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'Pracademic' Bacow Brings Economic Expertise to Top Job

Bacow 1
University President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow smiles at the press conference announcing his selection in Feb. 2018.
When President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow assumes the University’s top job in July, he’ll add environmental economics to a long list of fields that Harvard’s academics-turned-presidents have pursued—ranging from theology to Renaissance literature to analytical chemistry.

Bacow, who earned a doctorate of public policy and a degree in law from Harvard, taught urban studies and planning and environmental studies at MIT from 1977 to 1998 before entering the school’s administration, first as chancellor and then as chair of the MIT faculty. Later, he became president of Tufts.

Over the course of his academic career, Bacow published two books and various articles on environmental studies, economics, and higher education policy. His first book, published 1982 and titled “Bargaining for Job Safety and Health,” explores" how labor and management work together and against each other to abate occupational hazards,” according to the MIT Press.

“Environmental Dispute Resolution," which he co-wrote with retired Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler in 1984, examines the formulation of environmental policy, as well as negotiations between the government, environmental advocates, and regulated entities.

Health Policy Researcher Craig V. Thornton, who reviewed “Bargaining for Job Safety and Health,” said it covered “a really interesting" field of study.

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"[It's] a really important topic for a Harvard president,” Thornton said.

Though Bacow holds more administrative experience than his immediate predecessors Drew G. Faust and Lawrence H. Summers, he has published a smaller body of scholarship, boasting considerably fewer academic articles than either of the other two scholars.

Faust continued working as a civil war historian right up until she moved in to the president's office in Massachusetts Hall. Before assuming the University’s top job, Faust was Dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study and simultaneously held a professorship.

By contrast, it has been 20 years since Bacow worked as an academic.

Before her appointment to the presidency, Faust also published eight books, one of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Harvard’s 27th president, Summers, was “the first social scientist ever to receive the annual Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation,” according to Harvard’s website.

University of Michigan Professor John E. Tropman, who reviewed an article Bacow co-wrote, “Facility Siting and Public Opposition,” said Bacow’s work in administration left him less time for scholarship.

“If you have the kind of jobs he’s had, there’s a cost to that,” Tropman said.

But Tropman said Bacow’s academic work likely prepared him very well to be president.

Some of Bacow’s scholarship has touched on university administration, covering employment benefits, technology in higher education, and real estate.

Tropman called Bacow “a pracademic, a practical academic... more practically-oriented than theory-building.”

“Obviously the new president has an interest in and a talent for problem-solving and managing,” Tropman said.

In much of his scholarly work, Bacow has collaborated with academics in different fields.

University of Chicago law professor Randal C. Picker, who worked with Bacow in 2014 and 2016, said Bacow was “exactly what you would hope to have in a colleague” while they worked together.

“[He was] open minded, intelligent, someone who has his own ideas, but also who listens to other ideas,” Picker said. “He’s willing to engage and we’d go back and forth, in the best way that academics do.”

“I would do another paper with him tomorrow in a heartbeat,” he added.

—Staff writer Cecilia R. D'Arms can be reached at cecilia.d'arms@thecrimson.com

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