CAMBRIDGE — Lawrence S. Bacow, the former longtime president of Tufts University and an advocate for broad access to higher education, will be the next president of Harvard University, the university trustees announced on Sunday.
The choice ends a seven-month search for a successor to Drew Gilpin Faust, who is set to retire in June. Until recently, Bacow was a member of the search committee that ultimately tapped him to hold the highest-profile position among US colleges and universities.
“We wanted someone who could hit the ground running, because neither we nor higher education have time to spare,” said William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chairman of Harvard’s presidential search committee.
Bacow’s selection comes at a challenging time — not just for Harvard but also for colleges and universities across the country. The number of high school graduates is declining, the cost of higher education is rising just as the student population is increasingly low-income, and a mood of anti-intellectualism is taking hold among conservatives. Campuses have been roiled with controversies over free speech, immigration, and diversity.
Speaking moments after he was introduced for the first time as Harvard’s leader, Bacow conveyed a sense of urgent moral duty to lead higher education at a time when its value is being seriously questioned.
“In a nation divided, these guiding ideals have never been more important. We should never shy away from — nor be apologetic about — affirming our commitment to make the world a better place through our teaching, through our scholarship, but also . . . our commitment to a search for truth, a commitment to excellence, as well as a commitment to opportunity for all,” he said.
Bacow said he hopes to use his platform as the most visible university president in the world to make sure a college degree remains accessible.
Bacow, 66, who is from Pontiac, Mich., and has a law degree, master’s degree, and PhD from Harvard, led Tufts from 2001 to 2011. An expert in environmental policy, he is credited with strengthening Tufts’ graduate research as well as its undergraduate programs and encouraging collaboration among Tufts’ eight schools.
He oversaw a fund-raising campaign at Tufts that raised $1.2 billion, and he is credited with strengthening the university’s ties to the surrounding community.
At the time of his departure from Tufts, Bacow’s colleagues described him as one of the best college presidents in the country.
“Tufts got sluggish, and he reinvigorated it and gave us 10 energetic years of academic growth and fund-raising,” Sol Gittleman, a former Tufts provost who wrote a book about the university’s history, told the Globe at the time.
Bacow serves on the corporate boards of Liquidnet, Henry Schein, and TIAA-CREF.
On Sunday, initial reaction from Bacow’s peers was positive.
“Larry has demonstrated his ability to pilot a great institution. I am grateful to Drew Faust for her integrity, leadership, and friendship, and I look forward to working with Larry,” said Yale University president Peter Salovey in a statement.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif noted Bacow’s broad experience in higher education. “Larry understands and lives academic excellence at the highest level,” he said.
Prominent Harvard graduates echoed those sentiments.
“Wonderful choice!” wrote Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor.
“Bacow has established himself as a visionary leader in higher education and a champion for students,” wrote Attorney General Maura Healey.
Harvard students had mixed reactions, some calling him an “establishment candidate” because he is a middle-aged white male. Freshman Sahil Handa said those people haven’t looked hard enough.
“While many have already rejected his appointment on the grounds of his identity as a white male, such criticism is mere identity politics and overlooks the fact that he offers a wealth of experience, expertise, and a stable hand suitable for such an unpredictable time,” said Handa, who is from London.
Bacow’s undergraduate degree is from MIT where, before leading Tufts, he was chancellor. He also spent 24 years on the MIT faculty.
After stepping down at Tufts, Bacow served as president-in-residence for three years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is currently a leader-in-residence at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he earlier earned his doctorate degree. He has also been a member of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing board, since 2011.
On Sunday, Bacow said higher education needs to do a better job at controlling costs, collaborating with other colleges and businesses, and making sure campuses are open to new ideas.
“While the challenges confronting us are great, I think the opportunities are even greater and I’m excited about that,” Bacow said.
He also addressed several issues specific to Harvard.
Regarding the controversial single-gender social organizations that have been a thorn in the administration’s side for years, Bacow said he supports the policy drafted under Faust, which penalizes anyone who joins them.
Bacow said he is excited to expand the Harvard campus in Allston, where a major engineering facility is underway.
And he disputed the idea that Harvard has fallen behind in innovative science, engineering, technology, and math, ceding ground to other schools such as Stanford University.
“The sciences at Harvard are second to none,” he said.
Bacow will take over at Harvard in July, after Faust, the university’s 28th president and the first woman to lead the 380-year-old university, steps down.
Sunday’s announcement came after months of speculation during the search committee’s secret deliberations. The 14-person committee has been meeting since Faust, 70, announced in June 2017 that she would end her tenure after 11 years.
Bacow will oversee not only Harvard College, with its 6,600 undergraduates, but also the university’s many prestigious graduate schools, including the medical, law, and business schools. In all, Harvard has about 22,000 students.
In fiscal 2016, the most recent available publicly, Faust earned $1.8 million, including a salary of $853,000 plus other compensation including retirement and bonus.
Although Harvard is largely immune from the severe financial hardships that will probably strike less well-endowed schools in the next decade, the Harvard president will probably confront many of the same social issues.
Additionally, the university is grappling with a Justice Department investigation into allegations it has limited its admissions of Asian-American students. And it will probably be hit hard by a new federal tax on college endowments.
Faust is departing at a relatively peaceful time at Harvard. She served longer than typical university presidents and saw both controversy and success.
Faust was in charge during a 2012 student cheating scandal that rocked the campus and the subsequent revelation of the university’s undisclosed search of 14,000 university e-mail accounts.
She convened a task force on sexual assault prevention in 2014 to address concerns about the school’s handling of such cases. And she is credited with helping Harvard become more diverse, largely through a new financial aid policy that tries to help students avoid taking out loans.
She also is said to have worked to enable students and faculty from across the university to work together more closely.
Faust’s departure coincides with the end of the university’s most recent fund-raising campaign, a common time for presidents to depart. The campaign has raised $8 billion.
Faust sat next to Bacow at Sunday’s press conference and smiled as he took the stage. After the event, she said one of the most important lessons she learned as president is the importance of listening.
After June she plans to return to scholarship.
“I want to spend it seeing if I can learn to be a historian again,” Faust said.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.