Harvard’s New President Shares His Vision, Family History And Thoughts On Discrimination

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Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)
Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)

Lawrence Bacow has officially become the 29th president of Harvard University.

Bacow succeeds Drew Faust, who spent 11 years in that role and was the first woman to lead the elite Ivy school.

He steps into the position as the school is facing an ongoing discrimination lawsuit over its admissions process. Bacow also feels he is taking over at a time when the country has lost its appreciation for the opportunities higher education presents students. He plans to be an advocate for those values.


Larry Bacow, president of Harvard University, which tweets @harvard.

Lawrence Bacow speaks after being introduced Sunday as the 29th president of Harvard University. (Bill Sikes/AP)
Lawrence Bacow speaks after being introduced Sunday as the 29th president of Harvard University. (Bill Sikes/AP)


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Meghna Chakrabarti: Larry Bacow, welcome to Radio Boston.

Larry Bacow: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

How does it feel to be the incoming president of what's arguably the world's most famous institution of higher education?

Well, it's humbling. It really is. It's an institution that I know well. I was a graduate student there. It's an institution that I've had to compete against at various times. And it's an institution for the last seven years that I've been blessed to have been part of both as a member of the corporation, and [I] also spent some time at both the [education] school and the Kennedy School. So it's — I'm incredibly honored.

Now, humbling because of all that can be accomplished in a place like Harvard or all the challenges that a place like Harvard also faces?


Both, and.

Yeah, you know, as I've been telling people, I'm excited by both the challenges and the opportunities. I just hope they're in the right proportion. When I've advised people who are thinking about being a university president or who have just become a university president, one of the things which I always tell them is that probably the biggest challenges that they will face could not have been anticipated on the day they took the office. So, we'll see what the future holds. But it's one of the things that makes a job like this very interesting. It's also humbling just because of Harvard's extraordinary history. You know, I always like to remind people that on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed Harvard was 140 years old, which, just to put that in context, is older than Stanford is today by a considerable amount.

So it's, as I say it's a privilege, it's an honor, but it's also humbling to be a steward of such an important institution.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine that a person like you doesn't have a couple of goals in mind for your first year or two at Harvard.

Well, sure. I mean look one should not take a job like this just because it's an interesting title. You should take a job because you have an agenda. And I have one, but it's still evolving. I still have a lot to learn about Harvard, and I'm still spending a lot of time listening. But, I look forward to building on the successes of my predecessor. I think Drew Faust was an extraordinary president. She did much to knit the various schools together in an initiative that became known as One Harvard. That's still very much a work in progress. There's lots more left to do. I look forward to continuing that work.

Can you give us some broad strokes of what your agenda might be? Any hints there?

Well, I think there's an enormous desire for greater intellectual engagement across the institution. Big ideas, big questions which faculty can work on together across our 12 schools. One of the things which I hope to do is to partner with our neighboring institutions. One of the virtues of having been in Boston for as long as I've been and having been president of Tufts is that I know my presidential partners and colleagues at all the neighboring institutions, and so I've been engaged in conversations with a number of them about what we might do together.

As I hear you speak, I hear the laudable and diplomatic language that college presidents use, because you're right. You're in this cohort of leaders of major educational institutions. But to be fair, I want to give listeners some context. When you were at Tufts, you were pretty ambitious for what you wanted to do and you largely accomplished that, right? You wanted to get Tufts out from under the shadow of Harvard and MIT; you wanted to expand access to low-income students; you wanted to make it a much higher profile research institution. Those are not small goals, but you managed to accomplish just about all of that.

Well thank you very much. I had lots of help. Nobody does anything on their own. The challenges at Harvard are different. I don't need to expend a lot of time or effort to get people to pay more attention to Harvard. Harvard is blessed with one of the most generous financial aid programs in the country. I had to compete for students with institutions like Harvard, so it was necessary to raise additional resources for financial aid at Tufts.

One of the big challenges which I think I face is that, you know, we live at a time in which "elite" has become a bad word in the eyes of many. We are among the most elite, if not the most elite, institution at a time in which people are questioning that. So part of my challenge is to help people to understand that an institution like Harvard, while it may in fact set the standard for what it means to be excellent in so many different fields, is still an institution that matters to all sorts of people — even those who will never attend Harvard, even those who don't even live in the shadow of Harvard. That the world in fact benefits from the research which we do at Harvard, from our efforts to try and identify the most talented students and faculty literally from around the world and bring them here together. So, you know, I think I have my work cut out for me in being an advocate and a voice for the enduring values of higher education more broadly that Harvard has often represented.

