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This past summer, Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced that he will be stepping down from his role by June 2023, marking the end of an uncharacteristically short and tumultuous five-year stint as Harvard’s top leader. Before the next academic year, we will lose the crimson devil we knew: the omnipresent and familiar, if frequently frustrating, face of our university.
With almost two full terms to go, Bacow’s legacy is not quite set in stone. Yet there is little doubt that his tenure as president of Harvard will be remembered for the amount and difficulty of the extraordinary challenges he faced, and for his partial success in confronting them.
Only halfway through Bacow’s term, a deadly global pandemic shut the world down. Harvard was forced into crisis mode: Campus evacuations, online schooling, and employee status with the backdrop of a physically empty campus became hot button issues. With the benefit of hindsight, the University’s response to covid could have been much better. At the time, however, little information was available to administrators and leaders, who were largely forced to fly blindly through the proverbial storm. We stand by our precedents in support of Harvard’s decisions that we feel protected and prioritized faculty, staff, and students, and we are grateful for the tough decisions that Bacow undoubtedly made at the time in our interest.
Bacow’s defense of the student body did not end with Covid: When the State Department initially refused to issue visas for international students taking courses online due to the pandemic, Bacow staunchly and vocally opposed the decision and played a large role in the policy being overturned. By doing so he kept the student body whole and protected some of its most vulnerable members, and we are particularly appreciative of this use of his personal advocacy. Bacow also oversaw an unparalleled expansion into STEM with the opening of the SEC, a $1 billion investment that is sure to broaden and enrich academic life at Harvard.
But Bacow’s administration wasn’t always so responsive. When it came to campus’ various divest movements, Bacow failed to provide timely or even post facto support to some of Harvard’s most notable student organizers. When the University, under his tenure, finally agreed to divest from fossil fuels and withdrew its investments in the externally traded funds that concentrated our private prison assets, President Bacow had an unparalleled opportunity to earn our peers’ respect. Instead, his controversial past statements and refusal to acknowledge the student activists he had decried when announcing the change of policy unnecessarily antagonized advocates. By refusing to recognize divestment’s activism even amidst what was objectively good news for the group’s base, Bacow transformed a proud high point of campus activism into an under-celebrated, bittersweet event.
Although the Legacy of Slavery report that he piloted was a step in the right direction towards justice and an uncharacteristic acknowledgment of Harvard’s role in historical oppression, we found it lacking in concrete ambitions, and were frustrated that it failed to recognize the potential that a project of its scope has. We are similarly disappointed by his lack of response to student calls for other issues on campus such as the long-desired multicultural center.
But none of those issues are quite as disappointing as the setbacks to diversity on campus that we might yet experience under Bacow’s presidency. An unfavorable Supreme Court decision in the anti-affirmative action Students for Fair Admission lawsuit against the University is likely only months away. While the case did not begin under his tenure, it will likely be linked to his name by nature of the press coverage the case received while he was president. Despite having a limited role, we deem it likely that his name will become inextricably linked to the reversal of decades’ worth of affirmative action admissions at top-tier U.S. universities.
Harvard Presidents must walk a tight line between administrator and academic, satisfying an array of political, educational, and institutional responsibilities. If his predecessors showcased an excessive lean towards either of the extremes, Bacow charted a tight and steady course through the middle, offering few if any explicit glimpses of his personal views (free speech! support Ukraine!), while proving a shockingly competent administrator. Overall, Bacow’s track record was hardly bad, given the havoc — global pandemic, protests against racial injustice, decaying democracy, attacks on our admissions system — his administration faced.
That might seem at odds with our standard critical opinions on the administration. But it isn’t.
As an editorial board, we have an idiosyncratically adversarial relationship with Harvard’s administrators. They find themselves repeatedly in our crosshairs, subject to attacks for lackluster responses to sexual assault, poor messaging on crucial issues, and irresponsible investment decisions. President Bacow, as the most public-facing university administrator, rarely escaped our scrutiny
That dynamic is not wrong per se, nor is it new. Our editors are young students with little actual power over University policy; we are idealists who offer, at the best of times, noble, ambitious policy goals of varied feasibility. University administrators, including Harvard University Presidents, actually control the levers of our institutional policy and know their seemingly paralyzing complexity — proving, in our eyes, too content with an unsatisfactory status quo.
Larry Bacow’s presidency perfectly embodies that old-school approach. We deem it likely that, at times, he thought of our editorial board as pretentious and excessively rightful, a handful of spoiled, naively ideological students with little experience and an excessively large microphone. We certainly didn’t always regard him as a steadfast keeper of our peers’ best interests.
That much made our rhetorical dynamic contentious. It is also, for the most part, the way things are supposed to run: Students across campus push for radical reform, administrators refuse but eventually tend to cave and accept a compromise of sorts. Sometimes the progress made is substantial, sometimes it isn’t. The tug of war for a better campus continues.
Bacow’s tenure will perhaps be remembered as that of an old-school president on a new-age campus. He was enamored with the artistry of nuanced moderation, sometimes seeming more enthusiastic about policy constraints than their possibilities. His student body, present company included, was increasingly unsatisfied with that approach — unsatisfied with the lackluster response to a global reckoning on police violence, unsatisfied with the departure of top-tier Black faculty, unsatisfied with a personal brand that appeared built on a condescending demeanor towards deep reform.
But Bacow’s approach had its own silver linings. The president’s commitment to free speech never excluded our criticisms of his missteps — criticisms we will continue to engage in during the last year of his tenure. It also extended, remarkably, to commentary that he vehemently disagreed with. Last year, at a point of intense scrutiny on our own board — at a time when our critics ranged from sitting senators to former University presidents — and despite public pressure on him to the contrary, President Bacow reaffirmed his commitment to the free press and our own editorial independence. That he did so while expressing disappointment at “the quality of discourse” on campus was nothing but another example of his endearingly predictable personal style.
That kind of decisive adherence to certain ideals, even ideals we don’t necessarily profess in the same terms — like his strict, purist understanding of free speech or his gradual approach to change — is rare and worth praising. It represents a sort of remarkable ideological coherence that we might, someday, come to miss.
Farewell, President Bacow.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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