Challenging Times in Higher Education: A Conversation with Lawrence S. Bacow

October 4, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski

to Voices in Leadership– live streamed worldwide
from the Leadership Studio at the Harvard TH Chan
School of Public Health. I’m Dean Michelle Williams. The goal of Voices
is to highlight the experiences of leaders
confronting major public health frontiers. And to better understand
effective leadership and how it can affect change. I hope you find this program
engaging and informative. Thank you for joining us. ERIC ANDERSEN: Good afternoon,
and welcome to our audience here in the studio
and to our viewers online around the globe. My name is Eric Andersen. I’m the director of
Voices in Leadership. And today, I’m honored to
introduce the president of our university. This series focuses on the
lessons of effective leadership to create positive
change in public health. And this event takes place
in the Leadership Studio, whose programs have
been viewed more than 4 million times in 200 countries
since its inception in 2010. Today, we host a
discussion on leading during challenging times
in higher education, with Dean Michelle Williams
and President Larry Bacow. Larry Bacow is
the 29th president of Harvard University. From 2001 to 2011,
he was the president of Tufts University, where
he advanced the university’s commitment to excellence in
teaching, research, and public service. And fostered collaboration
across the university’s eight schools. Before his time at
Tufts, President Bacow spent 24 years on the
faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as chair of the
faculty and then as chancellor. He also served as a member
of the Harvard Corporation. One of the most widely
experienced leaders in American higher education– President Bacow is
known for his commitment to expanding
student opportunity, catalyzing academic
innovation, and encouraging universities civic engagement
and service to society. Before I turn this discussion
over to our moderator– our own Dean Michelle Williams– please join me as we
welcome President Larry Bacow to the Voices Leadership
Series, here the Chan School of Public Health. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
Good afternoon, everyone, and good
afternoon, President Bacow. Thank you. LAWRENCE BACOW: Come
on, Michelle, Larry. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I knew
you were going to say that, but I wanted to illustrate
my respect for the position that you hold. And so thank you, Larry. LAWRENCE BACOW: My pleasure. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Thank you
so much for being here with us this afternoon. And thank you to everyone here
in the studio and the thousands of you viewing us online. It’s an honor and a
privilege to be hosting this session with Larry. Larry, as you know, this
is the Leadership Studio. And I cannot help but start
with asking you to share with our audience, your personal
journey in leadership. LAWRENCE BACOW:
Well, first of all, thanks for the invitation
and the opportunity to have this conversation. I sometimes describe myself
as an accidental president. As was noted, I spent 24
years on the faculty at MIT. For 21 of those years, I
worked really, really hard to avoid being anything
other than a faculty member. I enjoyed my teaching. I enjoyed my scholarship. I figured why screw it up
by becoming a department chair or God forbid, a dean? And I was actually on sabbatical
writing a book on trade policy in the environment in Amsterdam,
when I got a call asking me when I returned, if I
would consider being chairman of the MIT faculty. It’s not really an
administrative job, it’s like being shop
steward of the faculty. It’s a half-time commitment. But at MIT, it’s
the kind of thing that when invited to do
it, you don’t say no. You’re serving your colleagues. So I agreed to do that. And then spent
the next two years working very, very closely with
the president and the provost– which is what the chair
of the faculty does. And then I finished my term. I went back to my
teaching and my research. And then a year later,
the provost stepped down. The president went
looking for a new provost. There were two people
that the faculty kept saying you
should take a look at. I was one of them. Bob Brown– who was then
the dean of engineering– was the other– now president of
Boston University. And Chuck Vest– who was
president at the time– decided he wanted both of us. And so MIT had been
very good to me. I’d been an undergraduate there. I’d been a faculty member there. President asks– I saw it
as an opportunity to serve. Chuck allowed Bob
and I to figure out how to divide the job
between the two of us. MIT’s very centralized
and so everything was going through
the provost office. It was getting bogged
down and that was two people parallel processing. So that’s how I became
chancellor of MIT– which is, sort of,
half a provost. And then if you have the number
two job at a place like MIT, you get called for virtually
every presidential search in the country. And I didn’t think I
wanted to be a president. I kept saying, no. In fact, I would tell you– some of the best
career decisions I’ve ever made in my life
are jobs I have not taken. And then– MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Elaborate
on that a little bit. That’s a very
interesting point, I think a point that few leaders
