Harvard President Larry Bacow at 2019 Commencement.

Harvard President Larry Bacow at Commencement in 2019.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Larry Bacow, University’s 29th president, to step down next June

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‘Collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways’

Lawrence S. Bacow, the 29th president of Harvard University, announced Wednesday that he will step down on June 30, 2023.

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s pre-eminent higher education leaders, Bacow conveyed his decision in a message to the Harvard community. Remembering the “awe” he felt upon arriving at the University as a graduate student in 1972, he went on to thank and pay tribute to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

“Fifty years later, I am still in awe but for different reasons,” he wrote. “It is you whom I hold in awe — our students who inspire me with your passion to make the world a better place, our faculty who push the boundaries of knowledge in just about every field of human endeavor imaginable, our staff who over the past few years have demonstrated resilience, commitment, and dedication that is nothing short of remarkable, and our alumni who shape the world in ways too numerous to mention.”

Having led Harvard through the pandemic, Bacow is also credited with advancing the University’s academic mission and encouraging efforts to bring disciplines together to tackle complex global challenges such as the climate crisis. He has served as a passionate advocate for the free exchange of ideas and for international students and scholars and has set Harvard on course for a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive future while reckoning with its history. Under his leadership, Harvard also has made progress on its growing campus in Allston, including steps to bring the American Repertory Theater to the neighborhood, and has launched innovations in teaching and learning to enhance opportunities for both on-campus students and remote learners.

“There is never a good time to leave a job like this, but now seems right to me,” Bacow wrote in his message. “We have worked together to sustain Harvard through change and through storm, and collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways. I will depart Mass Hall with many fond memories to share with my children and grandchildren, and Adele and I are both looking forward to spending more time with each of them.”

Larry Bacow with granddaughter at his inauguration as Harvard president.

Bacow dances with his granddaughter at his inauguration in 2018.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

In a letter to the community, William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and Penny Pritzker, who will become senior fellow on July 1, wrote: “Harvard could not have asked for a better, wiser, more thoughtful, dedicated, experienced, and humane leader through these times of extraordinary challenge and change.

“Both of us have had the privilege of serving alongside Larry as members of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the University’s principal fiduciary governing board,” said Lee and Pritzker. “Both of us were extremely pleased when he accepted the invitation to serve as Harvard’s president. And, having watched him lead Harvard these past years — with great inner strength, a steadfast moral compass, and a deep devotion to serving others — we have come to admire him all the more.”

Citing a number of “qualities and commitments that have made Larry such an outstanding leader during these unusually challenging times,” Lee and Pritzker praised Bacow’s leadership.

“When people speak highly of him, Larry can be counted on to deflect the compliment by saying that leadership is a team sport and that he is blessed with a great team,” they wrote. “He is right. Harvard is blessed with a singular community of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others whose aspirations and talents make all the difference. But great teams rely on great captains. And — through the tone he sets, through the values he affirms, through the common purpose he cultivates, through the trust he builds, through the initiatives he launches and sustains — Larry Bacow is just that.” 

Advancing academic vision to meet societal challenges, opening new frontiers in science and technology

Bacow will step down following 12 years as a member of the Harvard Corporation, including five as president. He took office in 2018, after serving from 2011 as a member of the Corporation. After stepping down as president of Tufts University in 2011, and before becoming president of Harvard, he served as the Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership and president-in-residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Bacow is introduced as Harvard’s 29th president.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Larry Bacow introduced as next Harvard president in 2018.

Harvard’s teaching and research mission has expanded under Bacow’s tenure. He has sought to marshal the University’s academic resources across disciplines to tackle complex societal issues such as climate change, inequality, global health, and the future of cities, and has advanced new initiatives in in science and technology.

In 2018, Harvard launched the Harvard Quantum Initiative, which has garnered significant philanthropic support and has drawn a group of exceptional young scientists through the HQI Prize Postdoctoral Fellowship. The University also established a new Ph.D. program in quantum science and engineering, one of the first of its kind. The program’s integrated curriculum — at the intersection of physics, chemistry, and engineering — will accelerate the preparation of new leaders in a field of rapidly expanding intellectual and practical importance.

