Taking the Lead in Higher Education: A Conversation with Harvard President Larry Bacow
By Gillian Christie
“Come on, Michelle, [it’s] Larry,” remarked Harvard University President Larry Bacow in his response to Dean Michelle Williams of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She had eloquently introduced him with his formal title: “President Bacow.” President Bacow and Dean Williams joined students and faculty in the Voices in Leadership studio on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, for a lively conversation on leading in times of change in higher education.
President Bacow’s unassuming leadership approach is perhaps a reflection of his familiarity with the institution he now leads. Originally from Pontiac, Michigan, President Bacow completed three of his four graduate degrees at Harvard (the fourth was at MIT). Before becoming Harvard’s President, he served as the President of Tufts University. At Tufts, he advanced the university’s commitment to excellence in teaching, research, and public service, while fostering collaboration across the university’s eight schools. Prior to Tufts, President Bacow spent 24 years on the faculty at MIT, where he was Chair of the Faculty (1995–1997) and later Chancellor (1998–2001). President Bacow has developed a reputation for delivering commitments that expand student opportunity, catalyze academic innovation, and encourage universities’ civic engagement and service to society. His extensive education and experiences make him one of the most widely experienced leaders in American higher education.
Bacow’s agenda for Harvard
It is clear that President Bacow joins Harvard with an ambitious agenda. For the first time in his life, he hears people — parents and students alike — question the value of higher education as they consider life’s next steps. Is it worth sending a kid to college? Are colleges and universities worthy of public support? Are these institutions even good for the nation? Unlike during earlier days in his career, these are now the questions facing President Bacow. In an attempt to address and answer these questions, his highest priority is “to try and change this narrative about higher education.”
President Bacow additionally spoke about the misgivings people have about institutions of higher education. In this regard, he noted that “people are casting a critical eye to institutions like Harvard … because they think that we’re elitist.” He also reflected on the fact that people are angered by the rising cost of education and skeptical of the extent to which institutions like Harvard are truly open to new ideas and ideas from across the ideological spectrum.
In an attempt to change the dialogue on higher education, President Bacow believes leaders have two important tools in their toolkit. The first is the ability to ask questions and frame issues for people. He harkened back to one of his law school professors, who said: “I can win any argument I want, as long as you let me frame the question.” For President Bacow, issues must be re-framed as learning opportunities. The second tool is the ability to teach others to see challenges from different perspectives. He indicated that as a leader, he tries to make his own problems challenges that others can consider in order to inspire ownership of an issue and facilitate action.
Harvard’s commitment to public service
At the core of President Bacow’s agenda is a commitment to public service. In his inaugural address, he committed to affording any Harvard student the opportunity to engage in public service and pursue a career that can make a difference.
He also believes that Harvard should make it easy for students to have the opportunity to return home to do this kind of work. He has seen how many students come to Boston to pursue higher education and end up staying when they could otherwise benefit their communities by returning home. He uses his own story as an example:
“I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, which is now the poorest city in the state of Michigan. And I came to Boston to go to college, and I never left. And in many cases, we do take the best and the brightest away from places that need them. And so, you know, maybe if we encourage some of our students to pursue public service opportunities back home, they’ll go home.”
Public service plays an important role in President Bacow’s agenda, and he hopes to level the playing field with these initiatives. With opportunities to deeply engage, some students will “catch the bug” and be interested in continuing with public service through their career choices or volunteer efforts.
Harvard as an institution
With a deep understanding of both MIT and Harvard, President Bacow further reflected on the nuances of leading different institutions. In comparing them, President Bacow noted the differences between two universities that are down the road from one another. He asserted: “Harvard and MIT are interesting because they are so different… organizationally and culturally, they’re identical with a sign change… these are two of the world’s greatest academic institutions. And what that says to me is that excellence is path-independent of organization.” President Bacow shared how MIT is centralized and moving towards decentralization, whereas Harvard’s arrangement is decentralized and moving towards centralization. For him, this indicates “that there’s more than one way to organize an institution,” a sentiment that demonstrates the importance of listening and learning in order to be able to effectively lead and understand the uniqueness of different organizations.
President Bacow was also cognizant of the need for leaders to obtain a deep understanding of the institutions they serve. Many leaders attempt to dive into new strategic plans or organizational restructures without realizing the consequences of their actions. He indicated:
“Every institution has its own culture and its own organization. And one of the challenges when you come into a leadership position, especially from the outside, is to try and understand that culture [and the organization]… before you attempt to change it… It’s important that when you start out, that you think of yourself as a cultural anthropologist who’s been sort of parachuted into some remote territory”.
Lastly, President Bacow reflected on his own approach to considering the next steps in his own career path. He believes that it is important to: “Ask yourself what you really want to get done. Take a job because you have an agenda, not simply because the job is just there… [and] think about the fit between [yourself] and the institution.” It is clear that President Bacow has come to Harvard using this approach, and this is a critical lesson for students to heed.
Challenges ahead for higher education
In addition to his agenda, President Bacow also discussed two issues that keep him awake at night: 1) the rising cost of higher education and 2) the pace of technological change. Regarding the first, he believes that reducing the cost of higher education is possible, but the consequences for students and alumnae are largely unpopular: larger class sizes, less sophisticated facilities, and less support for alumnae. This, however, is not what students, faculty, or staff want from higher education. Reducing costs while keeping education at the frontier of cutting-edge research and developments remains a challenge for President Bacow.
President Bacow also noted that technology has revolutionized education by making it more accessible. Despite the proliferation of technological communications tools, ranging from social media platforms to massive open online courses (MOOCs), embedded within many of these technologies are value judgments. The creators of new technologies, including computer scientists and software engineers, have their own biases that are implicitly integrated into the design of the technology.
These technologies can cause widespread harm that span country borders. One example directly affecting public health is the automated proliferation of anti-vaccine messages on social media platforms that are propagated by Russian chatbots. With growing numbers of people refusing essential vaccines in many parts of the world — and with Europe facing one of the highest measles outbreaks in history — the proliferation of these messages contributes to the decline in vaccine coverage as well as to the spread of misinformation online on the value of vaccines.
Harvard’s Embedded Ethics program is one attempt to better integrate the disciplines of ethics and technology. Students studying philosophy at Harvard are embedded in computer science classes in order to better understand the nuances of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other complex technologies.
Leading in times of change
As our time with President Bacow came to a close, he reflected on his own leadership lessons derived from his illustrious career. He offered two recommendations for current and future students. Both focused on the significance of decisions made by individuals early in their careers. The first was to surround oneself with good people and help them achieve their goals:
“One important leadership lesson that I would leave people with is, surround yourself with good people and really help them achieve what they would want to do.”
President Bacow additionally noted that there are people who do the work and others who try and take the credit, and that it is a lot easier to be a member of the former category. But, as one moves higher in an organization, the less important credit becomes. The second leadership lesson, and perhaps most important, is to:
“Always do the right thing. It’s usually not that difficult to figure out. It’s often excruciatingly difficult to do. And leadership is about doing the right thing, especially when it’s very, very, hard.”
He left the audience reflecting on this and how making the right decision is much harder to achieve in practice. For President Bacow, the leadership lessons he has received over the course of his distinguished career provide a foundation and a springboard for aspiring students to use in their own leadership journeys to lead the change they want to see in the world.
Story by Gillian Christie, a Doctor of Public Health Candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Originally from Toronto, Canada, she completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in the United Kingdom. She is interested in using technology to promote better health behaviors in order to prevent the onset of chronic diseases.
Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, a Doctor of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University. She is interested in gender and sexual justice in the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as resilience and anticolonial sustainable development in the context of climate change.