One day after the Trump administration blindsided thousands of international students by barring them from remaining in the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, MIT President L. Rafael Reif was eating breakfast and drafting an op-ed to express his outrage.
Reif was interrupted by a call from Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow. Though he was also furious about the barring, he suggested a different strategy: suing the government.
“I was thinking, ‘How do I express my anger?’” Reif recalled. “He was thinking, ‘How do I stop this?’”
Reif said the decision that morning in July 2020 to join Harvard in the lawsuit was a “no-brainer.”
The plan, he said, also reflected Bacow’s approach to leadership — a willingness to act decisively based on his convictions.
“He was ahead of me. He was already taking an action,” Reif said. “He knows very clearly what’s right and wrong — and this he felt was very wrong.”
Bacow’s was a historically brief presidency, tied for the shortest at Harvard since the Civil War. Yet during the five years he held office, he encountered a unique convergence of challenges — one that reflected a higher education landscape under attack. Woven through all this was the pandemic, a crisis during which Bacow — a seasoned higher education leader — was forced to make consequential decisions without a blueprint.
With his time in Massachusetts Hall coming to a close, colleagues reflected on a man whose presidency was defined by defending Harvard — and the rest of higher education — from political and public health threats.
Before Bacow became the University’s 29th president, he was charged with finding them.
Bacow joined the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — in 2011. One of the board’s responsibilities was finding the 29th president of Harvard after former President Drew G. Faust announced she would step down from the post in June 2018.
However, in December 2017, as the search neared its end, Bacow was asked whether he would step down from the committee to be considered for the post himself. He agreed.
Bacow had a pedigree that many would call unsurprising for the role — a recipient of three Harvard degrees, Bacow had served as president of Tufts University from 2001 to 2011. During his time there, he led Tufts’ largest capital campaign and expanded initiatives related to financial aid and diversity.
After the presidential search committee selected Bacow as Harvard’s 29th president, he sat down with members of the Corporation to discuss his tenure. It was a time — in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency — where universities faced increased attacks from lawmakers and other political figures in Washington.
Bacow told the Corporation members — all of whom served on his search committee — to expect two things from his presidency: It would last five to seven years and he would use the role to defend higher education from political and existential attacks.
“I thought we were facing serious challenges,” Bacow recalled of his mindset going into his presidency in an interview earlier this month. “For the first time in my lifetime, people were asking questions about the value of higher education and I thought that it was imperative to respond.”
At his presidential inauguration in October 2018, with dozens of university presidents in attendance, Bacow reiterated the vow he made to the Corporation.
“We must defend the essential role of higher education in the life of our nation and the broader world,” Bacow said in his speech from Tercentenary Theatre.
Just 10 days later, Bacow faced the first major test of his pledge to defend higher education when Harvard went on trial in a case brought forth by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions. The lawsuit argued that Harvard illegally discriminated against Asian American applicants in its use of race-conscious admissions practices.
A federal judge ruled nearly a year later in Harvard’s favor. Over the course of Bacow’s presidency, however, the case has been appealed up to the Supreme Court, which legal experts widely expect will overturn decades of precedent allowing colleges to consider race in admissions practices. A verdict in the case is expected to arrive at the tail end of Bacow’s presidency in June or in early July, days after he departs office.
With affirmative action on the brink, some of Bacow’s legacy still remains to be written. But higher education experts and several of Bacow’s current and former colleagues said in interviews that he will go down in history as a president who was not afraid to take a stand — from both Cambridge and Washington — not just for Harvard and its students but for higher education at large.
Bacow’s advocacy for international students and immigration reform helped put a stamp on his presidency, according to Thomas D. Parker ’64, an expert on higher education.
“For a long time, I saw him as a sort of Gerald Ford of Harvard presidents. A sort of bland, no drama Obama kind of guy,” Parker said. “But when you read his stuff about immigration and international students and the way he stood up for international students in some tough situations, I gotta give him some credit.”
Bacow, who traveled to Washington during his first month as president, said he met individually with more than 70 members of Congress over the past five years — a figure he said would have been even higher if not for the pandemic.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Congress,” Bacow said. “I’d like to think that my efforts in D.C. have also changed how people think about a number of these issues.”
Former U.S. Representative Ronald J. Kind ’85, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said he would often organize a bipartisan lunch for fellow lawmakers to meet with Bacow when he visited Capitol Hill.
During these trips, Bacow frequently advocated for “a lot of social issues,” according to Kind.
“It was immigration reform — the need for that. It was trying to maintain a welcome mat for foreign students to come and learn and hopefully stay, so we’re not sending them back only to compete against us in the future,” Kind said. “He brought a bigger world picture with him, too, not just solely on the education front.”
On other occasions, Bacow was also willing to go to bat for individual students.
In the fall of 2019, then-freshman Ismail B. Ajjawi ’23, a Palestinian student who lived in Lebanon, was denied entry and deported by United States border officials after arriving at Boston Logan International Airport.
When the news reached Harvard’s administrative offices, “it was quite a shock,” according to Vice Provost of International Affairs Mark C. Elliott.