“The quantum race is a global one,” Bacow wrote in Harvard Magazine. “Our competitors are supported by governments that understand that the swiftest route to a thriving economy runs through university laboratories. Leading in the development of systems and devices that are faster, more precise, and more secure than anything we can imagine today is in the national interest. Quantum science and engineering is more than just a promising area of science and technology. It is the future.”

In December 2021, Bacow unveiled the new Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence, a University-wide initiative at the intersection of neuroscience and artificial intelligence, seeking fundamental principles that underlie both human and machine intelligence. With the support of a gift from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, the Institute will be housed in the new Science and Engineering Complex in Allston.

The institute “represents a remarkable opportunity to bring together approaches and expertise in biological and cognitive science with machine learning, statistics, and computer science to make real progress in understanding how the human brain works, to improve how we address disease, create new therapies, and advance our understanding of the human body and the world more broadly,” Bacow said in his announcement.

Larry Bacow runs with students.

Bacow takes an early morning run with students, carrying on a tradition from his time as Tufts president.

File photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Adele and Larry Bacow with members of student percussion troupe THUD at Arts First.
Adele and Larry Bacow help students move in to the dorms.

Bacow and his wife, Adele, get to know members of the undergraduate drum group THUD at Arts First, and give first-years a hand on Move-in Day.

File photos by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

In September 2021, Bacow announced plans to create a new home for the Economics Department, designed to bolster its global impact and to promote collaboration and innovation in teaching and research within the department and across the University. Supported by a gift from Penny Pritzker, the new building will support “an exceptional new generation of Harvard economics leaders, giving them the tools and spaces they need to advance bold new ideas, including a focus on equity and opportunity,” said Claudine Gay, the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Earlier, in 2019, Bacow announced a new home for the American Repertory Theater, made possible by a gift from David E. ’93 and Stacey L. Goel. In addition to supporting a state-of-the-art research and performance center in Allston, the gift will bolster arts programs throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as offerings in the arts continue to grow.

“The vision for a new research and performance center will reflect the A.R.T.’s core commitments to artistic excellence, rigorous pedagogy, civic leadership, global engagement, inquiry, and inclusion,” said Diane Paulus, the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the A.R.T.

Taking its place alongside Harvard Business School, the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Harvard Innovation Labs, and a range of other activities intended to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and cross-disciplinary collaboration, the A.R.T. will anchor Harvard’s expanding arts presence in Allston. It will complement programming at the ArtLab, a new hub for arts innovation opened in 2019 on North Harvard Street, and initiatives at the Harvard Allston Ed Portal and the Office for the Arts’ ceramics studio on Western Avenue.

Bacow has also championed the new Enterprise Research Campus in Allston, which includes a state-of-the-art conference center. The ERC will join the emerging innovation cluster in Allston and add a vital new dimension to the Boston area’s knowledge-based ecosystem.

“During my time as mayor, President Bacow was a valuable leader in the community, especially throughout the unanticipated challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Marty Walsh, former Boston mayor and current U.S. secretary of labor. “He has made significant contributions in the lives of many students, families, and in the Greater Boston community, both as a leader and a partner.”

Larry Bacow at Ed portal Mentoring Showcase.

Bacow meets young local students engaged in the mentorship program at the Ed Portal.

File photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

In March 2021, Bacow announced the creation of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, significantly enlarging the scope and potential impact of an initiative aimed at supporting a new generation of mayors and municipal officials from across the country and around the world. A gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies is helping Harvard create new fellowships, new professorships, and the new University-wide center, expanding a program that has served over 400 mayors and 1,300 other city officials from about 500 cities across six continents.

Writing in The Boston Globe, Bacow and Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, underscored the project’s ambitious aims.

