When Harvard’s presidential search committee announced they had appointed Lawrence S. Bacow as Harvard’s next president, there was no denying the elephant in the room. Despite calls from Harvard affiliates for diversity during the search, Bacow, who was a member of the search committee, will be the 28th white male president of the University.
Some Harvard affiliates, including students and alumni, had hoped the face of the University’s leadership would look a bit different. Several alumni groups—including the Harvard Business School Latino Alumni Association, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, and the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance—sent letters to the 15-person search committee during the “information-gathering mode” of the search, asking the committee to consider a diverse slate of candidates.
“Given that Harvard’s selection of its President will have an immense impact and influence in international academia for years to come, we hope you will exhaustively seek to identify, recruit, and consider candidates from diverse backgrounds, including candidates of color, LGBTQ candidates, and candidates from other underrepresented groups,” a letter from the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard to the search committee read.
Soon after Bacow’s selection, some students expressed their disappointment with the selection of a familiar-looking face.
“A thought that I had earlier was that, in a few years, if the diversity of the incoming class keeps increasing, [a] white president will no longer be representative of the Harvard student body, which is a big issue,” Diego Navarrete ’21 said.
Bacow, a member of the Corporation and former president of Tufts, will succeed University President Drew G. Faust this summer. In the Feb. 11 press conference introducing him to Harvard affiliates as the University’s 29th president, Bacow responded to a question about the calls during the search for a president from an underrepresented background, and emphasized his commitment to diversity.
“During my time at both Tufts and at MIT, I worked very, very hard to promote excellence. And I think diversity is a pathway to excellence,” he said. “We need to look for the very best and during my time at Tufts I’m proud of the record of bringing women and minorities and people of color into the senior leadership, into the faculty, and also into the student body, and I hope to do the same thing here.”
Bacow has repeatedly referenced his own background as a son of immigrants, and he recounted his “American Dream” story at the press conference.
Personal background aside, Bacow will inherit a range of diversity-related tasks at Harvard, including the final recommendations of the Presidential Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging, which are slated for release before Faust leaves office this spring.
Bacow, according to many of his colleagues at Tufts and MIT, is no stranger to challenges of diversity and inclusion—and his past actions might hint at how he will tackle these issues from Massachusetts Hall.
Bacow began confronting issues of diversity in academia early on as a professor of environmental studies at MIT in the ’90s, according to John S. Wilson, Jr., former president of Morehouse College and current president-in-residence at the Graduate School of Education.
Wilson was an administrator at MIT while Bacow taught at the school, and Wilson had to confront concerns about the “quality of life” for black undergraduates. A 1984 “Quality of Student Life Survey” conducted by MIT had indicated that black alumni had largely negative experiences at the school. In response, Wilson joined a task force convened by the university to study the “racial climate” on MIT’s campus.
The task force, which Wilson likened to Harvard’s current Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging met with faculty—including Bacow—about the results of the survey.
“When we did that tour and tried to convey what the challenges were, some of the faculty got it and some not so much,” Wilson said. “Some were in fact dismissive of it and so we had the challenges in trying to help reshape the undergraduate experience, so it would be more welcoming and inclusive.”
Bacow, however, was one of the faculty who “got it,” Wilson said.
“Larry Bacow sort of bubbled up as somebody who was very aware of the issues, who cared about them, and who was creative and innovative in his engagement with them,” he added.
Bacow’s attention to issues concerning minority students was something that Wilson said showed in the years following the task force’s 1986 report. Wilson said he was “pleased” when Bacow was promoted to chancellor of MIT in 1998, since Bacow was “enlightened” about the issues.
After 24 years at MIT, Bacow ascended to the presidency of nearby Tufts University, four stops north on the Red Line in 2001.
The undergraduate population of Tufts at the time was embroiled in debate over the small number of minority students attending the college. In 2003, the Tufts Daily published an article that said the numbers of Latino and Asian students attending the college had increased, but the numbers for black students remained static—and low.
By the end of Bacow’s tenure in 2011, the proportion of minority undergraduates had risen slightly; 4.3 percent of Tufts undergraduates identified as black, 6.5 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and 10.4 percent as Asian, according to the 2011 Tufts University Fact Book.
According to Lisa Coleman, who served as Tufts’s first Chief Diversity Officer from 2007 to 2010, Bacow worked to expand Tufts’s financial aid program to make the university more accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds.
“He has been very attentive to issues of affordability, which is crucial for first generation students, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford going to schools like Harvard or Tufts,” said Coleman, who came to Harvard in 2010 and served as Chief Diversity Officer and Special Assistant to the President under Faust until May 2017.
Bacow worked to expand programs for first-generation students and collaborated with the financial aid office at Tufts to improve affordability for low-income students despite the fact that Tufts is not a need-blind institution like Harvard, Coleman said.
Bacow’s capital campaign, Beyond Boundaries, surpassed $1 billion in donations in 2009. A 15 million dollar gift from Tufts trustee Karen Pritzker took the form of a fundraising project to increase affordability for students of underrepresented backgrounds in 2006. Tufts Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin told the Tufts Daily that the gift would not influence admissions, but would increase the amount of financial aid available to the university.
In addition to benefiting “historically disenfranchised groups,” Coleman also said Bacow’s financial aid expansion was “crucial” for students with disabilities because of the “affordability issues in terms of accessibility.”
Bacow’s track record on financial aid during his tenure at Tufts prompted Wilson to recommend him in 2009 as an advisor to President Barack Obama on the White House Initiative for Historically Black Colleges. Wilson, who headed the initiative, wrote in an email that Bacow’s success in keeping Tufts more financially “stable” than many peer institutions during the financial crisis of 2008 was a key point for his selection.