To that point, there was a poll from Pew [Research Center] in July of last year that found, for example, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that colleges and universities have an overall negative effect on the country.

God help us if people really think that that's true. I think that these institutions are incredibly important for a variety of reasons. We're important because we create pathways for opportunity, for students who otherwise would not have. As you probably know, both my parents are immigrants. They were both refugees to this country. I've often said, "Where else in the world can you go in one generation from off the boat to enjoy the kind of opportunity and life that I've enjoyed?" Higher education makes that possible. It is still making that possible for many, many students.

Can I just jump in here, because I don't want to underplay your family's story, right? Your mother was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz.

Correct. In fact, the only Jew from her town who survived the war. And my father came here as a refugee as a child to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe. So it's institutions like ours, and not just Harvard. Colleges and universities throughout this region, throughout the country, traditionally have enabled the American dream. And I think they still do. Especially in a knowledge based economy. The value of a college degree has never been higher. The differential between lifetime earnings for a college graduate versus a high school graduate, never been higher. We are magnets which attract the best and the brightest from around the world. This is the densest concentration of academic talent that you will find anywhere on the planet. And many of these students, they don't want to leave. And in a world where the only truly scarce capital is human capital, this is an extraordinarily valuable resource.

You're also coming into the Harvard presidency at a time where the university is facing a very public federal court case where a group of Asian-American students are alleging that the admissions process at Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants. I want to begin by taking a step back on this issue and just ask you, broadly speaking, what do you think the mission and purpose of the admissions process in an elite university like Harvard should be?

The admissions process should try to construct a class to bring together a group of students who, let's face it, we're going to confine under temperature and pressure for four years in a residential learning environment which optimizes the opportunity for them to learn not just from the faculty, but from each other. And diversity is an important component of that because we learn from our differences. So that means that we seek students who are excellent on many, many different dimensions. We know we understand that there are multiple dimensions to intelligence, multiple intelligences. And so, we focus not just on a narrow definition, but a broad definition of excellence and intelligence.

We're fortunate at Harvard that the vast majority of students who apply are extraordinarily accomplished academically. We can only accept a very small percentage of them. So we look for excellence in other dimensions. We look for students who are excellent not just in the classroom but who bring other things to the campus. Whether or not it's broad intellectual interests across a range of fields, so we don't want everybody concentrating in just one field. No, we need people who want to study science and engineering, and who want to study poetry and philosophy and economics and mathematics and music and art, literature and other things. So that's one kind of diversity that we seek.

We seek students who come from broad socio-economic backgrounds, because that's part of our mission is to create opportunity. We seek students who are geographically diverse. We seek students who are ethnically diverse. Having all sorts of students come together in a learning environment is the function of our admissions process.

I've had conversations about this sort of broad mission of admissions with several university leaders over the years, and this is the fundamental goal, right? To create a community of learners, of pursuers of knowledge that create a rich and vibrant university campus. And nobody takes exception with that. But when you look at the specifics of some of the things that have been brought forth in this lawsuit against Harvard, there is the question about: Is Harvard going about creating that community in the right way? And let me just ask specifically: Recent court documents have revealed that Harvard, the admissions office, uses a personality score as part of the overall suite of things that they look at with applying students, and that it seems as if Harvard has consistently given lower personality scores to Asian-American applicants on things like kindness, courage, likability.

That's an allegation which, in fact, I think we would dispute. And we believe that the facts established at trial will prove otherwise. And, you know, I would also add that — I really don't want to get into the details of the lawsuit, but there have been hundreds of thousands of documents that have been pored through at this point. There is not a single one which suggests that there is a policy to discriminate against anybody or to hold one group to a different standard than anybody else. We don't do that. In fact, the Supreme Court has twice ruled on this issue and has in fact specifically cited our holistic admissions policies as practiced at Harvard in the last two cases that went to the Supreme Court on affirmative action. Holding up our process as an exemplar of how race should enter the admissions process as one factor among many in consideration.

What's stopping a university like Harvard from saying explicitly that in order to fulfill this overall holistic mission of admissions, we cannot and will not be accepting the most academically accomplished students who apply? 

