Bacow Talks Leadership and Higher Education at Harvard School of Public Health


University President Lawrence S. Bacow offered advice on leadership and defended the importance of a liberal arts education at a talk with Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams on Wednesday.

The School of Public Health discussion, entitled “Challenging Times in Higher Education,” aimed to provide students with an opportunity to hear lessons about leadership that may not be taught explicitly in school, according to Eric R. Andersen, director of Voices in Leadership, the group that organized the talk.

Bacow shared numerous life lessons and career suggestions, telling audience members that “some of the best career decisions I have made in my entire life are jobs I have not taken.” He also advised audience members to “take a job because you have an agenda, not because the job is just there,” and “to think about the fit between themselves and the institution.”

Bacow pointed to his Tufts presidency as a key leadership experience that taught him the value of understanding an institution’s culture before attempting to change it.


“I think it’s important when you start out that you think of yourself as a cultural anthropologist who has been parachuted into some remote territory and you don’t speak the language, and you don’t know what the social conventions are, and you have to figure them out for yourself through careful observation,” he said.

Bacow outlined major leadership challenges to be aware of, particularly in higher education.

“There’s more than one way to organize an institution and you just have to be cognizant of what are the traditions and what people know and understand and are comfortable with and how you get them to appreciate that there might in fact be something different that they could benefit from,” he said.

As the conversation progressed, Bacow shared his goal of changing current social attitudes towards higher education.

“It’s the first time in my lifetime that people have questioned sending a kid to college, whether or not it’s worth it. It’s the first time in my lifetime that people have questioned whether colleges and universities are worthy of public support. It’s the first time in my lifetime where a significant portion of the population has questioned whether or not these great institutions are even good for the nation,” he said. “My highest priority is to try and change this narrative about higher education.”

Bacow argued a revival in the humanities would strengthen higher education, especially as many institutions shift their gaze towards technological advances.

“I’d like to think that we are going to have a renaissance in the humanities as we contemplate, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ in a world increasingly dominated by machines. What is it that’s distinctly human that a machine will never replicate?” Bacow said.

“A liberal arts education is the most valuable way to prepare us for the future,” Williams added.

As the conversation came to a close, Bacow implored audience members to “always do the right thing” above all else.

“It’s usually not that difficult to figure out,” he said. “It’s often excruciatingly difficult to do and leadership is about doing the right thing especially when it’s very very hard.”

—Staff writer Alexis Bolner can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AlexisBolner.


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