President Larry Bacow.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Forward thinker

long read

Bacow hopes lessons of pandemic can help University navigate challenges and seize opportunities as campus life resumes

Harvard is welcoming students, faculty, and staff back to campus this month, a year and a half after the coronavirus upended life at the University and around the world. In a Zoom interview with the Gazette, President Larry Bacow reflected on leading Harvard while working remotely and the lessons learned from the pandemic. He also discussed the University’s responses to immigration policy and climate change, and shared priorities for the year ahead. The interview was edited for clarity and length.


Larry Bacow

GAZETTE: What have you missed most about campus life?

BACOW: I missed my interaction with students, with faculty, with my colleagues. Work is a social function and while people have been incredibly productive on Zoom, it’s difficult to replicate the kind of serendipitous conversation that tends to humanize work. I missed that. I missed the opportunity to participate in the events that define what it means to be a college or university — whether it’s Convocation, Commencement, student performances, athletic events, plays, concerts, lectures, or greeting visitors to campus. I missed all of that. Sometimes, if I don’t have a lunch scheduled, I’ll wander over and grab lunch at Annenberg and just sit down with a bunch of first-year students. I also routinely accept dinner invitations in the Houses. For the past 18 months there’s been none of that, and I’ve missed it all.

GAZETTE: What are the challenges ahead as the University reopens?

BACOW: Our highest priority will continue to be keeping everybody safe and healthy. Public health must come first. One of the challenges we still face is a virus that continues to throw us curveballs. The delta variant is a good example of that, and we may have to deal with others down the road. The only thing I can say with certainty is that all plans are subject to change. People have proven incredibly flexible over the past 18 months, and they are going to have to continue to be moving forward. I think we are going to have to find a new normal in how people are going to do their work. We want to capture some of what we’ve learned over the course of the pandemic because people worked quite productively while remote, and we need to embrace that. But at the same time, we need to recapture what it means to be a residential research university. We’re going to have to reintroduce students to Harvard. Some returning students have spent precious little time on campus, and we’re going to work hard to make them feel welcome once again. Above all, I think this last year and a half has taught us that it’s difficult to anticipate all the challenges we are likely to confront.

GAZETTE: You mentioned delta. What are Harvard’s plans if COVID cases surge in Massachusetts?

BACOW: We’re monitoring it quite closely. We’ve benefited from the advice of our University Coronavirus Advisory Group, which consists of faculty members who are some of the foremost experts in the world in epidemiology, immunology, infectious disease, virology, and public health. So, we will adapt as necessary. It’s all we can do. And until we know what we’re confronting, it’s difficult to predict what that adaptation will be. But we’ll continue to be guided by the same principles that have guided us and that have served us well to this day. We’re going to prioritize public health and the preservation of the academic enterprise.

GAZETTE: Schools and departments across the University are looking at flexible schedules for staff. What are some of the takeaways from this extended period of remote work?

BACOW: We’ve learned that people can be productive working from home or from other remote locations. We’ve also learned that we can keep people safe, even in the face of a virus that’s incredibly dangerous. We’ve learned that students and faculty and staff are willing to really go the extra mile on campus to protect themselves as well as their fellow Harvard community members. We’ve learned that we don’t have to travel as much to get things done. I also think we’ve learned that not everybody’s in the same position. While some people have enjoyed the flexibility that remote work has provided, for others it’s been an enormous challenge as they’ve had to work from home while managing childcare, or elder care, or dealing with environments that may lack great internet access or the privacy they need to be able to work productively.

GAZETTE: Have there been other lessons in the past 18 months?

BACOW: While the virus forced us all apart, it also brought us together in interesting ways, in part by bringing us into people’s homes. We’ve learned a lot about how people live, because in many cases, we’ve been able to meet their children, their parents, their cats, their dogs, all over Zoom. It also, from an institutional standpoint, forced different parts of Harvard to collaborate in ways it perhaps never had before. We had to agree, across all the Schools and administrative units, how we were going to test people, how we were going to reopen, and what the protocols were going to be for masking, social distancing, and personal protective equipment. We had to coordinate announcements about plans, initially for last fall, and then for the spring and Commencement. So, while the pandemic forced us apart, it also created opportunities for people to work together, and in the process develop relationships, which I suspect are going to last. It really contributed to One Harvard.

GAZETTE: How has Harvard contributed to addressing the pandemic, particularly its disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable in society?

