When power and leadership intersect, institutions can and do undergo systemic change. People in high positions of power are uniquely positioned to exercise leadership, especially in leading institutions like Harvard University. Not all people in power do. When they do, like the 29th President of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow, they disrupt higher education systems for the collective good. Lawrence Bacow joins Anne Pratt in this episode and shares how he defines bold leadership. He has used his Harvard Presidential power with discernment to impact systemic change, give voice to the voiceless, and give everybody a seat at the table. We learn more about his letters and discussions with China’s President Xi Jinping, the future of leadership, his ‘Mandela Moment,’ and Nelson Mandela’s leadership relevance today. Follow along to this insightful conversation to distinguish between power and leadership, the prospects for lasting change when they intersect, and be inspired.
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Harvard President Larry Bacow – When Power and Leadership Intersect
Disrupt the System to Give Everyone a Seat at the Table
I’m formally from South Africa, and I relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellowship outside beautiful Boston in the United States of America. Our thoughtful bold leader joins us from Harvard University in the City of Cambridge, just outside Boston. He never intended to become an academic, but serendipity and life intervened.
He was born and raised in Pontiac, close to Detroit and Michigan, to Holocaust survivor Jewish parents. He is an American lawyer, economist, author, and Academic University Administrator. He also served on the Obama White House Advisory Board to review America’s historically Black colleges and universities. He spent 24 years at the prestigious MIT University. He is the former Chancellor of MIT, the former President of Tufts University, and a longstanding member of Harvard Corporation, Harvard’s main governing body.
He flunked retirement and became the 29th President of Harvard University, America’s oldest learning institution, which continues to shape the American higher education system. He was inaugurated on one fine day in the fall in Harvard Yard on October 5th, 2018, three months after he took office. I proudly attended his inauguration. I felt emotionally moved by Amanda Gorman’s touching tribute to him.
Most notably, I am inspired by his humility, humanity, and how he blends academic scholarship with presidential power and bold leadership. Stay tuned as we learn about the American “Dreamers,” discussions with China’s President Xi Jinping, the changing landscape of higher education, why Mandela’s leadership, in his words, is absolutely relevant now, and his message for Generation Z. We warmly welcome the 29th President of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow, and welcome to the show.
Larry, it’s such a joy and a privilege for you to come and share your incredible insights and remarkable wisdom and have this critical conversation on the show. Thank you for joining us.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
I’d love to begin with the definition of bold leadership. After your inauguration as Harvard’s 29th President on October 1st, 2018, it’s a day, by the way, I recall so well in Harvard Yard. In 2019, shortly thereafter, you took some very big, bold decisions and actions. A couple of things come to mind. You went to China. You met with President Xi. You spoke at Peking University. You defended academic freedom and read aloud a minority group Uyghur poem then.
The ethnic group, as we know, has suffered grave human and human rights violations in China. You also, in that year, wrote to then-Secretary Mike Pompeo and expressed your personal view about “the Dreamers” to ensure that these children who had arrived in the US were protected and not deported. The third initiative, Larry, stands out so remarkably for me in 2019; you also established an initiative for Harvard to take an introspective look at itself and its history with slavery. My question is, what is the definition of bold leadership? What galvanized you to make these bold decisions?
I’m not sure I can tell you what bold leadership is. Good leaders lead ethically and in ways that deeply reflect their values. Let me take some of the questions or situations you’ve asked. In terms of speaking out on behalf of “Dreamers,” it was not just about “Dreamers.” I’ve spoken out about immigration in several cases. That first year, we had a freshman who was a Palestinian student who was educated in a Lebanese refugee camp.Good leaders lead ethically, and lead in ways that deeply reflect their own values. Click To Tweet
He came to this country and was turned away at the border. I went to bat to try and get him back into this country, which we were successful at. During the pandemic, the Federal government wanted to require foreign students to go home if their universities went to remote instruction. There was an example of my speech at Peking University where I quoted a poem by an Uyghur. All of those were motivated by one thing, and that was the experience of my mother.
My mother was born and raised in Germany in a small village of about 900 people. All of the Jews of Waldorf, that village, were transported to the concentration camps on the same day, and my mother was the only one who returned alive. They lost their whole family. That left me with a deep appreciation for refugees, immigrants, and those who want to come to this country for freedom or opportunity.