in this studio have addressed. LAWRENCE BACOW:
So there are a lot of jobs that have
fabulous titles, and from a distance
looks like something that you should want to do. But if you dig down deep, you
find they’re not such great jobs, or they’re– you’re not well suited for them,
or it wouldn’t be a good match, or it’s the wrong time. You know, I didn’t
think I wanted to be a university president. I– again, I liked
doing what I was doing. When I talked to people
who were thinking about taking a job
like this, I say, you know, ask yourself what
you really want to get done. Take a job because you
have an agenda, not because the job is just there. So– and the second thing
I always advise people is to think about the
fit between themselves and the institution. And you know, now,
these things– I didn’t think
the fit was right. I loved MIT, I
figured, why leave? In a moment of
weakness, I agreed to have a conversation with
the search committee at Tufts. The search consultant
who was doing the search was somebody I had
known for 30 years. And actually he’d married
a graduate school classmate of mine. I was at their wedding. And he said, why do
you keep saying no? And I said, I’m very happy. I don’t think I want
to be a president. And he said, well, let me just
have a conversation with you. And he– I agreed to have a
conversation with the search committee just to
sort of explore. And I’ll never forget what Chuck
Vest, who was president of MIT, said to me at the time when
I went to him for advice. He said, beware the vortex. I said, what do you
mean by that, Chuck? He said, well, you
put your toe in, thinking you’re just
there to learn something, and you sort of get sucked in. And before you know it,
they’re offering you the job. And then you feel like
you have to say yes. So make sure that it’s
something that you really want to do before
you go talk to them. So that’s how I wound up– I should tell you that not only
had I never been a department chair or a dean, but when I
became president of Tufts, literally the only
other thing I had ever been president of in my life
was the National Honor Society in high school, my senior year. And there, we held
one meeting a year, and that was to elect the
officers for the next year. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: The
great proving ground. LAWRENCE BACOW: So–
my leadership journey. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: You
mentioned, at the time you took on the
leadership responsibility at MIT, that everything
was centralized. And I recognize that there are
different sets of challenges when you’re in an ecosystem
that is best characterized as centralized versus those
that are best characterized as decentralized. Can you share with
us what are some of the different
experiences you’ve had in these different
types of ecosystems where you have been leader? LAWRENCE BACOW: Well,
every institution has its own culture and
its own organization. And one of the challenges when
you come into a leadership position, especially
from the outside, is to try and understand
that culture before you attempt to actually– and the organization, before
you attempt to change it. And I think it’s important
that when you start out, that you think of yourself as
a cultural anthropologist who’s been sort of parachuted
into some remote territory. And you don’t
speak the language. And you don’t know what
the social conventions are. And you have to figure
them out for yourself through careful observation. And so, you know,
Harvard and MIT are interesting because
they are so different. I’m often asked about
those differences. My flip answer is that
organizationally and culturally, they’re
identical with a sign change. And it always gets a laugh. But there’s a lot
of truth to it. And– but what’s also
interesting to me is that these are two
of the world’s greatest academic institutions. And what that says to me is that
excellence is path-independent of organization. So, you know– and each has its
advantages and disadvantages. When I was at MIT,
we were constantly trying to push more
responsibility out to the schools, in effect
going from centralization to decentralization. And at Harvard, where
everything is very centralized– MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
Decentralized. LAWRENCE BACOW: Decentralized. Excuse me, decentralized. You know, we’re often
trying to pull things back to the center a little bit. So I think that just
speaks to the fact that there’s more than one way
to organize an institution. And you just need to
be cognizant of, what are the traditions, and the– what people know and understand
and they’re comfortable with, and how do you get
them to appreciate that there might in fact be
something different that they could benefit from. But you know, each has its own
challenges and opportunities. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Yeah. Thank you for that. I want to switch
gears a little bit and refer back to your
inaugural address, where you spoke about your
priorities for Harvard. And wondered if you could
expand upon those for us. And also I was curious,
in that same address, you said something
really quite profound. It struck me that you wanted
all Harvard students who wanted to have a public service
opportunity to have one. And I hope that you could
speak to that as well. LAWRENCE BACOW: Sure. Well– so these are really
interesting and challenging times for higher education. And it’s the first
