When Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow was inaugurated in the fall of 2018, hundreds of students and faculty crowded into Tercentenary Theatre to celebrate his ascension to higher education’s top job.
No such gathering could be held today. This week, Tercentenary Theatre sits empty for the second consecutive year, devoid of the pomp and circumstance that traditionally fill its grounds at Commencement.
“I often say to new presidents that the biggest challenges that they will face [may] not have been anticipated on the day that they were appointed,” Bacow told The Crimson this month, reflecting on his first years in office.
For Bacow, that has meant grappling with the greatest institutional challenge Harvard has faced in a generation: Covid-19, which forced much of the University to shutter and reshaped all of its operations.
“Almost everything that I have done has been colored by the pandemic,” Bacow said.
Still, he has continued to address the priorities he outlined in his inaugural address, such as advocacy for the value of higher education, immigration, and public service — though that, too, has often been through the lens of Covid-19.
Some of the issues that he contended with before the pandemic — including calls for increased diversity among faculty and student protests in favor of ethnic studies and divestment — have also remained salient.
Three years into his term as University president, having weathered the worst of the pandemic and a fraught political climate for higher education under former U.S. president Donald Trump, Bacow has garnered praise from influential University affiliates.
“We have somebody who can meet the challenges of the unexpected,” said William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. “He's been decisive, he’s been empathetic. But I think the most important thing to me is, he’s had one guiding principle, which has been the public health and safety of the community.”
The pandemic has had a dire impact on the finances of many colleges around the country. In February 2021, the Chronicle of Higher Education estimated that the higher education industry had taken a $183 billion hit — its most significant losses to date.
When the University first closed its campus in March 2020, experts speculated that Harvard might face the same “grave” financial future as its peers.
But Harvard appears poised to come out of the crisis with its finances largely intact — in fact, its endowment hit a record-high $41.9 billion in September 2020.
Top members of the Harvard Corporation in part credit Bacow with that achievement.
Soon after he took office, in the years before the pandemic, Bacow developed a “recession playbook” to prepare the University for the possibility of a future economic downturn.
“What Larry was able to do, in the first two years, positioned Harvard very well to manage through this crisis,” said Kenneth I. Chenault, a member of the Harvard Corporation and the chair of its finance committee.
Operationally, Bacow managed to steer a broadly steady ship through the uncharted waters of Covid-19, taking a cautious approach that prevented the major planning reversals and outbreaks that have marred other schools' reopenings.
“I think Harvard has done a reasonable job of balancing risk and the need to continue activities,” said Dyann F. Wirth, an infectious disease expert at the Harvard School of Public Health who served on the faculty advisory committee during the 2017-18 presidential search.
Since becoming one of the first schools to empty its campus when the pandemic arrived last March, Harvard has stayed true to its cautious approach of handling the coronavirus.
The approach has also kept Bacow in the good graces of the Harvard Corporation, which holds the power to appoint and fire the president and has been involved in making most major decisions throughout the pandemic.
In part, the collaborative relationship between Bacow and the Corporation stems from Bacow’s own tenure on the Corporation prior to becoming president, per Lee. After governance reforms overhauled the Corporation’s structure in 2010, the body added six new members and sought to bring “together a group of people who were culturally collegial and compatible,” Lee said in an interview last week.
“Larry was part of that,” Lee said. “The fact that he was part of this cohesive group that resulted from the governance reforms clearly provided him with a different relationship with us going forward.”
Even before the pandemic’s arrival, Bacow faced another unprecedented external threat: a fraught political environment for higher education under Trump.
Ever since American universities began collaborating with and receiving funding from the federal government during the World War II era, Harvard presidents have played a role in public affairs. Under former University President Derek C. Bok, Harvard opened a lobbying office less than a mile from Capitol Hill.
When Bacow came into office, he pledged to advocate not just for Harvard but for “all of higher education,” saying in one of his first public addresses as president, “It is our responsibility to work on behalf of others less fortunate.”
Throughout Bacow's three years in office, Harvard has been dragged into an onslaught of political and cultural wars.
Bacow inherited the 2014 lawsuit brought forth by anti-affirmative action group Student for Fair Admissions, which alleges the College’s admissions process discriminates against Asain Americans. After losses in District Court and Appeals Court, SFFA petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. It has yet to announce if it will hear the case next term.
Jeannie Park ’83, co-founder of Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, commended the University’s handling of legal challenges to its race-conscious admissions practices.
“The University gets high marks throughout President Bacow’s tenure for vigorously defending race-conscious admissions against unrelenting attacks by anti-diversity forces,” she wrote in an email.
Trump himself targeted the University in 2020, calling on Harvard to return funds it had been allocated by a federal stimulus bill passed last April in response to the coronavirus crisis and castigating the school for its decision not to reopen in person in the fall.
“Harvard, for better or for worse, looms in the American imagination — and often in the global imagination — as the paradigmatic powerhouse, ultra-wealthy U.S. university,” said Steven E. Hyman, a former University Provost. “And because of the predominant, educated liberal views on campus, like all of our peers, but because of our status, we have become an irresistible target for a manipulative, populist administration.”
“I think Larry, frankly, navigated that really well,” Hyman added.
The University has picked its battles with the Trump administration, succumbing to pressure to not accept federal stimulus dollars last April and steering clear of rhetorical fights, but oftentimes engaging on immigration issues.
Harvard, along with MIT, sued federal immigration authorities last summer over a rule that would bar international students attending universities with online-only courses from residing in the U.S. The decision to sue, which ultimately resulted in the Trump administration rescinding the rule, marked a key point in Bacow’s tenure, and an inflection point in the University’s relationship with the federal government under Trump.