BACOW: In every School at Harvard, people have been focused on what we can do to address not just the pandemic, but the inequities that have been laid bare by the pandemic. The Ed School, for example, focused on how it could help both teachers and parents teach and learn, and enhance educational opportunity for kids in a remote teaching and learning environment. They helped prepare lesson plans for teachers; they helped prepare guidance for parents on how to get the most out of remote instruction for their kids. The Phillips Brooks House helped to organize remote tutors for kids around the country. The School of Public Health and the Medical School have been focused laser-like on health inequities and how we address those inequities — not just how we get people to take the vaccine, but also how we ensure people have access to medical care given the increased demands on our health care system created by the pandemic itself. The Law School’s immigration clinic has been working to help many people who have faced immigration issues, including our own foreign students. Many across our community have been working on issues of racial justice and on the problems that people are encountering accessing life’s basic necessities. And our scientists have been inventing new treatment therapies and new diagnostic tools for the virus. For example, when you return to campus, you’ll find we are using a new swab for self-testing invented by one of our faculty members. The swab fits directly into the cap of a test tube, which greatly cuts down on costs because it automates the extraction of the swab from the test tube as opposed to having to do it manually. That’s crucial when we’re doing hundreds of thousands of tests, and it’s an example of how incredibly creative people have been in figuring out ways to put their scholarly expertise to work for the common good.

GAZETTE: The COVID death toll has been devastating, in the U.S. and around the world. What are our responsibilities to one another, at Harvard and beyond, amid such profound anguish and loss?

BACOW: If this pandemic has helped us to understand anything, it’s how interconnected we are. Not just as a country, but as a planet. As this virus continues to spread, it continues to mutate all over the world. Even if we’re capable of vaccinating 100 percent of the people in the U.S., if there are large, unvaccinated populations elsewhere in the world, we have an interest in seeing that they also can access the vaccine and the necessary public health interventions to protect them against the virus.

We also have responsibilities to each other. There’s been so much loss over the course of the past 18 months. One of my first in-person, outdoor visits was with an alum whose wife lost both parents early on to the virus. They had been healthy previously, and they died within a week of each other. We’ve had students who have lost parents to the virus and have been rendered orphans and now have the responsibility of caring for younger siblings. We have staff members who’ve lost parents and siblings and children in some cases. Everybody has been touched by it in one way or another. Not all equally. But I think as we come back together as a University community, it’s important for us to reach out and try to comfort those who have suffered grievous loss.

I was inspired over the course of the pandemic by the fund we established to provide emergency relief to people who needed it. It was astonishing to me how many people contributed to this fund, and how many people we were able to help. We also dedicated emergency funding to partner nonprofit organizations, providing things like food delivery and refrigeration, school supplies and technology support, and other essentials to Cambridge and Allston-Brighton neighbors who needed it most. I am also so proud of the willingness of people to tighten their belts here on campus so that we could avoid layoffs. One in eight people employed in higher education in the U.S. lost their job over the course of the pandemic. That’s an astonishing number. At Harvard we were able to keep people employed, even when we had little or no work for them due to the pandemic.

GAZETTE: Has the experience of the past 18 months changed the way you lead?

BACOW: In some ways. I’ve had to rely upon the expertise of other people to a far greater extent. I’m not an expert when it comes to public health, pandemics, infectious disease, or proper protocols for keeping people safe. But we have lots of people here who are, and so I’ve had to really defer to others, set up processes so that they feel empowered to make decisions, and then support them. I think I’m pretty good at not micromanaging people, but during the pandemic I’ve delegated even more than I normally do. And people have really risen to the challenge, and I think as a result, they’ve grown. I’ve also had to think more about how I communicate because I haven’t had the capacity to address people in a town meeting or in any kind of forum where everybody’s together in person. We’ve had to rethink how we engage with our alumni and others, and it’s been a pleasant surprise to find that Zoom has been an effective tool for engaging them and keeping them abreast of what’s going on at the University. And we’ve found that our alumni have responded magnificently. So many more people have been able to come together virtually where they might not have been able to travel or join us in person previously. This year they have been connected and I think they have been inspired by the work that people have been doing here, and they have been incredibly generous and loyal to us.

GAZETTE: Many parts of the world have faced national disasters this summer, and a recent report by the United Nations ties human activity “unequivocally” to global warming. How can Harvard lead in the effort to combat climate change?

