Lawrence Bacow has a new vision for Harvard University and it will take him all the way to . . . Michigan.
Bacow, who becomes the Ivy League institution’s 29th president this month, is out to shed Harvard’s image as a Northeast enclave for the country’s elite, in the age of President Trump’s muscular populism.
In a bid to win over middle America, Bacow is venturing into Trump country and plans to visit Pontiac, Mich., a once-thriving automobile city that has fallen on hard times. Bacow, who grew up in Pontiac, plans to announce that Harvard will collaborate with schools and other institutions in that community.
“The world has changed,” Bacow said. “We are well-represented already along the coasts. 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.”
In an interview last week, Bacow promised to be an outspoken advocate for higher education, willing to engage a presidential administration increasingly hostile to academia, and a US public increasingly skeptical about its value.
Bacow will be uniquely positioned to do so as the leader of one of the nation’s richest and most influential universities, with a bullhorn to address the pressing challenges facing all of higher education.
And there are many: from declining public funding for research and rising operating costs to federal immigration policies that limit access to talent from around the globe.
“I don’t think I can afford to sit on the sidelines,” Bacow said. “I think the issues that we confront as a nation are too important just to be focused on Harvard alone at this point.”
Bacow, 66, replaces Drew Faust, who stepped down as Harvard’s first female leader after 11 years on the job.
Faust was more focused on guiding Harvard through the turbulent economic times after the recession and breaking down departmental silos at Harvard. In the past year, she became a more vocal advocate on national issues, such as extending protections to children whose parents brought them to the United States illegally.
But higher education needs a champion right now, said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who was president of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007.
In some ways, the president of Harvard is the leader of all American higher education because people listen and emulate the example, he said.
“It’s the gold standard, it’s the Cadillac,” Trachtenberg said. “The president of Harvard has a platform that, if he or she choose to use it, can be helpful for making the case for education writ large, and God knows we need that right now.”
Harvard and other colleges and universities are feeling lashed by political and economics gusts, from Republican-backed taxes on their endowments (which will cost Harvard about $40 million annually) to suspicions that a degree costs too much and campuses are too liberal.
Meanwhile, many small private colleges are struggling to remain open. Public universities also saw their second straight year of declining revenue growth, with expenses increasing at a faster pace than revenue for the first time since 2014.
“The fact that we’re taxing institutions of higher education instead of supporting them indicates that the world has changed,” Bacow said. “Part of what I want to do is to help students throughout the country understand that they have a chance to improve their lives, to improve the country actually, by continuing to invest in themselves. Kids improve their lives by going to college.”
Bacow, whose expertise is in environmental law and negotiation, has spent most of his career in the Boston area. He was president of Tufts University, a chancellor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and most recently a member of Harvard’s governing board.
He understands the hurdles facing colleges and universities, including public institutions that have seen reductions in taxpayer funding, said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.
Since leaving Tufts in 2011, he has crisscrossed the country speaking about higher education, meeting with college presidents and writing about issues such as the use of technology in teaching.
More than a year ago, Bacow spoke to a class at Bunker Hill and then had coffee with Eddinger to talk about education. It was a rare move from a former president of a large university, Eddinger said.
Research universities such as Harvard can be a resource for community colleges, and Eddinger said she hopes that Bacow will be open to collaborations.
Bacow, she said, understands that there is a place for community colleges that work with rural communities and new immigrants to prepare them for the workforce, public research universities, and private colleges.
“What I realized was how keen his understanding was about the diversity of schools, and that we’re all somehow connected,” Eddinger said.
Only a small percentage of students are going to attend Harvard, but in a knowledge-based economy, many Americans can benefit from a college education, Bacow said.
He has already reached out to area universities including MIT and Boston University to work on collaborative research at Harvard’s new campus in Allston, Bacow said.
He hopes Harvard will also develop deeper connections with more institutions nationwide.
Yet he also sees places where Harvard itself can improve, particularly by lowering expenses and using technology to replace labor costs. Harvard, for example, can help free up faculty and staff by using data and technology to advise students on their class choices and monitor their grades.
“We can’t just continue to solve this problem of affordability by raising more money for financial aid,” he said. “We have to look for ways to be more efficient so we do a better job of controlling the cost side.”
Bacow said he hopes Harvard can learn from and reach out to other universities that are using technology in novel and effective ways.
Part of his outreach will also extend to academics and people across the ideological spectrum, Bacow said, in part because free-speech controversies have roiled US college campuses in recent years, with provocative speakers sparking protests and, on a few occasions, violence.
Last year, Harvard’s Kennedy School rescinded its fellowship invitation to WikiLeaks whistle-blower Chelsea Manning after conservatives and federal intelligence officials objected. The school also angered liberals by offering fellowships to former Trump administration officials.
Bacow welcomes the debate that comes with inviting controversial speakers.
“I am under no illusion that we’re not going to have difficult times,” Bacow said. “But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from bringing people to campus who will engage people in healthy debate. . . . We’re a microcosm of the world we live in. I don’t believe in putting students in a cocoon and insulating them or isolating them.”
Still, as focused as Bacow might be on the big picture, campus controversies are just as likely to consume his attention as president.
In his interview last week, Bacow declined to weigh in on Harvard’s decision this year to bar students who participate in single-gender clubs from taking on leadership positions and qualifying for prestigious fellowships.
And in the face of a pending affirmative-action lawsuit that could change the way colleges use race in admissions decisions, Bacow defended Harvard’s process for choosing student applicants. The suit alleges that the college discriminates against Asian-Americans, in part by scoring students on likability and other personal traits.
“I’m very comfortable with where we’re at,” Bacow said of the admissions process. “We’ll see how things play out in the court.”
Students should not be judged on test scores alone, he said. “There’s more than one dimension to excellence; none of us want to be judged exclusively by our numbers.”
Harry Lewis, a longtime computer science professor at Harvard and former dean of the undergraduate college, said Bacow’s message is important for the country regardless of who is in political power. Higher education as an industry has alienated people through acts of arrogance and superiority since before the 2016 election, said Lewis.
“If we can leave the politics out of it, it’s a great message,” he said.
Bacow’s philosophy on Harvard’s place in US higher education harks back to earlier leaders of the institution in the late 19th and early 20th century, said Andrew Schlesinger, a former journalist and Harvard graduate who in 2005 wrote “Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience.”
“In the old days . . . these figures were national figures, they were leaders in the education business, they had a national voice, and it seems like that national voice has been diminished over the years,” said Schlesinger, who lives in Cambridge and is the son of renowned presidential biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Harvard has turned more inward over the last four decades, but Bacow’s approach could serve the country well, he said.
“If he can raise the profile of Harvard as a leader in democratizing our education system, then that will be a real plus,” he said.