Also, I sense that in my position, I can give voice to the voiceless. With DACA students brought here as children have known only one country, for them to be excluded or those who wanted to try and make them go home it’s not only violated my fundamental sense of decency but also immigrants to this country have helped to shape this country and to make this country. (Note: DACA is an administrative relief that protects eligible undocumented immigrants from deportation. Children who came to the United States when they were children. DACA gives undocumented immigrants: 1) protection from deportation and 2) a work permit. The program requires that the DACA status and work permit be renewed every two years.) Similarly, when I went to China and spoke at Peking University, I spoke to Xi on the same day that afternoon.
I quoted from the Uyghur poet because the Uyghur have no voice in China. They have been sent to what are the equivalent of concentration camps now. My mother’s experience and my father’s refugee status when coming to this country have shaped my view of my responsibilities, not just to immigrants but generally to those with no voice. That’s what motivated me in many things that I’ve done as the President of Harvard.
To that point, Larry, in expressing their voice, some people ask the question of to what extent they extend their voice, whether they’re sitting in roles of presidents of universities or chairman of boards of companies. What do you think the duty and obligation are for people sitting in those senior positions of power to give voice to the voiceless?
Part of the problem of having succeeded in certain areas like when I sued the Federal government to keep foreign students in this country. We were successful, and as a result, a million foreign students were allowed to stay here. It was interesting what happened after that. Many people then wanted me to go to bat for other causes and groups.
One of the challenges is you need to pick your spots. I have acted in cases where the university has a direct interest. We had a direct interest in immigration. Twenty-five percent of our students in this country come from abroad. In some schools at Harvard, the Kennedy School or the Graduate School of Design is over 50%, and 25% of our faculty were born elsewhere. We want our borders to remain open to scholars, visitors, and students from elsewhere.
In the case of the Uyghurs, we had an Uyghur student who had been admitted to Harvard as a graduate student who was being imprisoned and a visiting faculty member who was supposed to come to Harvard, who was also Uyghur, also imprisoned. I felt some obligation to speak on their behalf. In fact, when I met Xi, I left him with a letter referencing these two individuals and asking him to look into their case and saying that we would gladly welcome them and accept them to Harvard if they could be free.
If you speak out too much on every issue, people start to tune you out. These days, there’s been a vacuum of leadership, at least in our country, within the Federal government, certainly during the Trump years, also, more generally, given the divisions of this country in Congress. That puts pressure on all leaders, whether or not one leads a university or a great corporation, to speak out on many issues.
One of the things I always say is that there is a diversity of opinions in a place like this. I must be careful about speaking out on certain issues because I always say, “When issues are reasonable, people can disagree. The function of the universities creates space where they can debate those issues.” I don’t encourage debate if I take a position on one side or another. I quash it. Many people wanted me to speak out, for example, on behalf of Palestinians in the Middle East. Still, reasonable people can differ on where the balance of equities lies between Palestinians and Israelis. That’s the issue where it’s not helpful for me to speak out or encourage debate on our campus.
As part of that question, Larry, in that decision to speak out as you did in China, and it’s a very inspiring story about your mother and your father, what process did you go through to assess the risks? What would you say to people trying to speak up and speak out and give voice to the voiceless, but there are very big risks involved? What would you say to them? What process did you go through, and how did you assess your risk (if any) in speaking to President Xi and speaking out in China?
For better or for worse, the president of Harvard doesn’t make any difference, whether or not it’s me or anybody else who travels to certain regions of the world, and China is one of them. I’m almost treated like a head of state. I knew I was not going to be at risk personally. I didn’t think our relationship as a university would be put at risk either, given the status of this institution, so I did not see any risk to me personally. I also didn’t think there was any risk to the institution, which is one of the reasons why it was easy for me to speak on this issue. I didn’t think it was such a bold move to make.
There are other issues, though, that I’ve taken up the cause. As you probably know, we have a case pending before the Supreme Court: race-conscious admissions, whether or not we consider race as one factor among many in constructing our classes here at Harvard. That’s another one where we’ve led all higher education.
