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Much of the characterization of University President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow’s selection to lead Harvard has focused on his similarities to his predecessor, University President Drew G. Faust. The comparison is apt: As Tufts’s president, Bacow emphasized global initiatives and attempted to bring together different schools, similar to Faust’s outreach and “One Harvard” campaigns. Additionally, Faust oversaw Bacow’s appointment to the Corporation, and praised his and others’ “intensity of commitment to higher education.”
Those who claim that Bacow’s leadership of higher education “echoes” that of his predecessor, however, overlook a key difference between the two. Faust’s path to the University’s top job—like that of University Presidents past—was defined primarily by her scholarship. A once and future historian and author of six books, Faust spent a quarter-century on the University of Pennsylvania’s faculty, where she received awards for teaching as well as chaired her department and a program in women’s studies. Her first exclusively administrative role was not until 2001, when Harvard hired her to lead the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, its smallest school-like unit; even then, she continued her scholarship as Lincoln Professor of History, a role she continues to hold.
By contrast, while Bacow’s background in academia is similarly prolific, his curriculum vitae demonstrates greater administrative experience than Faust’s did when she was picked to lead Harvard. In addition to his tenure on the Corporation and as president of Tufts—each an important role in higher education at the national level—Bacow served as chancellor of MIT, a director of Tufts Medical Center, and President-in-Residence of a program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to name a few positions.
While Bacow has no dearth of scholastic credentials himself, he enters his new role with a degree of separation from his days as a faculty member that Faust did not. Especially in this light, if Bacow aims to lead the University effectively, a main goal of his must be the development of a strong working relationship with the University’s faculty.
It would be unfortunately easy for Bacow not to prioritize this. Higher-profile issues, from the new tax on Harvard’s endowment to the University’s expansion into Allston, not to mention the transition into the presidency itself, may feel more urgent to Bacow. Nevertheless, he must not avoid the difficult, nuanced task of establishing and communicating his vision for his relationship with the scholars of the University.
In that vein, Bacow will have to define his position on the extents and limitations of faculty governance. His membership in the Corporation may not serve as an auspicious beginning for his relationship with some members of the faculty, given the recent finalization of penalties for members of single-gender social groups at the College by the Corporation. Some faculty members have resisted what they consider the University’s lack of faculty involvement on the issue. Regardless, no matter what position Bacow takes on faculty governance, he and the Faculty will only benefit from his communicating and justifying it effectively.
If Bacow does so urgently and does so well, he and the faculty have much to gain. For his part, Bacow will be best prepared to approach the aforementioned external challenges Harvard faces if the University itself is cohesive. The president of Harvard’s role as a spokesperson for higher education is derived from the strength of the University, which in turn stems from the academic accomplishments of the faculty themselves. The confidence of said faculty is therefore crucial if Bacow is to fairly and effectively represent Harvard.
In turn, the University’s faculty will benefit from teaching and researching at a university whose leadership is aware of its needs. Bacow will inevitably not see eye-to-eye with the majority of the faculty on every single issue, and nor should he, but he should be clear about the extent of his agreement and disagreement with them on important issues to enable them to adequately balance their roles in academia and University governance. Faust—perhaps due to her experience as a faculty member herself—has emphasized the importance of listening in her relationship with faculty, and Bacow would do well to follow her lead on this.
On the other hand, a toxic relationship with the University’s faculty can destroy a Harvard presidency (to use an extreme example). Bacow can, and should, not only avoid this but actively pursue a far more functional relationship. To do so, he must draw on both his administrative and academic experience to transparently communicate with faculty members about the roles he envisions them playing under his leadership. At this point, there is every reason to hope and expect that this will be the case.
Emmanuel R. R. D’Agostino ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Quincy House.
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