Dr. Lawrence Bacow, the 29th president of Harvard University, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School)

Taking the Lead in Higher Education: A Conversation with Harvard President Larry Bacow

By Gillian Christie

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.”

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.

Dr. Lawrence Bacow, the 29th President of Harvard University (Right), was interviewed by Dr. Michelle A. Williams, Dean of the Faculty at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health (Left). (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School)

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.

Student Moderator Amy Bantham (Left) leading an off-the-record Q&A session with President Larry Bacow (Right) after his talk. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School)

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.

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:

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Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices