Harvard president Lawrence Bacow, who assumed leadership of the university during the political tumult of the Trump administration and then guided the school through a global pandemic, will step down next June, he said in a letter to the university community Wednesday.
“There is never a good time to leave a job like this one, but now seems right to me,” he wrote. Bacow, who will turn 72 next year and will have led Harvard for five years, said he intends to spend more time with his wife and their grandchildren.
A former president of Tufts University, Bacow strove to make Harvard a more diverse and outward-looking institution. He championed affirmative action, defended international students, and established ties with historically Black colleges and community colleges across the country and in the Boston area. He also showed time and again that the students of Harvard had his ear, implementing policies related to climate change and racial justice that had long been demanded by student groups.
In the latter part of his tenure, however, his priorities often seemed overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic that greatly challenged all universities.
Bacow’s time at Harvard’s helm is among the shortest tenures of a Harvard president since the Civil War era. His planned retirement comes as a number of university leaders have announced their departures in the wake of the pandemic. In addition to Bacow, the leaders of MIT, Dartmouth, Amherst College, Columbia, Howard, and NYU, among others, plan to step down by the end of next year.
Known as a warm and accessible leader, he credited students, faculty, staff, and alumni with helping him to lead Harvard “through change and through storm.” Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said, “I don’t think you can imagine a steadier hand on the tiller than Larry’s.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Bacow moved quickly to respond. On March 10, 2020 — two days before Donald Trump addressed the country from the Oval Office and the NBA canceled its season — Bacow ordered Harvard students to leave campus by the end of the week. Two weeks later, Bacow and his wife, Adele, tested positive for the virus. It was the first of two times he would contract the disease.
That summer he took on the Trump administration when the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency proposed forcing foreign university students to return to their home countries if their coursework could be completed online. Bacow helped organize a lawsuit, brought jointly with MIT, challenging the policy, and ICE backed down.
The move reflected a priority of Bacow’s administration: maintaining a diverse student body. That commitment was the source of another of Harvard’s recent storms. With the university fighting a lawsuit alleging its admissions office discriminated against Asian American applicants. Bacow defended Harvard’s policy of factoring race into admissions decisions.
“Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community, and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world,” he wrote in a letter to the university community after a federal judge ruled in Harvard’s favor in 2019. The plaintiffs have appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, with a decision expected next year.
Noah Harris, who served as student body president last year and gave the commencement address in May, commended Bacow’s leadership through the pandemic and 2020′s racial justice movement. He also credited him with taking “bold” action in response to two longstanding student demands: divestment from fossil fuels and reckoning with Harvard’s ties to slavery.
Under Bacow’s leadership, Harvard announced that its endowment, valued at more than $50 billion, would remake its investment portfolio to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
And in May, Bacow presided over the publication of a report that for the first time detailed Harvard’s historical ties to slavery. In an attempt make amends, the university pledged to spend $100 million on various initiatives, including partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and with education institutions serving Black students in the South.
Sven Beckert, a Harvard professor and historian of slavery who participated in the effort, called Bacow a “wise and caring leader” whose “deeply held values” helped advance a national conversation about universities’ ties to slavery.
At the start of his tenure in 2018, Bacow, a Michigan native, sought to transform Harvard into a more national — as opposed to coastal — institution.
“I’m not sure people in the part of the country where I grew up appreciate as much what institutions like this contribute to their welfare, as well,” he said at the time. He traveled to Pontiac, Mich., a once-thriving automobile city, where he announced partnerships with local schools.
Mitchell, of the American Council on Education, said that during the pandemic Bacow became a resource for other higher education leaders.
“He was available not just to his Ivy League peers, but also to presidents of small HBCUs and community colleges,” he said. “He never failed to extend himself to provide wisdom or just a generous ear to colleagues.”
Bacow assumed the presidency after serving for seven years as a member of the Harvard Corporation, which oversees the school’s finances and operations. He also sat on the search committee that ultimately selected him. He was a known quantity and a steady hand. Already in the second half of his 60s, he might not have been expected to serve a lengthy term, such as the 11 years of his predecessor Drew Gilpin Faust.
Harris, the former student body president, said he was shocked to learn of Bacow’s planned departure. “In the scope of Harvard leaders,” he said, “he just got here.”
But a transitional figure may have been what the university needed.
“His steady hand,” said Lawrence Summers, who served as Harvard’s president from 2001 to 2006, “enabled Harvard to navigate the turbulence of COVID as well as possible. The whole community is grateful.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.