We’ve stuck our necks out there, and many people have gone after us because of that. Again, it goes to the core of who we are as an institution and our role in society. I would not be doing my job if I did not stand up and speak on that issue. There may be some risk to the institution longer-term. Those in Congress have reacted. Indeed, some have reacted poorly to this. They’ve begun to tax our endowment and return, but what need to do is what you believe is ethically right.
To your point about Congress and also some of the challenges and developing the appropriate leadership that’s going to meet this pivotal moment in the US and the world now, if you were able to address Congress, what would you say to them about the future of leadership for the United States and the world?
Our political process these days is driving people to extremes. The role of leaders is not to encourage that but to help lead in a way that brings people together. I always say that leaders tend to have several things in common. They see opportunity where others see only divisions. They’re good at finding resources where others only see scarcity.
There’s a special role for all of us to play, not in dividing people but in bringing them together and bringing them together in ways that allow institutions, organizations, and countries to move forward productively. When I meet with new college presidents and they’re seeking advice, I always say that the best advice I can give them is always to do what’s right. It’s usually not that difficult to figure out. It’s often excruciatingly difficult, and that’s when you have to do it.
Has it been an instance where it has been particularly difficult? You alluded to the case with the Supreme Court. What process did you go through to make the right decision for the right reasons?
We have been at the forefront of defending race-conscious admissions for a very long time. The history of this issue goes back 40 years in terms of precedent in the Supreme Court. In all the other cases that have been brought up before the Supreme Court, we have not been the defendant, but in each and every case, the court, in deciding in favor of race-conscious admissions, has cited the admissions process at Harvard.
In this case, we are, in fact, the defendant. It was not difficult to defend what we’ve done. We’ve taken positions on this before. It is the case that since we are Harvard, the rest of the world is paying a lot more attention to what happens. It’s fortunate in some ways that we are the defendant. The plaintiffs chose us because of our position. Still, we also have the resources to fight against this case to represent all of higher education in ways many other institutions would not. Any word is upon us, a responsibility as well.
Alluding to the strength of Harvard and the institution of Harvard and the office, I’m curious, how did President Xi respond, a) To your question and b) To your letter?
As you might expect, the letter itself did not have much impact. I got an answer from the Chinese ambassador to the United States, which said that China respects the Rule of Law and intervenes in the individual case. I’ve written him a couple of times, again, asking for the status of this case. I’ve tried to keep it on the radar screen. He and I had an interesting conversation, and it was about how universities, in times of tension between their host nations, can often do things that governments cannot.
I argue that while our governments may have their differences, it is important to maintain scholarly relationships and scholarly collaborations. With that, he agreed. That’s gotten more difficult since I went over there, partly because our government has attempted to limit our capacity to collaborate and engage with our Chinese counterparts. I’ve also tried to explain to our government why it’s not in our interest to do that.
That’s encouraging. Thinking about the big challenges and this pivotal moment, not only in the US and the world, Larry, I’m reminded of what you said in April 2020, that climate change is probably humanity’s biggest consequential threat. I’m also aware that you’ve initiated and encouraged various actions across Harvard with multidisciplinary involvement to address the climate change issue and respond to the pandemic. In your mind, what are the biggest current threats that keep you up at night? What concerns you most?
Several things. I’ve tried to ensure that Harvard is engaged productively with all of the big issues of our time. You’ve mentioned one of them, climate change. Another that we are all wrestling with is the issue of inequality. The pandemic laid bare inequality throughout our society, whether or not we’re talking about inequality in income, wealth, access to medical care, access to justice inequality, access to education, and access to housing. It’s important for an institution like ours to focus on issues of inequality and what we might do to address them, mainly through our scholarship and teaching.
Another major issue is racial justice in this country. We continue to deal with what is sometimes called in our country our original sin. That is how we embrace the institution of slavery in the history of our country. That legacy continues these days, and we see that represented again in enormous differences that continue to exist between those who are descendants of this institution and others within our society. We have an obligation to address that.
Another important one is the future of democracy. Democracy is under threat in every country that has embraced democracy in the past and certainly in this country. We cannot take that for granted. Harvard has a special obligation here because on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, we as an institution were 140 years old, but 9 signers of the Declaration of Independence were our alumni.