BACOW: Primarily we lead through our teaching and our scholarship. During the pandemic we’ve seen some wonderful innovation on the part of our faculty in new courses. Dan Schrag taught a very popular GenEd course on climate change. We’ve been developing content through HarvardX for the rest of the world. Our faculty continue to do research, which is terribly important to understanding the impact of climate change and developing strategies and technologies to address it. Jim Anderson was recently recognized with the Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences for his work on atmospheric chemistry. We’ve got important work being done in SEAS on the development of batteries, on low-e glass, and on other technologies. We’ve approached the campus as a living laboratory and set ambitious goals to be fossil-fuel neutral by 2026 and fossil-fuel free by 2050. We’re well on our way to doing that, and I want to thank the faculty committee that’s overseeing that process. The Harvard Management Company has committed the endowment to be greenhouse-gas neutral by 2050, the first university endowment in the world to make such a commitment. We’ve been followed by the University of Michigan, by the University of Pennsylvania, and others who have now made similar commitments, and we’re working in collaboration with them now to advance that goal. Former President Drew Faust created the Climate Change Solutions Fund in the president’s office, which seeds research related to climate change, and I’m pleased that our donors have continued to contribute to that. It’s supported a wide range of projects, from urban afforestation in Springfield, Mass., to the study of the impact of groundwater extraction in India, to research on the impact of various policies and strategies in the Beijing region of China on global climate change. The work of faculty focused on interventions to adapt to the realities of the climate crisis and mitigate their effects is where Harvard will have its greatest impact.

GAZETTE: Harvard has long been supportive of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy and other efforts to shield students from deportation. In the wake of a federal judge’s ruling that DACA is unlawful, how can Harvard continue to ensure that all students have the opportunity to study in the U.S., regardless of their immigration status?

BACOW: One thing we can do is advocate for a permanent solution to this problem. I have devoted a lot of time to working on this issue since becoming the president of Harvard. I’ve written to the secretary of state and to the secretary of homeland security. I’ve met with the secretary of state in person. I have talked to multiple members of Congress one-on-one about the importance of finding a solution to these problems. I’ve talked to them about how much we as a nation, and we as an institution, benefit from having students from around the world come study at Harvard and at other colleges and universities so that they can achieve their own dreams. The Biden administration has been willing to signal its support for global education and for finding a solution to Dreamers who are in this country already and seeking to remain here as legal, permanent residents. And I’m encouraged by that.

GAZETTE: Picking up on President Biden — nine months into his presidency, how would you rate the administration’s support for higher education? And what are Harvard’s priorities in Washington for the coming year?

BACOW: I think we’ve seen a shift in tone, which has been helpful. There’s always been bipartisan support for research. The last administration supported additional federal funds for research, and that’s continued under this administration. This administration has also been supportive of increases in Pell Grants, which are important to higher education. As I mentioned, I think the new administration is also much more open and supportive of foreign students coming to this country to study. It’s shown more support for DACA and for serious immigration reform. So, I’m encouraged by that.

GAZETTE: Turning to research, in 2018 the University created the Harvard Quantum Initiative, and it recently announced the creation of a Ph.D. in quantum science. Why make such a big push in this area?

BACOW: This represents one of the most important new areas of science right now. Technological advances have allowed us to manipulate atoms at the quantum level, which in turn will allow us to create new technologies that have the potential to change the world. Quantum information science, quantum networking, quantum computing, quantum sensors, quantum cryptography, quantum materials — these are all huge potential opportunities for us. We find ourselves, candidly, in competition with the rest of the world to achieve these breakthroughs. I think it is important for the nation that we develop this capacity. But it’s also important for the region. A huge concentration of talent exists among Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts University, Northeastern University, Brandeis University, and the University of Massachusetts. And there is an opportunity to build the same kind of capacity in the area of quantum as we have in the life sciences. That represents an exciting prospect for us, and it’s exciting to see what’s going on in terms of the work that our faculty are doing in collaboration with their colleagues in this area.

GAZETTE: Landmark Bio is an example of that kind of cooperation, a collaboration among Harvard and MIT and other institutions focused on bridging the gap between the lab and industry around cell manufacturing. Can you say more about the importance of this type of initiative and whether you envision similar collaborations in the future?

BACOW: Well, we’re blessed to have such great colleagues in the area. When the pandemic hit, one of the very first things we did was form the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, which engaged essentially all the research universities in the area with members of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, all our teaching hospitals, as well as the Broad Institute and the Ragon Institute. Our cell manufacturing facility is another collaboration among Harvard, our teaching hospitals, MIT, and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. In the future, I hope to see more collaboration across institutions. I think one of the things that gives Boston such great strength — as a center for higher education and research, but also as just a vibrant community — is the density of academic talent that exists here. There’s no other place in the world with as many world-class academic institutions. We exchange students among institutions. Faculty, in some cases, move back and forth across institutions. We collaborate with our colleagues in industry, who are in many cases our former students, sometimes our former faculty colleagues. We start new businesses, and new enterprises, as we take discoveries from the laboratory and push them out into the world. This creates this extraordinary ecosystem, which supports great scholarship, but also great innovation and great economic opportunity. And I think we have a major role to play in that process.