“I think Larry has been very, very strategic in his decisions about when to engage and when not,” said Shirley M. Tilghman, a member of the Harvard Corporation who formerly served as president of Princeton University. “I think the principle that Larry has used is the right principle, which is when an issue that arises outside the gates of Harvard Yard [has] a significant impact on the University itself, that is when it is, I think, entirely appropriate to engage."
Prior to his selection, students and affiliates hoped the University’s 29th leader might be as historic as its 28th. Former President Drew G. Faust was the first female president in Harvard's then-371 year history. A person of color has yet to helm the University.
For that reason, the choice of another white male was a disappointment to some students and affiliates. Still, Bacow has acknowledged the importance of diversity and inclusion from day one.
“We need to look for the very best and, during my time at Tufts, I’m proud of the record of bringing women and minorities and people of color into the senior leadership, into the faculty, and also into the student body, and I hope to do the same thing here,” Bacow said at a press conference the day his selection as president was announced.
His appointment coincided with the close of the University-wide diversity task force convened under Faust, which charged a team of affiliates with examining the University’s demographics, culture, resource distribution, and organizational structures.
Following the task force’s recommendations, Bacow agreed with Faust to designate $10 million to faculty recruitment and renewal efforts in 2018 and appointed the first chief diversity and inclusion officer in 2020.
Yet, since 2018, the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty who are women has increased by just 1 and 2 percent, respectively. Faust saw the percent of female tenured faculty grow by 6 percent throughout her 11 year term.
The percentage of tenure-track faculty who are underrepresented minorities has also increased just 1 percent over the last three years; there has been no change in the percent of tenured faculty.
In a recent interview, Bacow noted faculty hiring occurs within Harvard’s individual schools and departments, and pointed to senior positions filled by women, including seven of the University’s 15 deans.
“Faculty turns over slowly, so if you just look at the overall composition of the faculty, it appears to be changing slower than if you look at the new appointments that we’ve made over the course of the last 15 or 20 years,” Bacow said.
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay commented last year that the University’s ongoing search for four senior faculty members and two annual visiting professors specializing in ethnic studies was a necessary first step to open the door for the possibility of building such a program.
But the seats remain unfilled and an ethnic studies department unbuilt — a fact that Park, the co-founder of Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, called a “serious concern.”
“After the events of the past year, the need for every Harvard student to graduate with an academic grounding in the understanding of race and ethnicity is beyond obvious,” she wrote.
The first 100 days of Bacow’s tenure featured the new president helping eager freshmen carry boxes into their new dorms, taking selfies with students, and joining groups of joggers along the Charles River. With the onset of Covid-19 and the shift to remote University operations over the last year, Bacow's ability to interact with students has been significantly reduced.
Undergraduate Council President Noah A. Harris ’22 and Vice President Jenny Y. Gan ’22 meet with Bacow once a semester to discuss concerns affecting the undergraduate student body. Harris wrote in an email he would like to see all students offered increased accessibility to the president through the remainder of Bacow’s term.
“While President Bacow is responsible for communicating with and managing Harvard as a whole, we do believe that it would be beneficial for undergraduates to gain more face-time with President Bacow in the form of town halls, question-and-answer sessions, open office hours, and other similar initiatives,” he wrote. “As a result, students could gain insight into President Bacow’s priorities, the work his office is doing, and so on.”
Former University President Lawrence H. Summers held first-come, first-serve office hours for students in his Massachusetts Hall office up to five times per semester. Faust similarly held office hours open to students and staff twice per semester.
Bacow previously offered office hour sessions for students in 2018 and 2019 but has stopped during the pandemic. Throughout his tenure, Bacow has engaged with students as a freshman advisor and as a guest lecturer.
Outside of office hours, student activists also allege that Bacow and the Harvard Corporation have repeatedly refused to engage in conversations about fossil fuel divestment.
Ilana A. Cohen ’22-’23, an organizer for student group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, said there has been “very little to no meaningful communication” between Bacow, the Corporation, and the divestment campaign.
“Our campaign is and always has been completely open to communication both with President Bacow and the Harvard Corporation,” Cohen said.
Bacow and divest activists have met to discuss the campaign on numerous occasions, including a 2019 meeting in which Bacow stated he would respond only to “reason” and “not demands.” In April 2019, he made a surprise appearance at a forum hosted by Divest Harvard in which he debated the feasibility of divestment with faculty members — an event Cohen described at the time as an “invaluable night." The parties last met in December 2020.
Divest Harvard has also criticized the process by which Bacow selects the student members of his advisory bodies, such as the Presidential Committee on Sustainability and the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, calling it “secretive.”
Bacow’s favorability among graduating seniors rose over his first two years in office, but sank this year amid a pandemic that kept most students from campus for at least one semester, according to surveys by The Crimson.
In 2018, when Bacow was president-elect, 27 percent of graduating seniors held a favorable view of him, though two-thirds reported not having enough information or holding no opinion.
In 2019, his approval rose to 37 percent, and it reached 44 percent in 2020. This year, his favorability fell to a mere 22 percent. More than 40 percent of graduating seniors said they have an unfavorable view of Bacow — the highest at any point in his presidency.
In contrast, faculty surveyed by The Crimson have reported an increasingly positive view of Bacow throughout his tenure and the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2021, his approval rating among faculty members rose from 39 to 48 percent. The proportion of faculty who reported that Bacow has represented their interests well also increased slightly, from 25 to 31 percent.
Bacow lauded “marvelous” students, “creative” faculty, and “selfless” staff at the University for their adaptability to the unusual circumstances of the pandemic.
“I think if anything, the last year has demonstrated to all of us the need to be flexible, the need to be able to anticipate the unanticipated and to try to be nimble and react quickly,” Bacow said. “And I think all of us have tried to do that.”
Asked if retirement is in the picture, Bacow quipped, “I’m just trying to get through this year.”
—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.