We (Harvard) helped to bring this country into being. That imposes a special obligation on us to try and do what we can to preserve the institution of democracy. That’s another one where we must be visible and at the forefront. There are other issues, but if you ask me, the big ones are climate change, inequality, racial justice, and the future of democracy.
On the future of democracy, that is so heightened. What can institutions like Harvard and other higher ed institutions do to help protect and maintain a stable democracy?
Our scholarship is quite important here. We have two faculty members in our Political Science Department, Daniel Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky, who wrote a very important book, How Democracies Die. It looks at the history of going back generations hundreds of years in some cases where there were democratic governments that ceased to exist, and they ask, “What can we learn from this?” They identify a series of things that are common to all of these and where there were challenges to democracy.
The scholarship is an important one. We need to do more scholarships in these areas. An article in the Harvard Gazette focuses on what we can do in this country to preserve the right to vote. This has been under attack by some political factions trying to limit people’s capacity to vote by imposing new requirements before you can vote, which many of us think are designed to exclude certain groups.
Analyzing that and seeing its effect on different factions of our society is very important. It’s calling attention to these issues. One of the things we’ve done is do our best to encourage our students to register to vote and to vote. This is a project not just at Harvard but in many universities. People often don’t understand that we can tell who’s registered because that’s a matter of public record in this country.
If you are registered to vote, we can tell whether or not you voted. That data is public. Not who you voted for, but who registered and who voted. Now we take a look and calculate not just at Harvard how many of our students registered who were eligible and how many of those voted. We can disaggregate that by the school at Harvard. We can tell you how many students in the college, how many at the Harvard Law School, and how many at the Kennedy School of Government.
We tried to create competition among our schools, colleges, and universities to register students to vote and encourage them to vote. I always say that the first responsibility of a citizen in a democracy is to cast one’s ballot and vote. There are a variety of things that we can do both through our scholarship and our teaching. We create expectations, not just among our students but everybody who’s associated with the universe.The first responsibility of a citizen in a democracy is to cast one's ballot and vote. Click To Tweet
I’m curious about your own educational and career trajectory. It made me smile. You’re well-qualified and talented in many multiple disciplines. You got an Economics degree from MIT, a Law degree from Harvard, and a Master’s in Public Policy. I also believe that at MIT, you were the Founder and First Director of its Real Estate Center, a Professor of Environmental Studies, Head of the Center of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, and then President of Harvard. You’ve been President of other Universities. Chancellor and President of MIT, and President of Tufts. (Note: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private land-grant research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Established in 1861, MIT has played a key role in developing modern technology and science and is one of the world’s most prestigious and highly-ranked academic institutions. Tufts University is a private research university in Medford and Somerville, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1852 as Tufts College by Christian universalists who sought to provide a nonsectarian institution of higher learning.)
My question, Larry, is this incredibly diverse, well-rounded, multidisciplinary, formal education track record and experience, was that a conscious choice? Somebody once asked me, “Anne, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Was being president of Harvard your ultimate choice? How did you get there? Why did you take this trajectory? Why this journey?
None of it was planned. I tell students, “Most of our careers result from a series of fortuitous accidents.” The only way you can truly understand a career is on the day you retire. You can look back, and everything makes sense. I never imagined I would be academic. I was a Kennedy School and Harvard Law School student when I married.
My wife was enrolling in a Master’s program at MIT. She was going to graduate a year after I did. I needed something to do at that time. That’s why I wound up getting a Ph.D. from Harvard. I figured I’d continue my education. At that point, we both thought we would work in Washington, DC. It was the start of the President Carter administration.
I could fill in for somebody on leave from MIT for two years. I did that. It was an opportunity to go back to my alma mater. I didn’t expect to be an academic. Two years turned into 24 years. During my time at MIT, I had zero interest in academic administration. I dodged being a Department Chair or a Dean.
I became a Chairman of the faculty at MIT. That’s the leader of the faculty. It’s considered an honor. Nobody says no. Your colleagues invited you to do that, so I agreed. As a result of that, I got to know the President and Provost quite well. A couple of years later, after my term had ended, I went back into the faculty at MIT, and the President asked me to become the Chancellor of MIT.