“Mayors are making progress on issues that have left Washington gridlocked because they tend to be removed from national partisan politics,” they wrote. “Being on the ground and in their communities requires mayors to problem-solve, welcome ideas no matter where they come from, and have the courage to test those ideas. Municipal leaders are integral to building trust in government, keeping people safe, delivering critical services, and more. Cities can also speed up the timetable on ambitious ideas — and once cities demonstrate an idea can work, regional and national governments can adopt them and scale up. We believe that this nimble, nonpartisan, innovation-driven, and bottom-up type of leadership is exactly what America urgently needs more of, no matter who occupies the White House — and through a new center at Harvard, we will help foster it.”

During Bacow’s tenure, with the leadership of Provost Alan Garber, Harvard has also spearheaded the development and launch of Landmark Bio, a novel collaboration among universities, hospitals, and industry that seeks to accelerate the development of new, potentially life-saving therapeutics.

Leading advocate for free exchange of ideas, international students and scholars

Throughout his presidency, Bacow has been a staunch advocate for the importance of higher education, both for students and for society.

In his 2018 inaugural address, he charted the growth of American higher education from the Land-Grant College Act of 1862 to the G.I. Bill of 1944 and beyond, noting that “[e]very such expansion of higher education, every move toward openness to those previously excluded, has brought the United States closer to the ideal of equality and opportunity for all. So higher education has not only supported our democracy, but in some sense it has created it — and we are nowhere near done.”

Bacow, with Ed School Dean Bridget Long, visits students at the International Technical Academy in his hometown of Pontiac, Michigan. It was his first trip as Harvard’s president.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

President Larry Bacow and Dean Bridget Terry Long visit the International Technology Academy in Pontiac, Michigan.

Bacow went “back home” for his first trip as Harvard’s president, visiting students at the International Technical Academy, a K-12 STEM public school in Pontiac, Michigan, where he grew up. There he spoke passionately about the “transformative power of education.”

“I want to make sure that Harvard — but not just Harvard, all of our universities — are working hard to ensure what we can do to create opportunity for future generations,” Bacow told students and teachers at the school.

Bacow’s life has been deeply influenced by his parents, both of whom were refugees. His father, Mitchell Bacow, fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the United States. He parked cars at night to become the first member of his family to go to college before earning a law degree from Wayne State University. His mother, Ruth Wertheim Bacow, was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz and the only Jewish person from the German town of Londorf to survive World War II. She came to the United States to live with extended family, traveling on the second Liberty ship that brought refugees from Europe after the war.

Inspired by his parents, Bacow has worked throughout his presidency to support international students and scholars who have faced obstacles to studying at American colleges and universities.

In 2019, he and others in the Harvard community lobbied to ensure that Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian first-year student, could attend Harvard College after being barred entry to the United States by customs authorities.

In July 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he initiated a successful effort to prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from requiring international students on F-1 visas to leave the country if they attended institutions that had shifted to primarily online instruction amid the pandemic.

Bacow vowed to defend international students in a message that accompanied the filing of a lawsuit by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“For many of our international students, studying in the United States and studying at Harvard is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” Bacow wrote. “These students are our students, and they enrich the learning environment for all … We owe it to them to stand up and to fight — and we will.”

Larry Baco and Rafael Reif.

Rafael Reif, president of MIT, speaks at Bacow’s inauguration.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Calling Bacow “a natural leader who invites collaboration and gives other people the confidence to speak their minds,” Rafael Reif, president of MIT, reflected on the lawsuit.

“In that first pandemic summer, the federal government moved to bar foreign students from living in the U.S. if — as was almost inevitable — their coursework would be primarily online,” Reif said. “Larry immediately recognized the harm this would cause not only to individual students but to the entire concept of global education. When he proposed a lawsuit in response, MIT was proud to join it; the fact that the policy was reversed the following week is a testament to the strength of his argument. I have nothing but admiration for Larry’s courage and quick clarity of thinking in leading that important cause.”

Bacow has also consistently voiced support for the robust exchange of ideas and scholars across international boundaries. In a 2019 speech to students and faculty at Peking University, he emphasized that “transformational thought and action” often take root on university campuses, where intellectual freedom is paramount.

