Time for Harvard once again to look outward

Lawrence Bacow spoke at a  press conference on Feb. 11, where Harvard University officials announced that he will becomes the university’s 29th president, effective July 1.
Lawrence Bacow spoke at a press conference on Feb. 11, where Harvard University officials announced that he will becomes the university’s 29th president, effective July 1.(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

It’s been a quiet stretch for Harvard University.

Buffeted by the Great Recession and a string of campus controversies, the most famous school in the world turned inward over the last decade. President Drew Faust focused on replenishing a sagging endowment and reordering a struggling investment office. She brought peace to a campus roiled by the stormy tenure of her predecessor, Larry Summers. And she worked to repair a fractured relationship with Allston, where Harvard is building a sprawling engineering campus.

It was, in short, a period of retrenchment. And maybe retrenchment was required. But with Lawrence Bacow set to take the helm as the next Harvard president, it’s time for the school to think big, to face outward again, to engage the world, again, in a moment of enormous turmoil — and enormous opportunity.


Colleagues say Bacow is up to the job. He’s whip-smart, they say, and personable. And they credit him with injecting new life into Tufts University, where he served as president from 2001 to 2011. But he’ll be on a far larger stage at Harvard, asked to speak not just for the university, but for all of higher education.

Many in academia are calling on Bacow to more forcefully confront a Trump administration hostile to the American university and to intellectualism, writ large. And he should seize that opportunity. But he should not lose sight of the problem undergirding Trump’s worrisome attack on the academy: Huge swaths of the country feel alienated from a higher education system they regard as hopelessly out-of-touch and far too expensive.

That means accelerating the push to make Harvard more affordable to middle-class and blue-collar families, as Bacow has pledged, and making a high-profile effort to welcome conservatives on campus. Bridging our partisan divide is hard work, but Harvard can play a significant role if it so chooses.


Greater ideological diversity will strengthen the university’s liberal arts and law programs, which have long been — and must remain — Harvard bedrocks. But Bacow should also focus on the life sciences, destined to drive some of the most important innovations of the coming decades and vital to the region’s economic future. Greater Boston, with its network of world-class universities and hospitals, has a natural advantage. But without the careful attention of Bacow and other key leaders, that advantage could slip away. Decades ago, the area seemed perfectly positioned to lead the computer revolution, only to lose out to Stanford and Silicon Valley. One of Bacow’s most urgent tasks, then, is to keep on track Harvard’s ambitious plans for an “enterprise research campus” in Allston, putting academia and industry side by side.

Success isn’t just about winning on the national or global stage. Harvard needs to do right by local communities as well. And as the Ivy League school pushes deeper and deeper into Boston, it must find creative, new ways to collaborate with the city.

Rahn Dorsey, Boston’s chief of education, has some worthy ideas. A few are quite simple. The university could, for instance, host more campus events for city kids who might broaden their horizons with a stroll through Harvard Yard. Others are more ambitious. Architecture professors could help the city develop the classrooms of the future as it embarks on a large-scale school renovation project, Dorsey says. And Harvard could work to create 12-month programs in fields like computer science that would prepare young adults for careers. Dorsey says the city would also welcome robust collaborations with Harvard researchers on some of urban America’s thorniest challenges, like homelessness and economic mobility.


The idea, here, is for Harvard to be a better citizen, both globally and locally. And that, in the end, is the most vital charge for the university’s next president.