MIT split the job of Provost in two; I got half, with the title of Chancellor. A colleague got half of the title Provost. I had zero interest in being a University President. If you have the number two job at a place like MIT, you get called for every presidential search, and I kept saying, “No, I wasn’t interested,” and for a whole variety of reasons that I don’t need to go into it.
When Tufts called, I figured I’d have a conversation with them. I wound up as President of Tufts. When I came, I said I would do it for ten years. I thought that was plenty amount of time. I did my ten years. I stepped down. That’s when I came to Harvard, first as the President in Residence of the ED (HGSE) school and then as the Houser Leader-in Residence at the Center for Public Leadership. At that time, I also joined the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body and fiduciary body.
We went looking for a new president. When Drew Faust stepped down, I was on the search committee. There was a faculty advisory committee to the search. At one point, the faculty advisory committee went to the search committee’s chairman and said, “Why not Larry?” At that point, I said, “No. It wasn’t me. I’ve been there and done that.” There came a point where my colleagues on the search committee said, “We really would like you in.”I never looked in the mirror and saw myself as the President of Harvard. Again, I saw this as an opportunity to serve an institution that had been good to me.
I have three degrees from Harvard but also serve in higher education. At my inauguration, I said, “My parents came here as refugees. My mother was an orphan. In each case, they came to this country with one suitcase and nothing else. Where else can you go in one generation from nothing to become the President of Harvard?” That speaks not to me, but it speaks to the opportunity that higher education gives to students and others. It enables the American dream, and I believe in that. I took these jobs not because I necessarily was looking for them or aspired to them but because it was an opportunity to serve.
Larry, I’m also reminded that soon after your inauguration in 2018, you made a trip down memory lane and returned to Michigan, where you were raised in Detroit and Pontiac. What struck me is why that trip back down memory lane to your childhood. Why then, and what was a moment in that childhood that struck a chord that shaped the Larry you are now?
I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, a gritty industrial town with three General Motors plants. You could graduate from Pontiac Central High School on a Friday, work at one of the GM assembly plants, and be pretty much guaranteed a comfortable middle-class existence over time. The kids would go to a good college. They would graduate without debt. When you retire, you will have a pension and healthcare benefits and own your own house. That was all gone by the time I became President of Harvard.
When I left Pontiac, it was a town of about 80,000 or 85,000 people. When I became President of Harvard, it was a town of 45,000 people. It had gone through bankruptcy and receivership. All three of the public schools that I attended had closed. I consciously decided to make my first trip as President of Harvard back to Pontiac. In part, I did so because I wanted to give the students of Pontiac the sense that anything was possible for them, but education would be their pathway.
They were going to make something of themselves. I went together with the Dean of our Graduate School of Education. The two of us talked to these students and the teachers. The teachers about how important their job was and the students about the opportunity that they had as well. That’s why I went back to Pontiac. You asked me about my youth. I was very much inspired by my 4th and 5th-grade teachers. Her name was Shirley Chandler.
Not to sound immodest, but I was a pretty good student growing up. I was one of the students who always raised his hand when the teacher asked her. In fourth grade, Mrs. Chandler pulled me aside and said, “I know you can answer every question in the class, but it’s important to give your classmates a chance to do that. It’s important to listen to them and understand what they say.” That’s a lesson that’s always stuck with me. The importance of listening to others. It’s shaped the way I view my own place in the world of how I go about doing my business.It's important to give your classmates a chance to answer. It's important to listen to them, to understand what they have to say. Click To Tweet
At my inauguration as the President of Tufts University, I spoke about the importance of great teachers in our lives. I said many great teachers had blessed me. My undergraduate mentor, for example, won the Nobel Prize. He was there. All of my graduate thesis advisors were there. I said then that one of the best teachers I had in my life was also there. It was my 4th and 5th-grade teacher, Shirley Chandler.
I had her stand, and it was a wonderful moment. Afterward, when I introduced her to my mentor, who’s responsible for me becoming an academic, this is Bob Solow, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics. I remember saying to him, “If they awarded a Nobel Prize for elementary school education, Mrs. Chandler would’ve been one of them.” Teachers shape us, and I’ve been blessed to have many great teachers. Again, one of the reasons that I became an academic or became a teacher was the opportunity to continue that tradition with my students.
How did you feel when you were back in those classrooms talking to teachers and those students?