In the same address, he cited the 1957 Pugwash Conference, an international gathering of scientists in Nova Scotia, as an example of the vital importance of scholarly collaboration across borders. The meeting of scholars who were deeply concerned about weapons of mass destruction helped pave the way for the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968.

“As I speak to you now,” Bacow said in Beijing, “our governments are engaged in important and at times difficult discussions over a range of issues — and those discussions have implications that reverberate around the world. I believe that sustaining the bonds that join scholars across borders is of the utmost importance for all of us gathered here today — and for anyone who cares about the unique role that higher education plays in the lives of countless people.”

At Peking University, Bacow delivers an address advocating for open exchange of ideas.

Photo by Yi Wang

Larry Bacow speaks at Peking University.

Bacow has remained a forceful advocate against measures that would inhibit scholarly exchange, having underscored his concerns in meetings with State Department officials and members of Congress and in correspondence with the Trump and Biden administrations.

In addition to his public statements and advocacy, Bacow has directed additional funding to the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinic, which serves those who lack legal representation, and Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program, at a moment when conflicts around the world have intensified the need to support scholars facing risks abroad.

“In a characteristically quiet way, without a trace of hoopla or vainglory, Larry Bacow stepped up and transformed Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program, the campus’s effort to reach out to scholars in danger around the world and to bring them and their families to the safety of our community,” said Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard’s Cogan University Professor of the Humanities and co-chair of the Scholars at Risk Committee. “Thanks to Larry’s extraordinary support, our program, in addition to issuing its annual fellowship invitations, is currently assisting with dozens of emergency cases of at-risk and displaced Afghans and has thus far invited 23 Afghan scholars, artists, writers, musicians, cultural heritage workers, women’s rights activists, women’s health advocates, and legal and medical professionals to come to Harvard on full-time, fully paid, yearlong fellowships through which dependents are also supported. Likewise, with his encouragement and assistance, our program is now also establishing residential fellowships for those affected by the war on Ukraine.

“All of this has happened because Larry Bacow has a strong inner moral compass, a sense that our institution, with its resources and its power, has an obligation to help others far less fortunate,” said Greenblatt.

Larry Bacow at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony for the Class of 2019.

Bacow congratulates officers at the ROTC commissioning ceremony in 2019.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

While president, Bacow has served on the boards of the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, and the Consortium on Financing Higher Education. He is also an active participant in the work of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, where he has worked with fellow presidents to coordinate efforts in a wide range of areas, including addressing sexual assault and harassment and responding to the pandemic.

“Larry Bacow is an extraordinary leader, not just for Harvard University, but for the broader higher-education community,” said Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities. “Many higher-education leaders have benefited from his wise advice and thoughtful mentoring, and he has worked collaboratively with colleagues in advocating for policies that are good for students, faculty, and staff across the broad range of colleges and universities. Larry has been a powerful and effective champion for inclusion and diversity, and for international students and scholars. He contributes his expertise to higher education organizations that represent all sectors of the academic community in the United States. Larry’s profound impact on American higher education will reverberate for years to come.”

Responding, leading during the pandemic

When Harvard Corporation members convened for a call on Monday, March 9, 2020, the most pressing issue was a discussion about how the University might respond to a novel coronavirus that had begun to take hold in Massachusetts. With spring break imminent, and in light of intensive review of data and consultation with experts, Bacow urged that Harvard take the extraordinary step of asking its students to leave campus and plan for remote instruction following the break. The next morning, Bacow sent out a message to members of the Harvard community announcing the decision and thanking the community for their flexibility and understanding.

“I knew that we would be criticized by some for possibly acting prematurely,” he later told the Harvard Gazette. “But if we waited too long to respond, that cost was likely going to be measured in human life. And so the decision actually wasn’t that difficult. Implementing it was. But the decision to tell students to leave and to not return and to transition to online learning seemed pretty clear.”

Larry Bacow helps students from Class of 2025 move in.

Bacow greets students from the Class of 2025 on Move-in Day.

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

With public health and academic continuity as the twin pillars of the University’s approach, Harvard managed to maintain student academic progress and vital scientific research throughout the pandemic and welcomed some faculty and students back to campus in the fall of 2020, increasing campus presence from that juncture.

