Through his first four years as Harvard president, Lawrence S. Bacow largely stayed out of trouble with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, avoiding the sort of major controversies that brought down Lawrence H. Summers’ presidency 16 years ago.
But despite mostly positive or neutral reviews from faculty members, some say they are looking for someone from a different mold as Harvard prepares to begin the selection process to find its 30th president.
Bacow announced Wednesday he plans to step down next year, setting the stage for Harvard’s second presidential search in a decade. In interviews after his announcement, faculty members offered a wide range of hopes for Harvard’s next president: Some say they want someone from a different academic background, and many others vie for a candidate who will use the perch of the University presidency to tackle global social issues.
“We … need a leader who can mobilize our core academic resources and influence to tackle the increasingly grave local, national, and global problems – from deep economic disparities, to growing social injustices, to climate change dangers, to increasing national polarization around the value of higher education itself,” Suzanne P. Blier, a professor of Fine Arts and African and African American Studies, wrote in an email.
Some faculty members said they hope to see Harvard’s 30th president bolster the sciences and humanities.
“I think the new president has an opportunity to link the 21st Century skills — creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication — to the Humanities,” Romance Languages and Literatures professor Doris Sommer wrote in an email. “Looking for these skills should lead back to more opportunities to link the humanities with every other field.”
Bacow will step down next year after only five years in office, tying Summers for the shortest tenure since the Civil War. His departure, announced in an email to Harvard affiliates Wednesday, came as a surprise to some members of the FAS.
AAAS and Harvard Divinity School professor Jacob K. Olupona said the news of Bacow’s retirement came as “a big shock” to him and other faculty members.
“His retirement is a great loss not just for Harvard but for higher education in the US,” added Daniel E. Lieberman ’86, a Human Evolutionary Biology professor in an email.
Bacow joins more than half a dozen leaders in higher education who plan to leave their positions this year or next.
Blier wrote the challenges of the pandemic may have contributed to Bacow’s departure.
“In light of COVID and how well Harvard managed this period, perhaps the timing should not be such a surprise,” she wrote.
History professor Philip J. Deloria wrote in an email that Bacow “has been a steady hand at a challenging time,” praising his leadership during the pandemic.
“We ask a lot of our university presidents, and there are all kinds of structural problems that can prevent them from fulfilling our many expectations,” he wrote. “I can’t imagine anything less pleasant than guiding an institution through the last two years of pandemic, but Harvard has done so in a competent and reasonable way, and we can chalk much of that up to President Bacow’s leadership.”
Faculty members also praised Bacow for his attention to other global issues.
University professor Stephen J. Greenblatt wrote that Bacow was an “effective advocate for students from abroad, held hostage by irrational political forces of nativism.” In 2020, Harvard sued the federal government over immigration rules that barred foreign students from staying in the U.S. if they were not taking in-person classes, prompting the Trump administration to eventually change its guidance.
Sommer lauded Bacow’s “determination to confront the shameful history and legacy of slavery” at Harvard, adding that his contributions inspire her in her own work. Harvard released a report in April that acknowledged the University’s deep ties to the institution of slavery.
“I am encouraged that his leadership through the public taking stock of Harvard’s involvement will inspire us to develop reparative projects in our particular disciplines,” she wrote in an email.
Most faculty members declined to offer names of potential candidates, but two pointed to current FAS leaders.
University professor Irwin I. Shapiro offered Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs as a potential contender. Blier wrote that “if Harvard is looking internally,” FAS Dean Claudine Gay “has done an extraordinary job and would be a terrific President.”
Other faculty members said they want to see a candidate who comes from a different academic background than Bacow, who holds degrees in three fields in the social sciences: law, public policy, and economics.
Abraham “Avi” Loeb, a professor of Science, said Harvard should put a scientist in charge who also understands the “ethical issues” that “the humanities are needed to resolve.”
James Bryant Conant, Class of 1914, who served in Massachusetts Hall from 1933 to 1953, was the last Harvard president to come from a scientific background.
“The future of the University should reflect the challenges that we have, both in science and technology, but at the same time, combining the advances that we make in science and technology with new policies, with new ways to cope with the challenges that come from the humanities,” Loeb said. “There are ethical issues. There are issues of how to regulate some of the abilities that we have.”
Jill E. Abramson ’76, a senior lecturer in English who previously served as executive editor of the New York Times, said she hopes fundraising ability won’t be the “main prerequisite” for the position.
Instead, she said, Harvard’s 30th president should focus on bolstering the humanities.
“I’d like to see a president who values the humanities and might put some energy in trying to steer students into concentrations that are part of the humanities, because I think the humanities [are] a fundamental part of a good education,” she said.
Bacow came to Massachusetts Hall from an inside track: He served on the Harvard Corporation for seven years prior to his appointment as president and he stepped off the search committee that ultimately selected him in 2018 to be considered as a candidate for the job himself.
Loeb said he hopes the search committee will prioritize someone outside its ranks.
“What I really hope will happen now is that there will be attention to people from outside the search committee and attention to people who have vision and not just administrative experience,” he said.
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ArielH_Kim.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.