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When Lawrence S. Bacow takes the helm of the country’s oldest university in July, he will face a Faculty of Arts and Sciences more concerned with governance than it has been in decades.
Since the unveiling of penalties against single-gender social organizations in 2016, the Faculty has taken an increased interest in governing student life. Convinced the penalties constituted unprecedented administrative intrusion on a matter rightfully under the purview of the Faculty, some professors introduced several motions meant to kill the policy. In the end, though, the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body, on which the president serves as an ex-officio member—voted in Dec. 2017 to uphold the sanctions for the foreseeable future.
A decade ago, tensions were also flaring between the Faculty and the administration—specifically between the Faculty and then-President Lawrence H. Summers. In March 2005, the Faculty narrowly passed a 218-185 vote of no confidence against Summers, leading to his eventual resignation in Feb. 2006.
“It looked to me like the magnitudes of the rifts with certain segments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences faculty were at a level where I thought it would be very difficult for us to advance on a whole set of fronts,” Summers said at the time.
During the 27th president's tenure, FAS members raised a number of concerns over how much sway professors should wield over University-wide policies like Harvard’s expansion into Allston—then widely regarded as a moonshot—as well as financial aid initiatives and the president’s own approach to management.
Bacow and Summers are both white, male economists named Larry; in the wake of the announcement Bacow would serve as Harvard's 29th president, many could not resist drawing an immediate comparison between the two men. Some University affiliates said at the time they had hoped for another female president or for the University’s first president of color—and not “another white man named Larry.”
Despite nominal and physical similarities, Bacow and Summers are in fact quite different, boasting dissimilar backgrounds and leadership styles.
But at least one element will likely remain as constant for the second Larry as it did for the first: an attentive Faculty eager to push the boundaries of its governing power.
Bacow and Summers share not only a first name, but also a discipline and undergraduate degrees from MIT. Both began their first university presidencies in Sept. 2001, and, during their administrations, both launched precedent-setting initiatives to expand financial aid for undergraduates.
The similarities in the two men's backgrounds, however, largely end there.
By the time Summers ascended to Harvard’s highest office in 2001, he had acquired decades of experience not only in academia, but also in politics.
In 1983, Summers started his career as one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history. He hovered on Washington’s periphery for much of the ’80s, serving as an economic advisor for the Reagan administration and the Dukakis campaign. In 1991, Summers moved to Washington full-time to serve as the vice president and chief economist at the World Bank. From there, he moved on to the Clinton Administration, where his political tenure culminated in his appointment as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary in 1999.
Bacow’s background, on the other hand, is more oriented towards university administration. He joined the MIT faculty in 1977 as a professor of environmental studies. In 1995, Bacow became chair of the faculty, a position comparable to Harvard’s dean of FAS.
Two years later, he rose to chancellor—the third highest administrative office at the university—which gave him responsibility over undergraduate and graduate student affairs.
He moved to his first presidency at Tufts in 2001, where he oversaw a number of initiatives on undergraduate social life and free speech as well as a $1.2 billion capital campaign. After he stepped down in 2011, he was appointed to the Harvard Corporation, the only body with the power to appoint or remove Harvard’s president.
Bacow began Harvard's most recent presidential search as a member of its search committee. By the end of the nine-month search, however, searcher had become candidate. At roughly 3:00 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2018, the committee named Bacow its final choice for Harvard’s 29th president.
Harvard’s president chairs the ad hoc committees on faculty tenures—one of several key ways in which faculty members can interact with the president. While former Dean of the FAS William C. Kirby said Summers’s role in these meetings was not unlike that of his predecessors, Kirby said Summers had a “much more direct” leadership approach.
“He believed very strongly in data and in the metrics of the case, in the way a good economist would,” Kirby said.
Summers’s directness generated controversy. In a Jan. 2005 conference, Summers posited that underrepresentation of women in science could potentially be attributed to “issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude.”
While Summers apologized for his remarks, and the Corporation initially expressed confidence in his leadership. But the damage was done.
One month later, tempers flared when more than 500 faculty gathered in Loeb Drama Center for a chaotic Faculty meeting that concluded in a vote of no-confidence against Summers.
J. Lorand Matory ’82, a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard during the Summers era, proposed the March 2005 vote of no-confidence. Now an anthropology professor at Duke University, Matory said Summers had a “combative” style of communication and spoke while “thinking out loud.”
“I felt like there were no other options but to file the motion,” Matory recalled.
Ruth R. Wisse, a retired professor of comparative literature, said she would have liked to see Summers “succeed and prosper” as the University president. In the the midst of the controversy, Wisse decided to make a one-on-one appointment with Summers.
“As things began to evolve, I was really distressed by the degree to which he could not in any way effectively defend himself. I told him that he should have been marshalling support from the faculty,” Wisse said. “He thanked me for coming and did not react in any way—not impolitely, but that was the end of it.”
Summers said in an interview last week that he believed “forceful presidential leadership” generated many of Harvard’s most successful initiatives, including “the founding of the African American studies program, the establishment of the Kennedy School, and the creation of the Broad Institute.”
“At Harvard, there’s a tendency instead of doing the things that some people are most excited about, to do only the things that no group is strongly opposed to, that leads us to be inertial,” Summers said. “And I think that leads us to be very slow in responding to a changing world.”
Bacow’s leadership style, on the other hand, is more reserved, according to his former colleagues at MIT and Tufts.
Lonnie H. Norris, who served as Dean of Tufts’ Dental School during Bacow’s tenure there, said Bacow’s leadership “begin[s] with listening.”
