Lawrence S. Bacow #36

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2018 named President of Harvard University

Former President of Tufts University Harvard Corporation Member

Anyone who tells you these days they know the impact that online learning is going to have on the future of higher education is blowing smoke.




On Sunday, February 11, 2018 – Lawrence Bacow was named the 29th President of Harvard University.

By Heidi Legg

Lawrence S. Bacow, President in Residence at the Harvard School of Education, Member of the Harvard Corporation, Former President of Tufts, and Former Chancellor of MIT, says it is too early to tell. He is collaborating with other college Presidents to study technology in higher education and working hard to address the cost curve. As we approach commencement 2014, the sticker price for a year at Harvard is surpassing $58,000 for tuition and board, and increased competition for every seat in top-tier colleges across the country feels daunting.

Harvard is the gold standard of education, the fabled home of the greatest minds, where Oprah Winfrey addressed the class of 2013 and former mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomberg, will address this year’s class of 2014. It’s the school of Hasty Pudding and the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center, school of many Presidents, intellectuals like Stephen Greenblatt and it-kid Mark Zuckerberg. It’s hard to not want to apply, at any age. But every year more and more applicants are turned away and the cost of attending grows, and the same thing is happening across the country. Bacow is noted as one of the leaders in the country addressing broader access and need-based financial aid. He has been described as one of the most respected university presidents in the country. He says we are only at the beginning of how this technological revolution in the classrooms will play out.

“I think it's an open question whether or not technology will further stratify higher education. Anyone who tells you these days they know the impact that online learning is going to have on the future of higher education is blowing smoke,” Bacow says.

I sat down with him to ask him if controlling costs is on the agenda, and to find out about his focus on technology and EdX, Harvard and MIT's joint venture in the online space.

What's the most important project on your desk today? 

I'm collaborating these days with Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton and the Mellon Foundation and Mike McPherson, the former president of Macalester College and president of the Spencer Foundation on a big study to understand the consequences of the emerging online educational technologies for traditional colleges and universities. We're particularly interested in how we can use technology to bend the cost curve in higher education. We believe that rising costs represent the biggest challenge for higher education these days and we think there's an opportunity to use technology to try and address this challenge, but it's not going to be easy.

Will the wealthy be the only students one day who can afford the on-campus college experience?

I think it's an open question whether or not technology will further stratify higher education. It’s way too early to tell. What we do know about online learning is that it's only going to get better. We've had a thousand years to perfect chalk and talk (the traditional lecture/recitation format) which is how most of us were educated, but online education is still in its infancy.

We're still figuring out how to use it in parallel with other forms of education. There's a tendency to sort of say that the world is going to bifurcate, as you've suggested, into those who are going to get their education online and those who are going to get it otherwise, but these days if you really look carefully, it's difficult to find a course that's not taught in some form of blended learning. Everything is a hybrid.

What changes have you seen?

One of the things, a positive in my view, is that, at least among the elite institutions, they've been doing a better job over the last ten years or so in enrolling students that come from the bottom quartile of the income distribution. There's been a concerted effort to do that and it's yielded some success.

Where there have been losses, interestingly, is in the public institutions in enrolling the same groups of students. The reason is that, with the financial crisis of 2008, states disinvested in public support for higher education. As a result, the great state universities, where the vast majority of kids get educated in America today, saw a decline in state support. The only way they could make up for that was to raise tuition. And in many cases they raised tuition quite dramatically, yet they did not necessarily increase financial aid proportionally. Those who really got squeezed were at the bottom of the income distribution. So, the question then becomes what will technology do to all of this? And I think that's very much an open question. (The Harvard website reports that 70 per cent of students at Harvard receive some form of financial aid.)

My point is we don’t know yet. Higher education institutions come in many shapes, sizes, flavors and colors. They're not monolithic. They pursue different strategies. They are pursuing different strategies with respect to online education. Some of these strategies will succeed. Some will fail. Many will fail. Those that are successful, others will copy, and those that fail will fall along the wayside.

The push to get into those top schools seems at an all time fervor, and the costs stratospheric.  Those brands have become so strong and their costs are so high.  Is it any different than it’s been in the past?

I think it's correct that we've become much more brand aware in higher education and I think, to a fault. You can get a great education at lots of institutions in the United States.

