Larry Bacow begins his fifth and final year as Harvard president this fall excited to connect with a new group of students and hopeful for more progress on a range of University priorities. In an interview with the Gazette, Bacow discussed the growing campus in Allston, initiatives on climate change and artificial intelligence, and the University’s plans for implementing the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. He also shared his thoughts on the work ahead for Harvard’s next leader and broader challenges facing U.S. higher education. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GAZETTE: Where do you expect to focus your efforts this year?
BACOW: First of all, let me say that whatever we do, we do as a team — and that I have a terrific team. We’re looking forward to making progress on a number of major initiatives in the coming year. For example, there is a lot of activity going on in Allston. We just received approvals for the first phase of the Enterprise Research Campus, and I’m looking forward to putting a shovel in the ground on that project. I also want to complete the design for the American Repertory Theater in Allston, and to work with the community, with the city, and with others to create vibrant, lively, and exciting new spaces in the neighborhood.
We will formally launch the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural & Artificial Intelligence in the fall. I’m looking forward to getting the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability up and running. I’ve been working closely with Jim Stock, our vice provost for climate and sustainability, on several initiatives in terms of climate education and future research. I have also been working with our deans to ask what role Harvard and higher education can play to secure the future of democracy as it faces challenges, not just in this country but throughout the world. As I do every year, I look forward to supporting the faculty and helping them to do their best teaching and their best scholarship, and to help our students get off to a good start. I also look forward to moving ahead with implementation of the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. And, of course, once the search committee has selected my successor, I’d like to do whatever I can to ensure a smooth transition and successful next chapter for the University.
GAZETTE: COVID disrupted life in unprecedented ways. What challenges did the pandemic pose to Harvard and to you as president?
BACOW: The pandemic presented both challenges and opportunities. We had to shut the campus down and go to remote teaching, remote learning, and remote work, but we learned a lot in that process. We re-envisioned how we use technology to engage and reach learners from around the world. We created a new nonprofit out of the proceeds that we received from the sale of edX, which will allow us to engage a huge number of people outside of those who would traditionally come to Harvard. I think the pandemic taught us that we are much nimbler than we might have previously believed. It taught us how we were able to work across traditional boundaries in ways that we hadn’t envisioned both inside and outside of Harvard. There are opportunities now to do more than we might have imagined prior to the pandemic. One of the things I’m really proud of is that, notwithstanding all the challenges, our faculty continued to do both great scholarship and teaching, and we were able to launch a number of initiatives, many of which I have just mentioned. I was enormously proud of the way everybody came together to produce not just one great Commencement, but two great Commencements. And I would have to say, the Commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2021 was perhaps the most joyous Commencement I’ve ever attended. And I’ve been to lots of commencements.
GAZETTE: What other accomplishments are you most proud of?
BACOW: Let me say again that everything we have accomplished in the past several years has been the result of teamwork. I’m proud of the way in which our faculty, staff, students, and others addressed the pandemic; people responded creatively, selflessly, and did what they needed to do not just to keep the trains running on time, but to educate students and to generate new knowledge. I’m proud that when the federal government wanted to send a million international students back home when institutions like ours switched to remote instruction, we were able to lead the fight to keep those students in the country. I’m proud that we expanded the resources that are available to students to attend Harvard University. I’m proud that we are a more diverse and inclusive institution than we were years ago. I’m proud that the very best students, the very best faculty, and the very best staff continue to want to come to study and work at Harvard.
GAZETTE: How will you negotiate the balance between savoring your last year as president and addressing the demands of unfinished business?
BACOW: In this job you’re always looking forward; you’re always trying to find new ways to make a difference. The satisfaction comes from helping the institution continue to move forward. I’ve always felt that the job of the university president is to enable faculty to do their best teaching and their best scholarship and to create a nutrient-rich environment in which our students and our faculty can do their best work. That is where my satisfaction comes from, so savoring my last year will derive primarily from continuing to address demands.
GAZETTE: Can you tell us more about the Enterprise Research Campus? What impact will it have on Harvard and in Allston?
BACOW: We hope to add to and build on an incredibly vibrant, creative community in Allston. I think that’s already happening. When I say a creative community, I mean intellectually creative, entrepreneurially creative, artistically creative, and educationally creative. We see this in the arts with the ArtLab and the new American Repertory Theater, and the i-lab in Allston, which is encouraging entrepreneurial creativity. We see it with a new Science and Engineering Complex, the home to engineering creativity. We see it with the Enterprise Research Campus, which will serve as a focal point to bring people together from around the city, the country, in some cases around the world. But we also see it through the ways in which we engage with the community — programs and collaborations like those at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston. We all see the potential to enhance the region’s world-class innovation ecosystem, to forge new partnerships, and to do so with the community — all of it with a deep commitment to equity, inclusion, and a sustainable future.
GAZETTE: Can you talk about Harvard’s role in the fight against climate change?
BACOW: Climate change is the greatest challenge facing the world. Its effect can be felt directly through rising sea levels, droughts and forest fires, floods, and other extreme weather events, but also indirectly through the impact it is having on the health and welfare of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. The gift from the Salata family, which creates the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, will enable us to greatly expand our work on climate change. I already mentioned Jim Stock. He has laid out a very ambitious research and education agenda that engages all the Schools at Harvard. We look forward to working with other institutions to collaborate on a number of these great challenges and to hiring new faculty in this area.