The University avoided pandemic-related layoffs and provided widespread support for employees, including an emergency financial assistance fund.

As part of the deferred in-person Commencement ceremonies held May 29 to celebrate the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021, members of those classes offered special words of thanks to campus and student support staff, front-line health workers, researchers and faculty, and alumni and families. Bacow concluded the segment by saluting the recent graduates.

“You had to navigate challenges unlike any faced by your predecessors in decades past,” he told them. “And you did so with resilience and resolve, with creativity and compassion, with grit and with grace. We salute you, we thank you — and we congratulate you all.”

The University community also rallied to support neighbors during the pandemic, including donating large amounts of personal protective equipment, making a $250,000 contribution to support a temporary shelter for homeless members of the Cambridge community, and launching an emergency grant fund for Allston-Brighton nonprofits. In addition, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston collaborated with public schools in Boston and Cambridge to provide remote learning opportunities and other support to students, educators, and families.

“I’ve known Larry Bacow for a long time, and he’s been both a friend to me and a leader in our higher education community for decades,” said Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. “None of us could have imagined what the past three years would have brought, but Larry was a steady hand on the tiller for Harvard during these immensely challenging times. I’m grateful for his leadership and wish him well on his next chapter.”

In another example of interdisciplinary academic collaboration focused on pressing problems in the world, Harvard faculty and researchers have been at the forefront of efforts to battle COVID-19. In February 2020, Bacow and George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, secured a gift that enabled the creation of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR). Bringing together 800 local and international collaborators, the initiative focuses on efforts both to address the immediate and long-term challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis and to enhance preparedness for future pandemics.

“In my four decades at Harvard I have never seen the faculty come together the way they have with MassCPR, not only with other Harvard faculty but extending across the state,” said Bruce Walker, co-leader of MassCPR, founding director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “President Bacow’s support and the funds he raised for this effort were critical to our rapid response to COVID, and the collaborative network established will have enduring impact on our ability to fight future pandemic threats.”

Bringing together University resources to tackle the climate crisis

While a faculty member at MIT, Bacow served as the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies and founding co-director of the MIT Consortium on Global Environmental Challenges.

At Harvard, he has elevated and expanded the University’s efforts to address the climate crisis. In September 2021, Bacow appointed James Stock, the Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy, as the University’s first vice provost for climate and sustainability, charging him to work across the institution to accelerate a University-wide research and education strategy with the potential to transform Harvard’s capacity to produce crucial new knowledge on climate and sustainability.

Stock has convened a faculty advisory group consisting of nine colleagues from across disciplines to advance and amplify the University’s already ambitious climate efforts.

Their guidance will help integrate and expand research spanning science, engineering, public health, law, policy, business, design, and other fields. Climate education will also play a major role in Harvard’s strategy, ensuring a focus on preparing students from every discipline to help confront one of the most urgent challenges of our time.

Larry Bacow in driver's seat of electric shuttle bus.

Bacow in one of the University’s electric shuttle buses.

File photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

“One of Larry’s lasting legacies will be his leadership on climate and sustainability, both the University-wide climate change initiative announced last September and the Presidential Committee on Sustainability, which he set up in 2019,” said Stock. “We are at a crucial time of climate challenges — a climate emergency — and Larry recognized both Harvard’s responsibility to help society address these challenges and this unique opportunity for us to marshal all that Harvard does well — research, teaching, convening, and leadership — to make a real difference. Larry had the wisdom to set up the climate initiative in a way that will grow during his remaining year in office and will continue to expand thereafter as an ongoing institutional commitment.”

Bacow also brought Harvard into partnership with MIT in an effort, led by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, called the Roosevelt Project. The initiative aims to facilitate the transition to a decarbonized future, especially in parts of the United States where fossil fuel extraction and production have been integral to the local economy.

Progress across Harvard on sustainability efforts has continued apace under Bacow, including the transition of the Harvard shuttle fleet to electric vehicles and the opening of the Science and Engineering Complex, which has been recognized with several awards for its sustainability features. The complex, which earned LEED Platinum certification, is one of more than 140 LEED-certified buildings on campus.