It took me back in time. I told the students which high school, junior high school, and elementary school I attended and what street I lived on. The things that they could identify with. One of the challenges of being the President of Harvard is that the title always precedes you. People have expectations of who you are. I spent a fair amount of time trying to prick that bubble so the students could see themselves in my journey. I thought that was an important lesson.
What a joyful time. Turning to a leader who is like you believed in the power of education and famously once said that education was the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world, Nelson Mandela. I was curious to know, is there a moment that you recall, whether it’s a movie you watched, a book you read, a quote, or a clip from when Mandela received his Honorary Doctorate at Harvard? Is there a particular moment that stands out for you, Larry, that struck a chord around the example of Mandela, what he meant to you, whether he shaped you in any way, and how you think, act, and lead now?
I never had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela. I wish I had, but I know his work and resonate with his commitment to understanding the transformative power of education. There are several moments. One I’ve described with Mrs. Chandler. Also, where I grew up, I had never met anybody with a Ph.D. until I went to college. I had a series of college and graduate school teachers who kept seeing more in me than I saw in myself.
I’ve already mentioned one of them, Bob Solow, who encouraged me to graduate school. Another was somebody at Harvard who was my dissertation advisor, Mark Moore. When I was thinking about getting a Ph.D., I went to Mark and said, “I always thought the people who had PhDs were way up here.”
I talked to Mark, and he said, “Of course, you have what it takes to get a Ph.D.” Again, my career has been blessed with people who have seen more in me than in myself. That’s also the lesson of Nelson Mandela in how he led his life and what he succeeded in doing both while he was imprisoned and having gotten out of prison.
That is such an inspiring story that helps people to understand that if they apply themselves or if they’re committed, in some cases, to a cause, in other cases, committed to making themselves better and giving others an opportunity just as an opportunity has been given to us. Those are important lessons. I’ve benefited from that throughout my life. I could name the teachers who influenced me, not just in elementary school but junior high school in high school. I’ve maintained connections with most of them.
In that thing, do you think Mandela’s life, leadership, and example are relevant now?
Absolutely. He serves as an example and his inspiration to many who have been challenged in some cases because they’ve been oppressed. They may have been imprisoned, but the importance of being true to one’s convictions and ideals. What’s extraordinarily important about his journey is his willingness to embrace those who had imprisoned him, his deep commitment to reconciliation, and his ability to understand that it was possible to unite deeply divided people. There’s a lesson there, especially in these times of deep division for all of us. It’s a lesson of hope. It’s a lesson of what can be done, especially when others say, “It’s a bridge too far.” He was able to build that bridge.
As we know, Mandela ended up stepping down after one term. You have announced that you’re stepping down at the end of June 2023 after 5 years as Harvard’s President. Mandela also ended up having to retire from retirement. You and Adele mentioned that you’re looking forward to spending more time with your children and grandchildren. I’m curious about the next chapter. What is the next chapter? You have alluded to perhaps serving on some boards and writing some stuff, but tell us a little more about what happens in this next chapter of your life.
I’ll go back a bit to when I stepped down from Tufts, why I served ten years there and was planning not to retire but to lead a less scheduled life. One in which I did not have responsibility for running a large organization. As I sometimes say, like Mandela, “I flunked retirement.” I wound up running an institution now with 26,000 students and 20,000 employees, and 12 teaching hospitals. It was not my intention.
I’ve already said, as you know, that life is serendipitous. I tell students, “Be prepared to recognize opportunity when it walks up and hits you in the face.” At this point, I’ll be 72 when I retire. I’m not looking to run anything a big organization again. I can still be helpful to others as a counselor or an advisor in various situations. I want to write a few things. am looking forward to getting reacquainted with the concept of unscheduled time.Be prepared to recognize opportunity when it walks up and hits you in the face. Click To Tweet
The governor asked me to chair a commission or something like that where I could be helpful doing something like that. I served on a White House Task Force between when I was at Tufts and when I became President of Harvard. I can still see trying to make a difference and be helpful, but I also recognize that there’s far more of my career in the rearview mirror than there is ahead of me.