GAZETTE: Harvard and MIT recently sold the online learning platform edX to fund a nonprofit aimed at reducing equity gaps in education. What was behind that decision, and how will the new initiative measure success in 2022 and beyond?

BACOW: Well, first, the transaction is not yet closed. We’ve announced it, but it still needs to receive regulatory approval from the attorney general, and we’re working toward that. We’re excited by what the nonprofit will be able to achieve. When we created edX, it was at the earliest stages of online learning. The original concept was for it to reach talented learners anywhere in the world and provide them access to the resources of great universities around the globe. The hope was that people who otherwise would not be able obtain an education could do so. What we learned is that many of the people who accessed the resources of edX already had a college degree, and in some cases, an advanced degree. We also learned that there were people who would have liked to participate, but who faced many challenges, including poor internet access, and, in some cases, the lack of certain educational foundations necessary to be able to capitalize on the kinds of courses that we were creating. The goal of the nonprofit will be to truly address those inequities, to really focus laser-like on them, and to see what we can do to solve those kinds of problems going forward. We’re really excited about the possibility.

GAZETTE: Can you speak to the pandemic’s impact on the endowment, and more generally on Harvard’s finances?

BACOW: In the early stages of the pandemic, it looked pretty grim. You know, a year ago this past March, the equity markets were down 30 to 35 percent. We forecasted a dramatic drop in revenues for the University, which actually did occur. And we were looking at potentially enormous losses for the year. But the capital markets recovered. So, the endowment is likely to have a strong year, as will all endowments. People were also incredibly resourceful and creative in finding ways to curb costs, and while we are likely to see a fall in revenues, the sacrifices that people have made throughout the pandemic have allowed us to avoid layoffs and to emerge in a better financial position than we might have anticipated. Our donors were also extremely generous to us this past year, and generous in a particular way. We saw an enormous increase in gifts for current use, which really helped us out during a time in which we experienced a major decline in revenue, while we also saw an increase in demand for things like financial aid.

GAZETTE:  The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is approaching. What are some of your memories of that day?

BACOW: I became president of Tufts on Sept. 1, 2001. On the morning of Sept. 11, I was in my office in a meeting. The meeting ended; I opened the door, looked out at my assistant, and I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “We’re under attack, turn on the TV.” My predecessor had left a TV in my office, the only one in the building. I turned it on and soon the office was filled with my colleagues, and we watched as the plane hit the second tower. Suddenly I realized everybody was looking at me wondering what we were going to do. I remember saying, “Let’s gather everyone in the Coolidge Room,” which was a big room where the trustees gathered. When we were assembled, I listed the things we needed to do. We made the decision not to cancel classes because we thought it was important for students to come together. I immediately wrote a message to the community. In it I said we we’re not canceling classes and that we didn’t expect much teaching to be done, but that we hoped people would come together to talk about what was occurring. I asked people not to rush to judgment about who was responsible or why. I said we would be getting back to people with more information as soon as we had it, and that we were going to convene on the quad for a community gathering at 5 o’clock that day. And then people got to work, reaching out to students who had families in New York.

The night before, Adele and I had hosted our first big event for Tufts at the president’s house to celebrate a chair that had been established by the Greek government. There were probably 150 people in attendance, representatives of the Greek government and major donors. I knew people were flying out the next morning. And one of the first things we learned was that two of the hijacked planes left from Boston. So, like others, we knew people who were on those planes. We closed ranks and tried to support students and faculty and staff with lost loved ones and just tried to get through the day.

GAZETTE: Young students weren’t alive during 9/11. How do you think their view of the event differs from that of those of us who lived through it?

BACOW: In the remarks that I delivered at 5 o’clock that afternoon, I said that for my parents’ generation, three events defined their lives: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the day Roosevelt died. For my generation, it was the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I said: “Your generation will remember this day. You will talk about it to your children, you will talk about it to your grandchildren. You will always remember what happened on this day, but it will be years before we understand the consequences.” For subsequent generations, for our current students who weren’t alive on 9/11, I think their relationship to it is very much the same relationship as my relationship was to when my father would talk about where he was when Pearl Harbor was attacked, or when he learned that Roosevelt had died, or the stunning announcement of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And while we all remember where we were on 9/11, we are still coming to grips with the consequences. We can draw a direct line between 9/11 and the chaos, violence, and tragedy of recent events in Afghanistan. Sometimes the lessons of history reveal themselves slowly.