The Harvard Management Company continues to work in collaboration with other institutions that have now adopted goals similar to ours. In trying to render the portfolio carbon-neutral by 2050, we are working to establish benchmark conditions for the footprint of the investment portfolio. We’re working with other institutions to establish processes for measuring change toward these goals as well. There’s a lot of work that’s being done.
GAZETTE: What do you hope to see happen this year in terms of implementing the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery?
BACOW: The work of the implementation committee, led by Martha Minow, is moving ahead with real purpose, and we will have updates throughout the fall on progress against each recommendation.
Many of the recommendations suggest that we engage in partnerships with other institutions. We’re going to pilot a number of those partnerships this year. Our initial partners are not the only ones that we will work with over time, but we have to start somewhere. It’s very important in this work that Harvard approaches partnership with humility. The organizations, institutions, and the groups with which we work must be true partners with us. Any progress we make will be progress we make together.
This represents a long-term commitment by Harvard. One of the reasons we set aside resources for endowment is that we don’t expect this work to be done in one, two, or three years. It represents a sustained commitment by the institution to addressing inequities that have arisen due to our prior entanglements with the institution of slavery.
GAZETTE: When you took over the presidency of Harvard in 2018, you said that it was an important moment because of criticism about the value of higher education. What is your sense of the public perception about higher education now?
BACOW: I think the issues that I talked about in 2018 when I took on this job are still very much there and will be there going forward, and this will require the attention of not just my successor, but of every college and university president in this country. We are at a moment in which many critics view higher education with suspicion, and, in some cases more than that. I think that it’s up to us to make the case for why institutions like Harvard continue to be important in the United States and the world. We saw it during the pandemic, when the vaccines came out of research that was done at Harvard and at institutions like Harvard. I am not only talking about the specific research that produced these vaccines, but the basic research that preceded it — 20, 30, 40 years ago — curiosity-driven science that really made it possible for us to develop these vaccines in record time. We also need to have people understand why great universities are important to the future of democracy in this country and elsewhere. We need to make sure that people understand that we have a responsibility to create economic opportunity for future generations just as it was created for us. We need to look hard at how we can ensure that as technology changes the way we work and the work that gets done and who does that work, that some people are not left behind. I think research universities have much to contribute to that.
GAZETTE: What challenges lie ahead for the next Harvard president?
BACOW: As I’ve said to new college presidents in the past, in the best of circumstances, these are difficult and challenging jobs. We live in deeply divided times and universities tend to be microcosms of the larger world, so these divisions are reflected and refracted on our campus. Anybody in a position of leadership must find ways to bring people together, because the way we make progress is not by focusing on what divides us, but by focusing on what we have in common, and what we can do collectively to create a better world. I think those are some of the biggest challenges that we face. These challenges manifest themselves in different ways. It’s important that people feel like universities are places where they can speak their minds. It’s important that we encourage diverse points of view on our campus, that we bring speakers to campus who will challenge our thinking. Our job is not to reinforce the way people think, but to get to the truth. As I like to say, Veritas is more than a motto. It is our reason for being at Harvard. Truth needs to be discovered; it needs to be tested; it needs to be revealed. That only happens if we’re willing to engage with people who think differently from us and if we’re willing to change our minds in the face of a better argument or new information. Constantly reminding people of that is a challenge, but we must continue to do so. Continuing to make sure that a place like Harvard remains affordable and accessible to the world is a challenge, and that is also likely to be a key priority for my successor.
GAZETTE: You were a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970s. How do you think the University has evolved since then?
BACOW: When I came to Cambridge in 1969, it was to study down the street at MIT. I came to Harvard as a graduate student in 1972. Between my junior and senior year in high school, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; riots broke out in many of the major cities in the United States; and there was a war raging in Vietnam. In my first year in college, students went out on strike to protest the invasion of Cambodia and the killings of four students at Kent State. Classes, exams, and commencement were all canceled. Those were bitterly divided times, and, in some ways, we find ourselves once again in bitterly divided times. One of the lessons that I take from my younger days is that this country found a way to come back together again. I’m an optimist at heart. I believe that we will find a way to come back together again now.
If you were to set foot on this campus, or any other college campus, in 1969, many of the buildings looked pretty much the same, but the people looked very different. When I entered MIT in 1969, there were 1,000 students in my freshman class, and fewer than 100 of them were women. Today, MIT is close to half women. Harvard went completely co-ed in 1971. Harvard College and Radcliffe College officially merged in 1999. It took quite a few years — far too many years — for women to assume their role at Harvard in proportion to their numbers in the population.
Harvard is a much more diverse institution today, not just in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, but in every dimension. That’s all for the better. As I said in my inaugural address, we can never hope to achieve as much by sampling from a fraction of the distribution of talent that’s available to us than by sampling from all. Institutions like this always change. For us, the only constant is change, and we need to continue to change if we’re going to continue to be as relevant in 2436 as we have been to the nation and the world since 1636. If anything, the last four years have proven to me that Harvard can and will continue to change and will continue to play a vital role in advancing knowledge and progress. The pandemic is a wonderful illustration.
GAZETTE: Have you given any thought to how you will welcome and advise the University’s next president?
BACOW: I have a wonderful role model for how to do that, Drew Faust. She welcomed me warmly. She advised me generously and privately, and that’s how I hope to do it for my successor.