The Harvard Alumni Association surprised outgoing University President Lawrence S. Bacow with the Harvard Medal during the second annual Harvard Alumni Day on Friday.
Bacow became the fifth person to receive the medal this year. The four other recipients of the award, which honors “extraordinary service” to the University, were announced in April.
After Bacow awarded the four medals and returned to his seat, William F. Lee ’72, a former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — took to the podium as Bacow looked on in bewilderment.
“Larry has no idea what I’m doing here,” Lee said.
Lee then explained that he was at the podium to “return the favor,” after Bacow surprised him as a Harvard Medal recipient last year by inviting Lee’s granddaughters on stage to present him with the award.
Lee began his tribute to Bacow by reflecting on the search that led to Bacow’s selection as the 29th president of Harvard, a process Lee led as senior fellow of the Corporation.
Lee recalled asking Bacow to step down from the search committee to become a candidate in the search process — which Bacow only agreed to do under two conditions.
“First, he asked if he’d be recused from the search committee,” Lee said. “Second, he asked me to promise that if there was a better candidate, we would select the better candidate.”
“We made the first happen,” he added. “But the second was never a question. There was no better candidate.”
Lee concluded his speech by praising Bacow for his service in the years since his appointment to the University’s top post.
“The entire Harvard community specifically — and higher education more generally — has now had the gift of his wisdom, his leadership, and his integrity for five years,” Lee said.
Bacow joined Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson ’80, former HAA Director Philip W. Lovejoy, businessman Antonio Madero, and federal judge Rya W. Zobel ’53 as the final recipient of the 2023 Harvard Medal.
During the ceremony, Bacow also said goodbye to the alumni. Over the past few weeks, Bacow has taken the podium at various events to bid farewell to Harvard students, faculty, and affiliates as he prepares to depart office at the end of June.
Prior to receiving the Harvard Medal, Bacow addressed the alumni audience and began his speech with a quip that compared Harvard to Disney.
“Some say that Disney World is actually the most magical place on the earth. I actually beg to differ,” he said. “Children may enjoy the rides more at Disney World, but Harvard actually has shorter lines — except if you’re applying for admission.”
Bacow expressed gratitude for the support he received over the years from his wife, Adele F. Bacow, and offered some insight into his life post-presidency.
“As for what is my future, I’m trying to figure that out as well,” he said. “But I suspect it will entail some writing, some lecturing, more time with Adele, more time with our children, our grandchildren.”
He also reflected on his tenure at the helm of the University.
“Being president of Harvard is really a job like no other,” Bacow said. “While these past five years have, candidly, not been easy, they’ve also been richly rewarding.”
“It’s been an extraordinary privilege to be your president,” Bacow concluded. “Thank you for the opportunity to do this amazing job.”