“The transformation he led at Tufts was an ideal model for all HBCUs,” Wilson wrote.
Aside from student diversity, Tufts also faced criticism for its low retention rates among female faculty and faculty of color, according to a study conducted by Tufts released in 2004. The study found that that the overall retention rate of white faculty was 57 percent, while that of faculty of color was 35 percent.
Coleman said that Bacow worked to diversify the faculty even before he hired her as Chief Diversity Officer. Bacow engaged many faculty members, including Coleman, who was Director of Africana Studies at Tufts at the time, in conversations about faculty diversification, according to Coleman.
“I would say that the faculty was not as diverse as Larry would have liked, which is why he was working with the provost on these initiatives,” Coleman said.
As Chief Diversity Officer, Coleman worked with a faculty subcommittee on “strategic initiatives” for diversification among the faculty. Bacow and then-University Provost Jamshed Bharucha were “very supportive” of their efforts, Coleman said.
Coleman said Bacow supported a pipeline program from Tufts’ graduate schools and a post-doc initiative to bring in post-doc students with a focus on “area studies” like Native American and Indigenous studies, Latinx studies, and Cuban studies.
“Those kinds of things add to the diversification of the curriculum in terms of studies,” Coleman said.
Tufts Political Science professor James M. Glaser, the former dean of undergraduate education under Bacow, said Bacow assembled a diverse team during his presidency.
“President Bacow brought a really excellent and diverse leadership team to Tufts,” Glaser said. “He attracted them. He recruited them. And he hired them. And that includes deans, the provost of course, and high-level administration.”
Still, a March 2010 editorial in the Tufts Daily charged that Bacow had not fixed the diversity problem within the Tufts faculty.
“Only 7.7 percent of all tenure-tracked professors at Tufts identify as either African American or Hispanic,” the editorial reads.
The editorial also flagged that the university still lacked an African American Studies department.
“There are still many improvements that can be made that will allow for greater equality and diversity on the Tufts campus,” the editorial reads.
Under Bacow, Tufts did not see many large student protests, save for mass opposition to a student newspaper titled Primary Source that published a racially charged series of satirical articles in 2007 implying Muslims were violent and African-Americans were academically unqualified for college. The newspaper also published a mocking caricature of a woman affiliated with a feminist group, according to Coleman.
“People don’t remember it now, it was 13 years ago. But at the time, it was such a profound event on our campus and it rocked us,” Glaser said. “It was a traumatic event in our little community.”
According to Glaser, who was dean of undergraduate education at the time, Bacow had been across the country on a business trip for Tufts when the incident occured and returned to campus right away.
“He recognized immediately it was a crisis,” Glaser said.
A student-faculty committee ordered the newspaper to put bylines on all the pieces, which it had previously published anonymously, according to Glaser. Primary Source appealed the decision and Glaser, working with Bacow, decided the fate of the paper: it could continue to publish sans bylines.
“At the end of the day, I, with President Bacow’s support, eliminated the penalty because that felt like punishment for speech,” Glaser said.
Bacow announced the decision by advocating for freedom of expression in a 2007 email to Tufts affiliates following the incident.
“The appropriate response to offensive speech is more speech, not less,” Bacow wrote. “We must be vigilant in defending individual liberties even if it means that, from time to time, we must tolerate speech that violates our standards of civility and respect.”
The defense of free speech, however, was combined with a series of conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion at Tufts that Coleman said emphasized the “values of the institution,” according to Coleman.
“There was a website that was created, Community Conversations, a number of things that were created as a result of that to engage the community in meaningful conversations about diversity and inclusion and belonging and equity and what it looks like and why it might be important to have conversations rather than caricatures or making fun of individuals,” she said.
Bacow also commissioned a task force that eventually created a university-wide policy on freedom of expression that was approved by the Tufts Board of Trustees in Nov. 2009.
“Freedom of expression and inquiry are fundamental to the academic enterprise,” the policy reads, “Without freedom of expression, community members cannot fully share their knowledge or test ideas on the anvil of open debate and criticism.”
When Wilson was a student at the Harvard Divinity School and Graduate School of Education in the 1980s, he and other students were upset about the lack of diversity among Harvard leaders, as they watched white man after white man assume positions of power.
Reflecting on the experience in a recent email, Wilson wrote that some of those people “turned out to be progressive forces for good”—and he said he turned his focus to personal qualities rather than physical appearances when assessing a person’s ability to create change.
“Even while we still wanted people of color, we shifted to also scrutinizing for people of character,” he wrote. “We looked beyond who they were, physically, and focused on whether they listen and hear, how they think and express, and what they prioritize and do.”
These characteristics were on the minds of search committee members throughout the seven-month-long process. In a Nov. 2017 interview published in the Harvard Gazette, a University-owned publication, Senior Fellow of the Corporation and search committee chair William F. Lee ’72 said the committee would prioritize “fundamental human characteristics” like integrity, communication skills, and emotional intelligence.
Asked about the committee’s consideration of calls for a minority president, Harvard Corporation and search committee member Shirley M. Tilghman said the committee considered a wide range of candidates.
“Our charge was to find the very best person that could lead Harvard for the next decade,” Tighlman said. “In order to execute that charge appropriately we looked very broadly and inclusively at candidates, and so I feel as though we took very seriously our charge but we did it in a very broad way.”
Lee emphasized Bacow’s experience with diversity and inclusion initiatives from his former posts. In an email to Harvard affiliates announcing Bacow’s selection, Lee wrote that Bacow will be well-prepared to “realiz[e] the full potential of our growing diversity to assuring that Harvard continues to attract faculty, students, and staff whose talent and promise can change the world.”
—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @krisguillaume