Bacow has also helped align the University’s investment strategy with its institutional commitment to climate change. Harvard Management Company became the first endowment in the country to commit to achieving net zero greenhouse-gas emissions across its investment portfolio by 2050 and has committed to working with peers, investment managers, and industry to monitor and drive progress. The University also worked closely with HMC to make a $20 million investment in The Engine, an MIT-based fund that seeks to advance technologies that will deal with the effects of climate change. Bacow further addressed the University’s investment policy, as it relates to climate change, in a September 2021 letter to the community.

Reckoning with our past and moving toward a more inclusive Harvard

Amid a national debate on race and inequality across the United States, Bacow created a University-wide Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery in 2019, appointing Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a professor of law and history and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, to lead the effort.

The final report and recommendations of the committee were released in April 2022. Recognized as an “unflinching” study of Harvard’s entanglements with slavery, the report includes a series of substantive recommendations that Bacow has committed Harvard to pursue. He secured the Harvard Corporation’s approval of $100 million to pursue implementation of the report’s recommendations.

In sharing the report with the Harvard community, Bacow wrote, “Veritas is more than Harvard’s motto. It is the very reason we exist. Through research and scholarship we seek to uncover truth, whether in understanding the origins of life or the meaning of life. And through education we seek to equip our students to lead lives of meaning and value in which they embrace the pursuit of truth as a way to contribute positively to the world. Our commitment to truth means that we must embrace it even when it makes us uncomfortable or causes us pain.

“The legacy of slavery, including the persistence of both overt and subtle discrimination against people of color, continues to influence the world in the form of disparities in education, health, wealth, income, social mobility, and almost any other metric we might use to measure equality,” he wrote. “While Harvard does not bear exclusive responsibility for these injustices, and while many members of our community have worked hard to counteract them, Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral. Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

The recommendations include efforts to engage and support educational opportunities for descendant communities, memorialization of enslaved individuals connected to Harvard, partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, engagement with direct descendants, and support for Native communities.

Noting Harvard’s efforts to “achieve maximum good for those still struggling under the country’s brutal legacy of slavery and racism,” The Washington Post said in an editorial: “The fact is nothing — no amount of scholarly research, no amount of money — will ever atone for the sin of slavery. But Harvard’s good-faith effort to acknowledge that terrible truth should not be condemned; it should be applauded.”

Bacow with Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Prairie View A&M University President Ruth Simmons at a conference about the Legacy of Slavery report.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Larry Bacow, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ruth Simmons.

Bacow has helped bring greater diversity to the University’s leadership, expanded the role of Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, and appointed Sherri Charleston as Harvard’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

The OEDIB has pursued significant steps to enhance the culture of “inclusive excellence” at Harvard. The Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund has already supported over 25 projects proposed by students, faculty, and staff with grants to advance inclusion and belonging. OEDIB also launched a series of community dialogues and community conversations to allow groups to come together on challenging issues.

OEDIB also recently hosted Harvard’s first Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Forum, bringing the Harvard community together for a three-day series of conversations. The gathering, “Reimagine Our Community,” sought to explore how Harvard and its community members can build a campus environment where everyone can thrive.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with many outstanding scholar-leaders, and Larry Bacow stands out among them for his integrity, compassion, and acuity of insight about what should matter to us as human beings,” said Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, who as Brown University’s president initiated its landmark study into its ties to slavery in 2006. “For over 20 years, I’ve known him as a friend and champion of meaningful diversity and inclusion. He recognizes that we all learn from the differences that we encounter and that, in order to improve our country, we must be more knowledgeable, intentional, and adept when encountering difference.

“Larry has placed these and other humane and scholarly principles at the heart of his leadership,” said Simmons. “I have been honored to partner with him and Harvard to support diversity in college admissions and to unearth, fully understand, and openly disclose Harvard’s entanglements with slavery. Such efforts can be deeply challenging. That he has consistently demonstrated the courage needed to bring light where and when it is needed should endear him to a Harvard community that benefits so greatly from his example. His efforts to support the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative are especially telling: He empowered and encouraged an outstanding and unflinching review by the committee and identified resources to support long-term implementation of its recommendations. A powerful example of principled leadership, this commitment to truth is a hallmark of Larry’s exceptional career.”

