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Bacow Says He Will Stay Out of Harvard’s Presidential Search Process

President Lawrence S. Bacow sat for an interview with The Crimson on Wednesday for the first time this semester.
President Lawrence S. Bacow sat for an interview with The Crimson on Wednesday for the first time this semester. By Addison Y. Liu
By Cara J. Chang and Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow sits at the head of Harvard’s sprawling administration, but he has stepped back from one key initiative: the search for his successor.

In an interview Wednesday, Bacow — who is not part of the 15-member presidential search committee — said he doesn’t know where the team is in its process.

“It’s traditional when universities search for new presidents that the incumbent president is involved only peripherally,” he said.

Bacow said he has only met with the presidential search committee and the faculty group that advises it to discuss his perspective on the job.

“I have met with the search committee not to talk about candidates, but just to talk about what are the challenges that the next president is likely to face,” he said.

Bacow added he is planning to meet with the student advisory committee in the coming days.

In a 2017 interview with The Crimson, Bacow’s predecessor, Drew G. Faust, also said she would largely stay out of the search process besides answering questions about the Harvard presidency.

The 29th president said one of the key challenges facing his successor will be handling the Supreme Court’s forthcoming ruling on affirmative action. Bacow declined to speculate about how justices will rule in the case, but during oral arguments on Monday, the court's conservative majority appeared ready to strike down race-conscious college admissions, a move that would overturn decades of precedent and reshape admissions processes across the nation.

Bacow added that he hopes the next president continues to drive forward the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, the Harvard Quantum Initiative, and the Kemper Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

But he said his advice to incoming presidents is to anticipate unforeseen challenges.

“Look what happened to me,” Bacow said, citing his navigation of the Covid-19 pandemic and his ascent to the Tufts presidency 10 days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some prominent Harvard donors also say the University’s next president will be responsible for launching a new University-wide Capital Campaign — likely a multibillion-dollar ordeal. While Bacow said there will be a campaign in the future, he did not specify the timeline.

“There’ll be one,” Bacow said. “I doubt that it’s going to be in year one or two — but I don’t know if that means it’s going to be three, four, or five.”

With his remaining year, Bacow said he has been speaking with faculty and donors “about how this University can contribute to the future of democracy.”

“My own view of this — and my successor will have to make their own decisions — is that Harvard should be tackling all the major challenges that face society,” he said. “There may be others that emerge. If you asked me when I started, I wouldn’t put the future of democracy on that list, but I would now.”

Asked about his plans for the future, Bacow gestured toward a framed photograph of his grandchildren by his armchair.

“At the time I took this job, only one of these grandchildren was born — this guy,” he said, pointing at his oldest grandson. “I haven’t been much of a presence in their lives, just given the intensity of this job. So I’m looking forward to that.”

Shortly after their departures from Massachusetts Hall, previous Harvard presidents have joined the boards of prominent corporations and foundations. Faust joined the Goldman Sachs board just days after her departure from Harvard’s top job.

Though Bacow said he could “wind up on a board or two,” he plans to enjoy “unscheduled time” after June 2023.

“At this point, I’m not looking for a full-time job,” he said. “I’ve run enough things in my life.”

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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