As Harvard Corporation’s senior fellow, Penny Pritzker ’81 will lead the presidential search committee to replace Larry Bacow, who will step down in June 2023.
A former U.S. secretary of commerce, civic and business leader, nonprofit trustee, and philanthropist, Pritzker has served on the Corporation since 2018. She succeeded William F. Lee ’72 and is the first woman to serve as senior fellow of the Corporation.
Pritzker’s deep ties and service to the University go back decades, including service on Harvard’s Board of Overseers from 2002 to 2008. As a Corporation member, she currently serves on the Committee on Governance, the Committee on Finance, and the Joint Committee on Alumni Affairs and Development, which she previously co-chaired. She is also a board member for the Harvard Allston Land Co., supporting the University’s plan to create a thriving ecosystem — to drive both local and global innovation — in Allston.
On a recent afternoon, the Gazette sat down with Pritzker to talk about a range of issues facing Harvard, including the upcoming search for a new president.
GAZETTE: What was your experience at Harvard as a student, and what’s your sense of how the University has changed?
PRITZKER: Let me just start with a basic observation: Who could have imagined in 1977, when I arrived here, that decades later I would be stepping into the role of the senior fellow? It’s a real honor and an unexpected place to end up. But it’s not without a long history of engagement. I feel very passionate about Harvard, and I have a genuine affection for this place.
When I first came to visit the campus as a 17-year-old, I hadn’t even applied yet. I was on a weeklong bus tour to 18 different colleges. When I arrived on campus, I was struck by how passionate the students were. They were full of energy and excitement about all kinds of different things, including concerns and issues involving the world around them. The thing they had in common was that they were energized; they were purposeful and enthusiastic; and they had a positive sense about the future. They gave me a powerful impression that a Harvard education can really help someone make a difference in the world. I liked that idea.
I grew up in a home where my parents believed in and really tried to instill in us a set of values that I think Harvard helped reinforce for me — of commitment to community and caring about the well-being of others, striving for excellence, and a curiosity for the exploration of knowledge. Harvard offered a place for me to pursue those values, and it still does today. One of the most important things about this institution is that it takes seriously the responsibility to create knowledge that can help improve people’s lives and to offer that knowledge — through teaching, research, and publishing — to people of different ages, different ethnicities, different genders, and to the community at large. I feel that has been steadfast for Harvard over the 45 years I’ve been close to the institution. We’ve had our ups and downs, but fundamentally that commitment has not changed. That’s what drew me here when I was 17, and it’s what draws me here today.
GAZETTE: What aspects of your Harvard experience have been most important to you?
PRITZKER: The commitment to educating citizen leaders, pursuing pathbreaking research, and to creating opportunity and knowledge to help people — not just in Cambridge and Boston, not just students at Harvard, but across the country and the world — has a huge appeal to me. It’s a noble purpose. It can come under attack, but I think it’s important work. We need good ideas, and we should continually endeavor to be better. We should always bear in mind that what our faculty, students, and staff do here, and what they do after they leave here, can have an important impact not just on the world of ideas but on tackling some of the world’s hardest problems.
I am also attracted to the opportunity to constantly learn and be exposed to people who are expert in areas of study that I have no idea about. What’s more, I am attracted to people trying to solve complex problems. I like meeting people who are devoted and passionate about making the world better. That’s really motivating and something I want to support.
GAZETTE: What part should Harvard play in addressing national and global challenges?
PRITZKER: Harvard and institutions like it can question the assumptions that we’re operating under and explore issues through research and teaching. That effort forces us as a society to grow. Specifically, there are, at least, four ways Harvard addresses the challenges facing our world:
First, by creating new knowledge. That’s fundamental to our mission. But to do that, at the highest level globally, requires commitment to excellence, truth, and collaboration. To fulfill that promise we need to attract the best faculty, great students, and we need to work well across academic disciplines. But that is not enough. Given the complexity of our world, the multidimensional nature of the problems we face, and our political dynamics nationally and globally, to address the biggest challenges we must strive to be excellent at facilitating collaboration that is essential to be at the forefront of creating new knowledge. It’s a big endeavor that Harvard is well-positioned to continue to address.
The second is expanding opportunity. We have far too much disparity and inequality in society, in our local community, in our states, in our country, and across the world. Harvard has an important role in addressing that challenge, and we should always be a place with a powerful commitment to opening doors.
The third is something I mentioned earlier, developing leaders: citizen leaders, leaders of any kind of organization, large and small, leaders in science, leaders in math, leaders in humanities, leaders in social science, leaders in government. Good leadership matters. If we can help develop effective leaders, we can continue to make a great contribution to the world.
