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Bacow Defends Foreign Research Collaboration Following Lieber's Conviction

University President Lawrence S. Bacow, pictured during an interview in 2019.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow, pictured during an interview in 2019. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Cara J. Chang and Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow reiterated in a Thursday interview Harvard’s commitment to academic collaboration with foreign scholars following the federal conviction of Chemistry professor Charles M. Lieber.

Lieber was found guilty in December on six federal charges, including two counts of making false statements to government agencies and four related tax fraud offenses.

Bacow called the situation “unfortunate” but said he is “comfortable” with the University's policies on disclosing research collaborations and obtaining permission to use the Harvard name.

“We’ve always had policies requiring the use of the Harvard name,” he said. “These are policies which are well known to our faculty.”

Bacow also said it is important for Harvard affiliates to continue collaborating with foreign talent.

“It’s important that the United States continue to be open to scholars around the world,” he said. “I have tried to support the efforts of students and faculty to continue to gain entrance into this country from wherever they come from and will continue to do so.”

Bacow added that Harvard benefits from collaboration with foreign scholars, noting that some of the University’s brightest minds hail from China.

“As an institution, we have responsibilities to continue to protect our own intellectual property and we’ll do that, but I think it’s wrong to single out any particular group for scrutiny,” he said. “Some of the finest students and scholars we have in this University come from China and will continue to come from China.”

More than 2,300 Harvard students and scholars hailed from China during the 2019-2020 scholastic year – approximately 23 percent of the University’s international population, according to the Harvard International Office.

“Information flows in both directions,” Bacow said. “That’s the way scholarship is done, and it’s the way scholarship must continue to be done.”

Experts predict that Lieber’s conviction could provide momentum for the Department of Justice’s controversial China Initiative, which targets espionage. Harvard faculty said they were “shocked,” “saddened,” and concerned about future international collaborations following Lieber’s conviction. Some criticized the way prosecutors targeted Lieber, who is set to be sentenced at a later hearing.

Asked Thursday about Harvard programs that accept funding from firms in the fossil fuel industry — which have come under fire from student climate advocacy groups in recent months — Bacow defended the University's collaboration with industry, saying faculty members have the "right to engage and work with people from across the spectrum of industry, ideology, and different groups."

“I think it’s important, if we are going to influence and change the world, that we need to collaborate and work closely with those whose behavior we seek to change. And that requires us to engage with industry," he said. "And so we will continue to engage with industry in the hope of accelerating the transition to a decarbonized economy."

Still, the University’s climate plan continues to push Harvard’s operations and investments away from fossil fuel ties.

The Harvard Management Company is set to become carbon neutral in its internal operations during fiscal year 2022, according to a report released Thursday. HMC continues to work toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions associated with the University’s endowment by 2050, a goal it set in April 2020.

The University announced in September it would allow its remaining indirect investments in fossil fuels to expire, but still does not have a timeline for total divestment. Bacow noted third parties manage the remaining investments, which Harvard has no control over.

Bacow was also asked about the following:

Search for New Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow

William F. Lee ’72 — the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — is set to step down from his role in June, when he will be term limited off the board. Bacow said picking Lee’s successor is “a consultative process” involving every Corporation member.

“It’s not my decision, nor should it be my decision,” he said. “Bill Lee, the current Senior Fellow, is managing the process.”

Bacow added that he would stand behind any current member of the body as a potential candidate.

Omicron and Campus Life Amid Covid

Bacow defended the University’s move to transition away from requiring Covid-positive affiliates to move into school-provided isolation housing. In January, the school implemented an isolate-in-place model that allows undergraduates who test positive to stay in their rooms. He cited the high vaccination rate among Harvard affiliates and the school's limited isolation housing capacity.

“We felt that this was, in fact, the right way to go — and it’s proven to be the case,” he said.

Bacow added the University has “managed to contain” the virus on campus, noting the current positivity rate is below 1 percent.

The Crimson interviews University President Lawrence S. Bacow three times per semester during the academic year. Click here to submit a question for consideration in our next interview.

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

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

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