“This was early in President Bacow’s tenure, and it was early in the days of the previous administration and when it became clear that people from certain parts of the world were not going to be so welcome anymore in the U.S.,” Elliott said.
Elliot said Bacow immediately began asking questions: “‘Who can we contact? How do we reverse this?’”
“That instigated a flurry of mails and phone calls and texts,” Elliott said. “Strings were pulled, calls were made, and this decision was reversed.”
Ten days later, Ajjawi successfully arrived on campus in time for the beginning of classes.
To Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard’s 26th president, managing the Covid-19 pandemic was the most difficult moment of Bacow’s presidency.
“The possibility of a good education for students was challenged by the pandemic in a way that very, very few things we can imagine were challenged,” said Rudenstine, who taught a seminar during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think he rose to that challenge,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who did it better.”
In March 2020, as the Covid-19 outbreak continued to grow globally, all Harvard courses moved to remote instruction, and the University asked students not to return to campus after spring break.
Rudenstine noted the importance of viewing Bacow’s tenure in the context of the pandemic.
“There’s only so much you can do in five years, of course, so you have to take that into account. And if three years are consumed by the pandemic, that also makes it harder,” Rudenstine said. “Within the constraints, and within five years, I think it’s been a really unusually fine presidency.”
As Covid-19 cases began to rise in the U.S., Reif also debated whether to move MIT to online instruction, a decision he “knew was gonna be controversial.” But just hours before Reif announced his decision, news came from up the river: Harvard would be sending its students home.
“It was very comforting to me to see,” Reif said of Harvard’s decision. “I was clapping my hands and applauding him for doing that because he made my decision so much easier to announce.”
Peter L. Malkin ’55, a prominent Harvard donor, called Bacow’s tenure a “pretty outstanding performance.”
“He acted quickly, rallied the faculty and administration and provided as well for Harvard students as circumstances permitted,” Malkin wrote in an emailed statement.
While colleagues lauded his approach to the pandemic, some students raised concerns about more specific features of Harvard’s pandemic response. For instance, when the University announced in spring 2022 that students would no longer have to self-isolate, some criticized the policy for placing others living in proximity at risk.
Rudenstine, who headed Harvard’s first University-wide capital campaign in 1994 and raised more than $2 billion, also voiced confidence in Bacow’s ability to shepherd Harvard finances and said he “would have been” a successful fundraiser in a capital campaign given a longer presidential tenure.
“We didn’t get our campaign in the 90s going until my fourth year,” Rudenstine said of his own fundraising efforts. “So the real returns came in between years five and nine.”
“That’s an opportunity that I think President Bacow just, in a sense, did not have,” he added.
When Bacow’s fellow university presidents — including Reif — began announcing their intentions to step down, he decided to follow suit.
“I concluded that this was a good time because I thought we had a lot of talent within the University that is capable of leading an institution like this,” Bacow said. “If I stuck around for another year or two, some of those people might have gone elsewhere.”
Claudine Gay, outgoing dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and incoming 30th University president, is an example of such talent.
Poised to move from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall in just over one month, Gay will be faced with many of the same challenges that Bacow confronted half a decade ago, including the imperative to defend higher education.
Now at the end of his tenure, Bacow said “higher education is certainly in the crosshairs.”
“We’re being criticized from both the right and the left, and I don’t think much of the criticism — or most of the criticism — is at all fair,” he said.
In recent months, some prominent Republican lawmakers — including potential 2024 Republican nominee and HLS graduate Ron DeSantis — have taken sharp aim at disciplines such as gender and sexuality studies that they contend is part of the left’s “woke” agenda.
Other politicians have lobbied successfully for the imposition of an endowment tax that would chip away at Harvard’s status as a nonprofit organization immune from taxation due to its broad benefits to society.
Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 affirmed that the ability to successfully defend higher education was “front of mind” for the Corporation in selecting the University’s next president.
“It’s extremely important that the leader of Harvard be able to speak on behalf of higher education,” she said. “They’re not the only voice, but we need a powerful and effective voice.”
Harvard Corporation member Kenneth I. Chenault also highlighted the importance of fostering a “high level of dialogue reflecting a wide range of perspectives.”
“What’s absolutely critical is the ability, in fact, to foster an environment for civil discourse, and that’s what Larry was able to do,” Chenault said. “I’m very confident that that’s what Claudine will be able to do.”
As Bacow prepares to hand off the reins of the University to Gay, many of his closest colleagues and confidants look back on his tenure favorably.
However, a broader survey of University faculty paints a more ambivalent picture. In The Crimson’s 2023 annual survey of the FAS, more than 37 percent of the 386 respondents indicated that they neither agreed nor disagreed that Bacow represented their interests well. Others somewhat and strongly disagreed with the statement — approximately 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
Harvard University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said he believes Bacow “consistently made the best decisions that people can make under the circumstances.”
“His legacy is that he enabled Harvard to advance in meeting important goals, despite the pandemic,” Garber said. “His legacy is really about Harvard’s future.”