UPDATED: June 9, 2022 at 2:25 a.m.
Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow will step down in June 2023 after just five years in office, ending a pandemic-stricken tenure in which he oversaw a radical transformation of the University’s operations due to Covid-19 and steered the school through the political turmoil of the end of the Trump era.
Bacow, who announced his departure Wednesday afternoon, will be one of the shortest-serving Harvard presidents of the modern era, tying Lawrence H. Summers for the shortest tenure since the Civil War. Prior to his time in Massachusetts Hall, Bacow sat on the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing board, for seven years.
“There is never a good time to leave a job like this one, but now seems right to me,” Bacow wrote in a four-paragraph email to Harvard affiliates announcing his departure on Wednesday. “Through our collective efforts, we have found our way through the pandemic. We have worked together to sustain Harvard through change and through storm, and collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways.”
The Harvard Corporation and its incoming senior fellow, Penny S. Pritzker ’81, will lead the search for Bacow’s successor. In an email to Harvard affiliates Wednesday, Pritzker and outgoing Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72, who is set to leave the board at the end of June, offered few details about the search process, writing only that they will reveal more “before long.”
Bacow, 70, was selected as Harvard’s 29th president in 2018 after he stepped off the committee tasked with finding a candidate for the post to be considered for the job himself. During his first four years in office, he has led the school through one of its most tumultuous stretches — the Covid-19 pandemic — and championed some higher education issues at the national level.
Bacow’s presidency shifted drastically in March 2020 when Harvard emptied its campus at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, making it one of the first schools to send students home. Harvard took a largely conservative approach to managing the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, keeping most students away from campus and maintaining strict public health protocols.
Bacow himself tested positive for the virus just two weeks after students vacated campus in March 2020 — the first of two bouts he has had with the disease.
In July 2020, shortly after Covid-19 hit, Harvard sued the federal government over new federal immigration rules that would have barred international students attending colleges and universities offering only online courses from staying in the United States, prompting the Trump administration to eventually reverse its guidelines.
Trump himself took aim at Harvard at several points throughout his presidency. In April 2020, after The Crimson reported that Harvard was set to receive nearly $9 million from a federal stimulus program passed by Congress, Trump called on the University to “pay back” the money. Under pressure from an array of GOP lawmakers, Harvard eventually said it would not accept any of the federal funds.
Bacow also led Harvard as it was pulled to the forefront of the debate over the use of race in college admissions. A 2014 lawsuit challenging Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions policies is set to be taken up by the Supreme Court in the fall, putting in doubt the future of affirmative action in American higher education. During Bacow’s tenure, the school won a trial in federal court in Boston over the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, along with a subsequent appeal.
Under Bacow, Harvard took a major step in reckoning with its ties to the institution of slavery, acknowledging in a landmark report released in April that slavery “powerfully shaped Harvard.” Upon the release of the report, the Harvard Corporation committed $100 million to redress the University’s slavery ties.
Bacow’s tenure was not marked by the controversy or tumult characteristic of the Summers era. But in September 2019, Bacow used the 13th Amendment to compare Harvard’s donors with slaves — a remark he later apologized for.
Bacow often clashed with campus activists during his presidency — including students and alumni calling for the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Bacow for years voiced opposition to divestment, arguing the University’s endowment should not be used for political means. But in a surprise move, he announced in September 2021 that Harvard would allow its remaining investments in the fossil fuel sector to expire.
Bacow also oversaw the end of a high-profile controversy that began under his predecessor, Drew G. Faust, who presided over an effort to sanction members of single-sex social groups on campus. In June 2020, Harvard dropped the social group sanctions following a Supreme Court decision on sex discrimination. The College first announced sanctions in 2016, seeking to prevent members of final clubs and single-gender Greek organizations from receiving fellowships, athletics captaincies, and leadership posts in extracurricular groups. The controversial sanctions were first applied to the Class of 2021.
Bacow’s tenure was also marked by the continued expansion of Harvard’s campus in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, where the school has run into intense opposition from local residents and officials.
With Lee, the Corporation’s senior fellow, and Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp stepping down from their posts this summer, Bacow’s announcement coincides with a major shakeup of the University’s top leadership.
“Like just about everyone who comes here, I was in awe of the place—its history, its reputation, and its impact on all of American higher education,” Bacow wrote Wednesday. “Fifty years later, I am still in awe but for different reasons.”
“I have never been prouder to be part of this University than I am today,” he wrote.
—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.