I still think it’s a very significant chapter coming up. You’ve also alluded to the fact that you’re invested in and have been can and supportive of other new presidents of universities. I was curious to hear your thoughts, Larry, about what you think universities in higher ed need to do to change the way we educate and develop our young generation of leaders to meet this moment. Is there a radical change you think higher ed needs to design and implement? If so, what?
There’s a perception that colleges and universities are ossified. They don’t change. That’s a wrong perception. We do change. We change over longer periods of time than people might imagine. We adapt. It’s one of the reasons why institutions like ours are among the oldest institutions in our societies. As I say, “Harvard dates back to its founding in 1636. We would not be here if we hadn’t evolved and adapted.”
You’ll continue to see us evolve and adapt as most other institutions. During the pandemic, we learned much about using technology to reach more students and expand opportunities for others. That will continue to be the case. We’ve also learned what subjects and areas to focus more on. We’ve already mentioned at least a few of them, which are essential to the future of not just our nation but many nations, inequality, climate change, racial justice, and the future of democracy.
There are those within our societies who are pushing back against those initiatives. We have a responsibility to push forward. There are big issues that we face as institutions. If we maintain public support, we must find ways to bend the cost curve in higher education. If we fail to do that, not only will we price ourselves out of the ability to provide an opportunity to students who need it, but also we risk all of the public support for higher education.
This is a challenging time for us because there are populists on the right and on the left who have determined that elite institutions are bad for society. We are among the most elite of the elite. I also think that we have a lot to contribute. We need to, again, push back against those. That will only happen if, politically, not just us but our country and others can reclaim the center. We have to work on that constantly.
We are not alone in that. If you look at what’s happening in Europe and many of the democracies in Europe, you are also seeing this. Other parts of the world are wrestling with the tensions between fundamentalism on one hand and modernity on the other. How that gets resolved will be important for so much of the world. Again, we see that almost everywhere.
We see it in this country with the rise of religious rights and the willingness of certain institutions in our society to try and embrace and institutionalize a particular view of religion in our government, which scares many of us. It ignores an important clause of the First Amendment, which says, “Government shall not recognize the establishment of religion, the establishment clause, nor take any action to abridge the free exercise of religion.” Resolving that tension is quite important long-term for the preservation of our democracy and our traditions, but it arises throughout the world.
That’s such a valuable point. What message would you give to the students of Harvard and Generation Z, not only across the United States, about their role in the future of leadership versus what the world needs now?
There have been other times in our history when we have been deeply divided. All you have to do is look at the ‘60s, the 1860s, and the 1960s. In each case, we found a way to bring people back together. I would tell them that they need to focus on how that will happen because that is what will shape their future. In many ways, I understand how the current generation of students feels like those of us in positions of authority have left them with a mess.
We will need them to engage, work hard, and recognize that it’s their responsibility to get involved, work, and repair this broken world that we find ourselves in. Past generations have done that as well. That’s what I would say to them. There’s no more important thing they can do to become an active engaged citizens. We need that.
A couple of fun facts. I’m curious. You and Adele have such a wonderful partnership. You present yourselves with such a formidable team. What would you say is the magic sauce?
It’s to find somebody who always helps to make you better. We try and do this for each other. It’s also important to put the relationship first. Unless you do that, you will put tension in a relationship. There’s not a decision of any consequence that we’ve not made in ways that strengthen our relationship as opposed to putting it at risk.
What is one thing that people seldom know about you?
That I can literally juggle three balls. I learned how to do that by writing my dissertation. Adele, at that time, was in graduate school at MIT, and one day, I went with her there because it was on a Sunday. She had work to do. I took my stuff and went into the library. I was working on it and took a break. When I went downstairs, the MIT juggling club was there during their thing. I said, “How do you do that?” They taught me how to juggle. Most people don’t know that I could do that, but it’s good for juggling other things.
You’re a great runner. You’ve run several marathons. What does running, besides physical health and well-being, mean to you in your life?
I get my best thinking done when I run. When wrestling with a hard problem, I go for a long run. When I need to write a paper or give a speech, I think about it for a long time. I organize it and then come back and write it down. It’s one of the few times in my life where I get to be by myself and think about what I want because the rest of the day is almost completely scheduled.
Larry, in our final few moments, do any final thoughts about the future of leadership and what the world needs now?