One of the things that differentiates higher education in the United States from many other countries is that we have people who've been phenomenally successful in literally every realm of society who've gone to great places that everybody has heard of and places that nobody has heard of, and so you can get a great education in lots and lots of different kinds of institutions in the United States.

In many places in the world, if you don't go to one of a handful of institutions, you have no chance of ever aspiring to the upper reaches of society. This is not true in the United States.

Unfortunately, I think that as a country, as a society, as an economy, we've become much more brand conscious in every dimension. I don't think this is healthy, but it's having a perverse impact on higher education.

What do you say about the importance of contacts someone from a state college makes compared to an elite college?

I think kids can be happy at lots of different kinds of schools. What's important is that they make the big decisions right. Do they want a big school? Do they want a small school? Do they want an urban school? Do they want a rural school? Do they want to get on an airplane? Do they want to wear flip-flops in January? Once you get past that, students could be happy almost anywhere, and usually are. It's their parents who often view where their kid gets into college as a grade on how they've done as a parent, and I think that's sad.

As someone with pedigree from Harvard and MIT, how was Tufts a game changer for you?

What attracted me to Tufts is that I thought Tufts was a terrific place where nothing that was really important was broken, but where many things had not yet been optimized. As an institution, it had never told its story well. It’s self image suffered a bit because it lived in the shadow of Harvard and MIT, which I called 0213 envy. It had never engaged its alumni. It had never developed a serious fundraising operation, but it had a terrific faculty who are passionately committed to their students. It was a beautiful campus in a great location and it had a really interesting mix of schools and, even more importantly, for a place that was as good as Tufts, it wanted to get better.

There are many places that persuade themselves into thinking that they're better than they are and that they don't have to change. That was not Tufts. People were willing to work to get better. What I loved about the place is that it was a university without pretense. It was a place where people really liked to get their hands dirty, and what I quickly realized is that it was a place in which they took seriously the concept of public service, which meant a lot to me personally.

They took seriously the concept of educating students to be global citizens. There are a lot of places that pay lip service to that but the Fletcher School is the oldest school of international relations in the country and, when President Clinton was on our campus to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Fletcher School in 2003, he said, 'imagine the courage, imagine the foresight that the leaders of Tufts had in 1933 to commit themselves to looking outward to the rest of the world when so many people in this country were only looking inward.’

I thought it had a tremendous amount going for it, and what also appealed to me about the place was that it was unbelievably down to earth, and that resonated with me with just who I was personally.

What can you offer other institutions in that learning?

When I tried to start telling the story once I got there, I learned that Tufts communications was completely decentralized. The alumni magazine was published by the alumni association. Each school published its own school magazine. The website was controlled by IT. There was an internal house organ that was controlled by HR. First thing I did was create a communications council in which I pulled all these folks together. Here are the messages we want to promote. Here are the messages that we want to change. I had a lot of help in doing this. One of my board members was the senior vice president for marketing worldwide for IBM and faced this problem when she came to IBM.

What are you trying to do in your third year at Harvard?

When I left Tufts, I became a member of the Harvard Corporation. I wear multiple hats. At the Ed school, I've been co-teaching with my colleague Judy McLaughlin as a visiting professor. We are teaching a required seminar for first year graduate students in the higher education program, and that's been fun. It's given me an opportunity to reflect upon my experience as president of Tufts, as chancellor of MIT, and pass on learning to the next generation of leaders. I've also been teaching in a series of executive programs at Harvard. There's a program for new college presidents, and one for experienced college presidents. Tomorrow afternoon, I'll teach in a program on crisis management in higher education and other programs like this for provosts and deans. And I advise ten graduate students here at the Ed School. It’s been fun getting back in the classroom, having been out of one for ten years as president of Tufts.

What about your role on The Harvard Corporation? 

There are twelve of us who are the fiduciaries for Harvard University and I'm involved on a policy level for dealing with the major issues confronting the institution.

Can you talk about a few?

The impact and future of online learning is an example. Harvard has a major investment in EdX and I've been involved in that. I'm a member of the campaign executive committee. I chair the committee on facilities and capital planning for the corporation. This is a new committee that was created when I came on the corporation, so I've had the opportunity to work with others to help create a capital planning process.

What's happening with the expansion in Allston?