“Part of his communication skills was really to listen and understand the problems or the goals or aspirations of people he’s working with,” Norris said. “And uniquely, he can incorporate those thoughts that they gave him and give them back to them to work with them and to solve the problem.”
Stephen D. Immerman, who worked as an administrator under Bacow’s chancellorship, said Bacow prioritized cooperation and camaraderie.
“He always operated as though we were there together solving problems and it didn’t matter about your position, what mattered was your expertise and your ability to cooperate and work together to achieve a common goal,” Immerman said.
David H. Marks, an engineering professor who served on the committee that hired Bacow at MIT, said Bacow is also “willing to put the time and energy into helping people to understand issues.” Sometimes, Marks said, Bacow would take colleagues who disagreed out on a run. The colleague would “normally come back convinced.”
“I don’t know if he runs them into the ground or what. But he had a unique way of engaging people and getting them to listen and to explore ideas,” he said. “He’s not a sledgehammer guy in any sense.”
The Harvard presidency carries a unique responsibility in its job description: chairing the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The president does not serve a similar function at any of the University’s other schools.
Kirby said the University president’s relationship with the FAS is historically different from the relationship between the president and the faculty of any of Harvard's other schools. FAS members have a more “direct capacity to speak to the president,” according to Kirby.
“The Faculty have definitely found it valuable to have the opportunity to speak with the president,” Kirby said. “It gives the president a more public voice for certain types of announcements than otherwise might be the case. In question period, it also allows for utterly unscripted moments.”
Faculty took advantage of the question period during the height of tensions with Summers in Feb. 2006. Following a Crimson report that Kirby would step down due to pressure from Summers the previous month, members of the Faculty flocked to University Hall to speak directly with Summers. More than a dozen faculty lambasted Summers, challenging him on a series of issues including his relationship with Andrei Shleifer ’82, a personal friend of Summers who was implicated in a federal fraud lawsuit at the time. No professors rose to defend Summers at the time.
Wisse said she was upset by the way the Faculty “ganged up” against the president, adding she believes the University president should not chair the faculty meetings.
“The people who attend Faculty meetings tend to be a very narrow sliver of the University,” she said. “They are the most hawkily engaged and they enjoy the idea that sitting there with the President of the University is easy to aggress against if they want to.”
For the foreseeable future, though, Harvard's president will continue to lead Faculty meetings—so Bacow will soon begin taking his seat at the front of University Hall each month.
It will not be Bacow’s first time navigating relationships between faculty and administrators; across his time at both MIT and Tufts, he stood on both sides of the governance issue. He served as the MIT faculty’s chief advocate—the chair of the faculty—before taking on an administrative perspective as chancellor of MIT and, later, as president of Tufts.
When Bacow became MIT’s chancellor, he brought his experience chairing the faculty to the role, according to Daniel Roos, an MIT professor who worked with Bacow at the time.
“First, he understood the issues that the university faced. And he understood the governance structure of the university in terms of how to get things done. And he interacted with a whole range of faculty and faculty committees,” Roos said.
Marks said Bacow was particularly skilled at persuading MIT’s faculty to support efforts to diversify faculty hiring and change Title IX policies.
“A lot of faculty just don’t pay any attention at all. But it was pretty clear he had a sense of what was a good direction to move and a sense of whether the faculty as a whole would go along with it,” Marks said.
Jamshed J. Bharucha, who Bacow appointed to serve as Tufts’s provost in 2002, said Bacow emphasized transparency in engaging with faculty, which created an environment in which there were “no surprises.”
“He explains his decisions very carefully, very thoroughly. He doesn’t harbor secret agendas. Doesn’t play games,” Bharucha said. “Anybody can ask to speak with him and he is always available, which also builds trust with faculty members.”
Bharucha also said he thinks Bacow’s experience as both a faculty and administrative leader could allow him to transcend the traditional faculty-president divide.
“I don’t think it’s a question of presidential power versus faculty power at all,” he said. “He understands the proper role that faculty can play. He also understands that leadership means that the buck starts with you, and you have to take responsibility for the stewardship of the institution.”
In an interview last month, Bacow said he will be supportive of the faculty as president.
“My job as president is to enable the faculty to do their best work—their best teaching, advising and scholarship,” he said.
The job of the Harvard president has grown more complex in recent decades. The University is continuing to grow, encountering increasing opposition in Washington, and struggling to preserve its pre-eminence in the face of a powerful rival out west.
Matory said the University's 29th president will have to address diverse constituencies while balancing issues including financial concerns, faculty hiring, and debates over free speech.
“You have to deal with politicians, donors, and faculty who may be divided on methods,” Matory said. “There was a time in history when the president was a towering figure, but now it’s much more difficult to affect change.”
Kirby said that, though the FAS relationship with the University president is unique, it forms one of many relationships Bacow will need to balance.
“He will be a president with a considerable capacity for intellectual outreach,” Kirby said. “He will work well with faculty across the University. We in FAS must always remember he’s president of the whole university, not just FAS.”
For all their differences, though, Bacow may lead Harvard in the direction Summers wanted—towards what Summers called in his last commencement speech a “time when, because of Harvard’s bold investments and its magnetic power, Boston is to this century what Florence was to the 15th.”
After July, Bacow will be responsible for completing the Allston expansion Summers began in 2001—an expansion Bacow in February dubbed “the university of the future.”
“It was gratifying to hear him [Bacow] identify excellence, opportunity, and truth as central for Harvard, and I think those are exactly the right kinds of themes on which Harvard needs to build its future,” Summers said Monday.
“I think he’s shown himself to be an excellent leader in the past.”
—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.
—Staff writer Luke W. Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @duke_of_luke.
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