The fourth is around addressing current issues, and there are a lot of them — climate change, war, the economy, social justice, the future of democracy, the implications of new technologies — any number of things going on today. My point is Harvard is home to many leading researchers, faculty, experts, and students from around the world. We don’t take lightly our responsibility to engage those perspectives and expertise in pursuit of addressing current issues. For example, the way we have made our campus a living lab for sustainability to deploy the latest ideas and innovations in tackling climate change. Another is our commitment to facing up to our entanglements with slavery. Both within Harvard and in partnership with others we can meaningfully pursue opportunities that address persistent barriers and inequities broadly in our community and our world. We live in a world that is constantly serving up difficult challenges. Helping address those challenges, in ways that a university distinctly can, is a responsibility we must continue to step up to.
GAZETTE: As a former U.S. commerce secretary, what’s your view of the University’s role in helping shape the economy in the 21st century?
PRITZKER: Let’s first try to frame what we’re talking about. We’re facing inflation, we’re facing labor shortages in critical parts of our economy, and we are facing a supply chain that’s not functioning. All of this creates a very uncertain time.
Harvard has much to contribute to tackling these issues, given the breadth of our expertise. There are many examples of how Harvard is doing this — Raj Chetty’s work on opportunity and inequality; at [Harvard Business School], Willy Shih’s ideas on how to reconfigure the supply chain; and at [the Graduate School of Education and Harvard Kennedy School], David Deming’s work with the Project on Workforce in shaping public policy related to economic mobility, work that is engaging across party lines. We have a lot to offer in terms of knowledge and research about what works and what doesn’t work from a policy standpoint to address these issues.
We’re a place where the best economic ideas and approaches can and do have a big influence on the economy of the 21st century. Because of that we also have a responsibility to mobilize these resources of information and ideas to improve equity and opportunity in this country.
GAZETTE: In this economic environment are there steps the University needs to take as it considers the future and its financial stability?
PRITZKER: This, of course, is an area that the Corporation discusses a great deal. The good news for Harvard is that we go into this very uncertain economic period on strong financial footing. We have had good financial stewardship of the University, which has enabled us to keep our people employed during COVID and allowed us to focus on our mission and the academic progress of our students. It allowed us to invest in remote learning when the safety of our community required it but also gave us the ability to invest in protocols and resources that have allowed us to return safely to more normal campus activities over time.
When I look at the uncertain economic situation, it can be daunting, but we have steady financial leadership teams both at the University and at the Harvard Management Co. They’re prudent and thoughtful, and they have helped us institute policies that provide guardrails for our spending. That’s important and should be reassuring during these times.
GAZETTE: Switching gears, one of your first tasks will be to find a successor to Larry Bacow. Can you share some reflections on his leadership?
PRITZKER: I’ve watched Larry lead with a great inner strength, a steadfast moral compass, and a deep devotion to serving others and this institution. And he’s done this through one of the most remarkable periods of Harvard’s history. Any reflection on his leadership must include how effectively he has led this institution through the COVID pandemic. As president, he has put the health and well-being of the Harvard community first, including members of our frontline workforce, while also ensuring continuity of academic and research progress of our students, faculty, and researchers.
At the same time, he has stayed relentlessly focused on Harvard’s core mission and our values. As a result, we can point to significant academic advances that are shaping the University’s path forward. There’s the recent announcement of a new institute to tackle climate change and the new institute that puts Harvard at the center of advances in natural and artificial intelligence. There’s the commitment of significant resources and research through the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery initiative to addressing inequities and barriers. There’s also the leadership role the University and its people have played in confronting the huge global health challenge of the COVID pandemic. These are just a few examples, and they’re important achievements that will have an impact in our society and create greater opportunities for generations. That said, there’s a lot to do at the University in the year ahead, and I’m happy to have Larry at the helm during what is bound to be another interesting 12 months.
GAZETTE: Can you provide any updates on the search for a new president?
PRITZKER: Yes. The work to begin the search process is underway, including making sure there are opportunities for broad community input. This will be a thoughtful process, and a fundamental aspect will be hearing from individuals across our community. That input will shape our considerations and priorities as the process moves forward. I anticipate that we will establish several advisory groups, as has been done in previous searches, and also have various channels for community members to share thoughts and input directly with the search committee. We will be sharing more information in the coming days on how the search process is coming together.
GAZETTE: Last but not least, you are a triathlon athlete. What is the hardest part of competing — the swimming, the running, or the biking?
PRITZKER: For me, it’s the swimming. I’m not a very good swimmer. I’m not really very competitive in any one of the three disciplines, but running and biking come more naturally to me, and I don’t always love being in the water. But I can say that when the water’s warm, a beautiful open-water swim is one of the most precious and lovely things to do. But for me, it’s also sometimes the hardest.