We've restarted the main project in Allston for the science center. One of the things we'll do is move much of the school of engineering and applied sciences to Allston. At the same time, we're building space that will be used by other groups around the university who are doing research and teaching that's complementary to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

We also broke ground earlier this year on a major mixed-use development in Allston involving housing, retail, some office space for the community, helping to revitalize the area.

How will Harvard lead the future of higher education?

Probably in the way that they have in the past, in that people pay an unusual amount of attention to Harvard because it's the oldest and most prominent higher education institution in this country. I give Drew Faust a lot of credit for thinking quite creatively about Harvard's role in the world: for embracing technology and being willing to experiment with it, in thinking about the role of the humanities at Harvard, in thinking about the nature of the residential experience at Harvard. Harvard has made major investment in house renewal at Harvard as part of this capital campaign.

Drew has been really pushing hard on a number of those fronts but also what she's been doing, perhaps most prominently, is knitting the schools together at Harvard to create what she calls One Harvard. It really is transformational and being closely watched by others.

Is Harvard doing something that no one else is taking on at the moment?

I don't think so. Never forget there are over 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States and there's probably nothing that Harvard's doing that somebody else isn't doing at the same time. Harvard just gets more attention than the others.

I think that there are lots of people pursuing lots and lots of different ideas. That's what a university is all about. The vast majority of ideas that come forward in a great university come from the faculty and they do not think with one voice, nor should they. It literally is a thousand flowers blooming and it's difficult to say which ones are going to flourish and take root.

So, there’s no big announcement?

I don't think so, but again Harvard's been doing some pretty progressive things, EdX being probably the most prominent.

The knitting of different silos is interesting and something we think a lot about at

And that's actually less visible to those on the outside than it is to those on the inside. Traditionally, Harvard has been organized as a loose confederation of schools, each of whom share the name but operate semi-autonomously, and that's changing in ways that I think are quite healthy. At the same time, we don’t want to lose the distinctiveness of the schools which have created many of the finest in their fields in the world. So, the question is - how can we preserve that while at the same time achieving synergies across the schools that are really exciting to meet the challenges of the future? If you've read interviews with me in the past, you've heard me say that the most interesting intellectual challenges are no longer found at the center of disciplines but they're at the edges and intersection of disciplines.

That’s why we need to do a better job of facilitating scholarship and teaching that is at the intersection of our schools at Harvard, and that's why One Harvard is really important.

Let’s go back to how income gap is affecting the American population. How will Gen X'ers afford higher education for their kids as the economy suffers and costs skyrocket?

First of all, if some of us are successful, we will bend the cost curve for higher education. Secondly, while costs have risen, and there's no question about it, what's also true is that an investment in higher education is still among the very best investments that you can make on behalf of your children, and if you take a look at the differential in earnings between a high school graduate and a college graduate, they've never been higher. It's my hope that as the economy recovers, and it is, that we will see the public sector once again investing in higher education as it has in the past, and this is already occurring. If you take a look at California, if you take a look at Massachusetts, if you take a look at most states, state support for their public institutions is coming back.

That doesn't help if parents want to send their kids to private colleges.

That's your choice. But you're now saying you want to send them to a private institution and what I'm telling you is that, as I said at the very beginning of this interview, you can get a great education anywhere, including at many, many public institutions.

But look, it's an expensive product right now and many people would like to afford private colleges who may have gone to one in the past, and really have to stretch to get their kids there today.

It is expensive. There's no question that it's expensive, but one has to take a look at it as an investment and ask what is the value. The very, very best institutions give very generous financial aid even for people who are by any measure middle class these days.  If you take a look at Harvard's financial aid program or when I was in my last year or two at Tufts after the financial crisis, we were flooded with applications from kids from California. The dean of admissions used to say, 'we’re UC Medford.' Why? Because the actual cost of attending Tufts was less than attending the University of California system for many, many students because we had far more generous financial aid policies. So, while the sticker price was higher, the net cost of attending was lower than going to the University of California. So, people do have options.

What are your news sources?

Boston Globe, New York Times: online and paper. I read the Globe in print daily. I read the Times in print when I can, but always on the weekends, and otherwise I get a lot of stuff online.

I subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education online daily.

Upcoming event?

The birth of my second grandchild. If all goes well, that'll be in July.

Secret source?

One of my favorite places in Boston is a run along the river.