Lawrence S. Bacow, who served as president of Tufts from 2001 to 2011 and worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was selected to become the 29th president of Harvard University on Feb. 11. According to the Harvard Gazette, the decision process was extensive; the search committee sent out 375,000 emails to students and faculty for suggestions. When the committee kept receiving encouragements to consider Bacow for the position, they decided to interview him. The article said that Bacow himself had been part of the presidential search committee, but he withdrew in December when Bill Lee, the committee chair, asked him to join the pool of candidates.
In a message to the Harvard University community, Lee said that Bacow was chosen not only due to his passionate commitment to Harvard but also for his work in higher education programs. Lee added that Bacow had devoted himself to teaching other leaders as President-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 2011 to 2014 and through his current position as Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
He especially highlighted Bacow’s achievements as president of Tufts.
“He worked tirelessly to advance Tufts’ excellence,” Lee said. “With colleagues, he embraced diversity as a cornerstone of excellence; he strengthened Tufts’ connections with its host communities as well as alumni; he engineered a new partnership with what is now Tufts Medical Center; and he led the most ambitious fundraising drive in Tufts history, while adroitly steering the university through the Great Recession.”
Lee also mentioned Bacow’s unique family background: His parents both are immigrants.
Jyoti Jasrasaria, committee chair of the student advisory committee to the presidential search committee and third-year student at Harvard Law School, said that she was struck by the way Bacow shares his personal story.
“I think his story suggests a true capacity and willingness to relate to and expand opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “I have heard about his transformative leadership from friends who were students at Tufts during his time as President there.”
However, not all Harvard students were as positive about the decision. According to the Harvard Crimson, several undergraduates said they had wanted the next president to be a person of color, and that during the presidential search, some alumni affinity groups had appealed to the committee to consider candidates from diverse backgrounds.
Henry Brooks, a junior at Harvard who wrote an op-ed addressing these criticisms in the Crimson, said students critical of Bacow‘s appointment needed to reconsider their reasons for criticism instead of repeating the same basic questions.
“Rather than pinpoint the problem, this allows us to sort of diffusely say, ‘Oh, look, we ended up with another white person, let’s be frustrated about that,’” he said. “If, in fact, you’re interested in inclusion and in widening the horizon of representation, we need to stop performing the same performance, and we need to [start] asking [other] questions than simply ‘Why is Bacow white?’”
In an interview with the Daily, Bacow acknowledged these issues, saying that he would strive to promote diversity as he did during his ten years at Tufts. He said that he saw his appointment as a chance to ensure that all Harvard students of future generations would have similar opportunities to those that were available to him and his family.
“These are difficult times for universities in the U.S. [and] the first time in my lifetime that people have questioned whether or not colleges and universities are actually good for the nation and the society,” he said. “So I see this as an opportunity for public service.”
Bacow said that he hoped he would have as much fun as he did during his time at Tufts. However, he acknowledged that it is a different time for the nation, and his job may be more challenging now than his ten years as Tufts’ president were.
“I think it’s a more challenging time,” he said. “It’s a divided country, and divisions are sometimes on our campuses as well. I hope to be able to bring people together at Harvard.”
Bacow also said that one of his goals was to ensure that the students at Harvard can benefit from all the schools within the university. He said that one of the best predictors of a college experience is whether students get to know at least one faculty member that they can stay in touch with for the rest of their lives.
“Harvard and Tufts are blessed with remarkable students and faculty,” he said. “I think great things happen when you bring great students together with great faculty, and Harvard has been doing this for many years, as has Tufts. As I learn more about Harvard, I find that most students do have these opportunities, but I want to make sure that everyone has them as well.”
Bacow said that he looked forward to future collaborations between Harvard and Tufts. He said that he heard from countless people who have connections to both universities. However, he added that he also wanted to help Harvard partner with its sister institutions, both in and outside of Boston.
“I think we can all prosper and work together for common goals,” he said. “We will always be competitors in a healthy way, but there are a lots of things we can do together as well.