Every generation has found its leaders, and it’s important for us to find them. I was talking to one of the members of our corporation, David Rubenstein, about this issue. David made a very insightful observation. He said, “At the time of signing the Declaration of Independence, this country had about three million people. Of those three million, half were disenfranchised women. They were not part of the process. A significant number of the million and a half that was left were enslaved.” Maybe we had a million people that were active in the political process. That million people produced George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and I. Truly great people who helped to shape this world.Every generation has found its leaders, and it's important for us to find them as well. Click To Tweet
Now we’re a country of 350 million. We are the equivalent. That’s what we need to do. We need to create incentives and urge young people and others to get involved the same way they got involved. They were all comfortable economically in their lives at the time. They were willing to put that at risk to bring a new country into being, to do so by establishing a set of ethical principles for leadership and governance, which continues to be relevant for now. It’s always good to study history and think about the role each of us can play in shaping it.
Larry Bacow, thank you so much. Thank you for your service, wisdom, and insights. I’m super excited to see what the next chapter has in store for you.
I look forward to reconnecting, hopefully, on a boat sailing summer in the oceans here. Thank you for your remarkable work and your gift, not only to the United States but to the world.
You’re very kind in saying that. Thank you, Anne, for the opportunity to have this conversation.
Harvard’s 29th President, Larry Bacow, reveals profound wisdom about power, leadership, and the formidable combination of the two. People confuse power and leadership. There are people in powerful positions who fail to exercise leadership. Some people exercise leadership and do not hold positions of power, but when we combine the two, we disrupt the system and effect lasting change.
Any of my friends, colleagues, or alumni who have shared this privilege of coming to Harvard University know that Harvard opens up the world because the world comes to Harvard. This global access is possible partly because of the exemplary bold leadership of Larry Bacow. His origin story fuels his boldness. His deeply etched human values and his fortified moral courage moves me deeply.
His father’s Holocaust escapes from Belarus in Eastern Europe. His mother’s miraculous Auschwitz survival and her family’s everlasting gratitude for the American promise to live the American dream. Systems thinking teaches us that to disrupt the system, we must disrupt the current balance of power. How different will this world be when those in power, like Larry Bacow, use their power to disrupt the system itself? That is leadership.
Larry Bacow used his presidential power and exercised bold leadership to disrupt the system, give a voice to the voiceless and give everyone a seat at the table. His letters and conversations with China’s President Xi, citing an Uyghur poem at Peking University, requesting former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to give the American Dreamers a legal pathway to immigration and secure the legal rights for Harvard International students to continue at Harvard during the global pandemic lockdown.
He steps down as Harvard’s 29th President on June the 30th, 2023. It is no coincidence that Harvard opened the door during his tenure to Claudine Gay, the first African-American woman to become a Harvard President in almost 400 years to become the 30th Harvard President and to gain a seat at this magnificent table. Thank you, Larry Bacow, for flunking retirement, coming to Harvard, and touching my life.
More significantly, thank you for using your presidential power by combining it with your bold leadership to disrupt the system, leave a lasting leadership legacy, and reshape the high education system in the United States and the world. You, too, can use your power to exercise leadership, disrupt the system, and effect change. Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action. One small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- Lawrence Bacow
- How Democracies Die
- Harvard Gazette – Article
About Larry Bacow
LAWRENCE S. BACOW is the 29th President of Harvard University.
Widely regarded as one of the nation’s pre-eminent higher education leaders, President Bacow has devoted his tenure to advancing Harvard’s academic mission and encouraging interdisciplinary efforts to tackle complex global challenges such as the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. He is a passionate advocate for the free exchange of ideas, for the interests of international students and scholars, and for the promise of a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive University that considers its future in the context of its past. Under his leadership, the Allston campus has changed and grown in important ways, including steps to bring the American Repertory Theater to the neighborhood.
From 2001 to 2011, President Bacow served as president of Tufts University, following 24 years on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he held the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professorship of Environmental Studies and served as Chair of the Faculty (1995-97) and as Chancellor (1998-2001). He received an S.B. in economics from MIT, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an M.P.P. from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a Ph.D. in public policy from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Before his election to the Harvard presidency in February 2018, he served as a member of the Harvard Corporation (2011-18), a Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (2014-18), and a President-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2011-14).