at Peking University. You cited the work of a Uighur poet at the very end of that talk. Why?
BACOW: Throughout the speech, I was trying to make a number of important points, but to do so in a way that was respectful of my hosts. I wanted to speak about the importance of freedom of speech, but I didn’t want to sound as if I was lecturing to them, which is why I essentially repeated what I said in my installation address. I said, “These are the values of a great university that I spoke to my colleagues about at Harvard.” One of those values was the importance of truth, so it seemed right to close the speech by going back to that theme. My attention was called to this poem, which in substance said exactly what I wanted to say, and had the additional virtue of being authored by a member of the Uighur minority.
Now, I did not note that it was a poem that was written by a Uighur, but as soon as I mentioned the name of the poet, everybody knew. It was a way of calling attention to the fact that some voices are being stilled and deserve to be heard. I saw it as an opportunity for me to give voice to an individual, to a group of people, and to the principle of the importance of truth.
GAZETTE: That brings up the issue of free speech, a critically important topic on college campuses across this country. Can you talk a bit about why you feel it’s so important to nurture that concept here?
BACOW: I again go back to what I said in my installation address. I said that if we are committed to truth, we have to be willing to listen to those who challenge our thinking — and that’s across the ideological spectrum. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. Nobody has a monopoly on virtue, which is why I said in my address that we need to be quick to understand and slow to judge. I believed it when I said it on Oct. 5, and I believe it even more today.