But, again, here I would question the definition of the most academically accomplished students. Back when I was chairman of the faculty at MIT, there was a debate at MIT over our efforts to dramatically increase the number of women who were attending MIT. And back in those days, when I attended MIT as an undergraduate, roughly 5 percent of my class consisted of women. When I left MIT in 2001, I think 49 percent of the students that we admitted, 44 percent that we enrolled were women. Some of the faculty thought that we were making exceptions and lowering our standards to admit women because the women that we admitted had slightly lower scores, average scores on the S.A.T., at the time than the men. And that was true. Those same women outperformed the men in the freshman class, had better academic performance.

So, when you frame the question as admitting the most academically qualified, who is the most academically qualified? By what criteria are you going to judge them? And here our admissions staff has had literally hundreds of years of experience to understand who succeeds and who doesn't at a place like Harvard. And so merely focusing on one or two metrics doesn't give you a full picture on who's likely to thrive.

Point taken. Absolutely. But since you mentioned the hundreds of years of experience, you also would fully acknowledge that there have been imperfect parts of that history. I mean it was in the 1920s and '30s that Harvard used personality and character as justifications around personality and character as a means to keep out Jewish applicants.

Correct, and if you go back and look at that record, there was an explicit policy articulated by one of my predecessors to do that. Nobody has suggested that we're trying to keep out any ethnic group out of Harvard. To the contrary. And again I would point to the fact that of all the records that people have poured through in this case, there is zero evidence of that. Nothing to the contrary. In fact, the decisions are made by a group of 40 people, one person, one vote, all voting on each case, with a fair number of Asian-American admissions officers voting along with everybody else at the same time.

We've been focusing on this lawsuit brought by, on behalf of some Asian-American students, but a lot of people looking at not only Harvard admissions but other elite institutions would say really the problem is the preferential treatment that legacy applicants get. Would you dispute that? Agree with that?

As a group, the legacies are an extraordinarily accomplished group of applicants who, independent of the admissions process and how it selects them, have a leg up because they know and they understand the institution, and they know and understand what it takes to thrive and succeed at the institution. So their applications tend to be, you know, well put together. They have deep knowledge of the institution. So, it's a self-selected pool, which as a group, by almost any metric, looks very, very good relative to the broader applicant pool. But I don't deny that we like many other institutions, when it's a toss up, tend to look harder at somebody who's family has had a long connection to the institution.

Why? Why is that?

Well, it's done for a variety of reasons. It's done because institutions like Harvard did not build themselves. They've relied upon people who've been willing to work hard to make these institutions the kinds of places that they are. And so it's not just that somebody attended Harvard or a parent attended Harvard. We actually look to see who's worked to try and engage the community more broadly on behalf of the institution, who's been actively involved. And there, we do recognize people who've devoted their time and effort to help sustain the institutions.

Finally, what lessons do you take from your parents' lives and experiences in terms of how it informs how you view what you do? And I ask that specifically because we are living in a time, in a moment where immigration is such a contentious issue. And, you know, who America should lead into its doors. And I just wonder how you view that given where your family has come from?

Right. After my mother was liberated by the Russians from Auschwitz, she had to walk 400 miles back to her hometown. There was no infrastructure at the time, and she did so to see — she knew her parents and her grandparents hadn't survived — she was hoping that her sister had. She had been separated from her sister, wound up in a different camp. Turns out she didn't. But my mother used to say that she never felt more alone or abandoned by the world than she did after she was liberated. And, you know, I think one measure of the justice of a society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable and most at risk.

And if this country eventually had not been opened to my mother, you know, who came here on the second Liberty ship that brought refugees after the war, you know, literally, I wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation with you. I wouldn't be sitting anywhere. And so, I think, you know, the experience of my parents affects me deeply because I see an obligation, a responsibility to try and help others, to create opportunity for those just as opportunity was created for so many of us. These are difficult times in this country on so many different levels. I hope someday our children or grandchildren won't ask each of us what were we doing at this moment in history, when it seems like so many of the values which so many have held dear are being challenged. But if my children or grandchildren ask me that question, I want to say I tried. And, in many respects, that is why I'm doing what I'm doing right now.

Well, Larry Bacow is the 29th president of Harvard University. It's been a great pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so very much.

Thank you for the opportunity. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

This segment aired on July 2, 2018.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Chris Citorik Senior Producer
Chris Citorik was a senior producer for Radio Boston.



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