Bacow has also been a vocal advocate for the crucial educational importance of a diverse student body, in the context of a lawsuit challenging the Harvard College admissions process. Harvard prevailed in both the trial court and the court of appeals, and the case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

Expanding access to Harvard’s educational resources

The pandemic caused Harvard to shift to remote teaching and learning in spring of 2020, accelerating new approaches by faculty to engaging with students and ensuring academic continuity. Bacow and Provost Garber convened the Task Force on the Future of Teaching and Learning in spring 2021, bringing together a cross-University group to explore the innovations and lessons that emerged from pandemic-era teaching and how Harvard might create more engaging and broadly accessible learning opportunities in the future.

The task force’s ambitious report, issued in March 2022, sets out strategic directions for Harvard’s Schools and for the University to advance teaching and learning.

New approaches will build on lessons learned before and during the pandemic. Among a wide range of innovations, faculty experimented with new active-learning strategies that exploited simple features such as chat and breakout rooms. Speakers could more easily join classes from anywhere in the world; students could take virtual tours of locations that they might typically not have visited; and new asynchronous multimedia content enabled “flipped classrooms” that led to richer classroom discussion.

Larry Bacow with Big Bird at Sesame Street 50th anniversary celebration.

Bacow shares the stage with Big Bird at a Sesame Street 50th anniversary event in 2019.

File photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Bacow has noted that, for all the disruption it caused, the pandemic has accelerated changes to teaching and learning that may yield longer-term benefits for higher education, noting the experience of the Graduate School of Education. When HGSE’s one-year master’s program was forced fully online during the pandemic, the School opened up a new round of admissions to learners who could join the program from anywhere. As Dean Bridget Long told the Harvard Gazette, “Within five weeks we received 1.5 times the applications we would in a typical year — drawing a more diverse set of learners into our classrooms who might otherwise have never come to Harvard. We increased access for them, and they enriched our classroom conversations with new perspectives and experiences grounded in communities around the world.”

“Larry’s consistent encouragement to think about new ways of teaching and learning that can preserve excellence and increase access simultaneously has had a deep impact on such efforts all across Harvard,” noted Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning, who also chaired the Harvard-wide task force. “He saw silver linings during a period when it was hard to locate any and gave us all the license to think creatively. He was also unafraid to make difficult decisions and provided exceptionally steady leadership during unsteady times.”

The task force’s work represents just one of the ways in which Bacow’s leadership has encouraged broader access to Harvard teaching and learning.

In June 2021, Bacow and MIT President Reif announced that the institutions would collaborate to create a nonprofit that would tackle longstanding inequities in education. The organization will be funded through proceeds from the sale of the online learning platform edX, created by Harvard and MIT in 2012, to 2U.

Unveiling the nonprofit to the Harvard community, Bacow and Garber wrote, “Our nonprofit will advance inclusion by driving innovations in learning that enrich and support people at all stages of education. It will develop partnerships with organizations that are doing outstanding work to identify, address, and close learning gaps, and it will enable the creation of programs and technologies that support those efforts — and many others.”

Bacow addresses the Classes of 2020 and 2021 at their joint Commencement ceremony last month.

File photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Larry Bacow speaks at Commencements for Classes of 2020 and 2021.

Bearing down before stepping away

In the message announcing his plans to step down, Bacow looked ahead to a busy year and “lots of work to do to advance Harvard’s mission of teaching, research, and service.” In their message, Lee and Pritzker did the same, while also reflecting on Bacow’s contributions.

“We will have time to recognize him in other ways in the coming year — which, knowing Larry, we have no doubt will be a full one,” they wrote. “We will also have time, before long, to say more about the coming search for his successor. For today, please join us in thanking Larry Bacow for his extraordinary leadership and service — to Harvard and to higher education. He embodies a rare combination of mind and heart.”