time in my lifetime where people have questioned
sending a kid to college, whether or not it’s worth it. It’s the first
time in my lifetime that people have
questioned whether or not colleges and universities
are worthy of public support. We’re actually taxing them
now, as opposed to supporting some of them. It’s the first
time in my lifetime where a significant
portion of our population has questioned whether or not
these great institutions are even good for the nation. So my highest priority
is to try and change this narrative about
higher education. I think that people are casting
a critical eye to institutions like Harvard– not just
Harvard, but others as well– because they think
that we’re elitist. They think we’re far more
concerned about making ourselves great than
the world better. They think that were incapable
of controlling our own costs, that there’s a lot
of public anger at just the breathtakingly
expensive cost of a college education these days. And then I think there’s
concern over whether or not institutions like ours are truly
as open to new ideas or ideas from across the ideological
spectrum as we claim to be. So these are driving,
actually, a lot of my priorities
for the institution. Harvard has an
extraordinary tradition of sending its best
and its brightest, you know, into public service. You know, right now there
are 14 Harvard graduates who are serving the
United States Senate. There are over 40
Harvard graduates serving in the House
of Representatives. Think about that. It’s quite astonishing. We have Harvard graduates
on the Supreme Court. We’ve had multiple Harvard
graduates in the White House. So I think Harvard graduates
have always answered the call to public service. I want to ensure, though,
that every student who wants to sort of sample from
that opportunity can do so. And that’s why I
said that I wanted to ensure that any student who
wants to pursue an internship could do it. One of the challenges
that we face is that we’ve succeeded in
making Harvard accessible now to students who come from very
poor families, or families of very modest means. And that’s the good news. But those students are often not
in the position, for example, to be able to say, you know, I’m
going to volunteer this summer. I can afford to do this so
that I get the experience. And a lot of these jobs
don’t pay very much. And so I want to level
the playing field. I want to make sure that
every student who wants it has the opportunity to do it. And I know that some
students will catch the bug, and want to continue with
that, either as a career or to continue to find ways to
serve through their volunteer efforts. And I also think
it’s necessary that– and this is part of
what I want to do– that we try and make it easy
for the students who want to go home and serve to do that. You know, we send
a lot of students to all over the world to try
and help needy populations, wherever they find them. But one of the
reasons why I think we’re facing such challenges
politically in this country right now is people feel like
institutions like Harvard haven’t paid enough
attention to what goes button in the center of the country. And indeed, in many
cases, I’m a good example. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan,
which is now the poorest city in the state of Michigan. And I went to– came to
Boston to go to college, and I never left. And in many cases, we do take
the best and the brightest away from places that need them. And so, you know, maybe if we
encourage some of our students to pursue public service
opportunities back home, they’ll go home. MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
Encourage and support them. Because those students
who want to go back may not have the means to do so. And I think it’s
just so important, in your inaugural address,
to actually commit to wanting to make
it possible for those who want to go back to
have a financial pathway to make it happen. And support from the highest
level of academic leadership to be engaged,
publicly and socially. So thank you for that. LAWRENCE BACOW: Thank you. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I want
to change gears again, because time is
precious, and touch on changed leadership during
a time that you alluded to, where higher ed is under
question, maybe even under fire in some sectors. And there are areas of concern,
such as taxing endowments, and admissions protocols. And I wanted to hear from
you, as a leader of Harvard, how does Harvard lead? How do you help lead
in these conversations? LAWRENCE BACOW: So I
think that as leaders, one of the most powerful tools
that we have is the opportunity to frame issues for people. I had a law professor
who used to say, I can win any argument
I want, as long as you let me frame the question. So the admissions lawsuit
is a good example, where people have– you know,
the plaintiffs in that suit allege that we’re discriminating
against Asian-Americans, because they say if we
basically only admitted students based upon their grades
and their SAT scores, we would admit slightly
more Asian-Americans than we currently do. So I like to respond to
that by asking people a number of questions,
and in doing so, framing the issue in terms of what I
think it really represents. The first point, which I always
make to people, is, you know, Harvard would be a
very, very dull place if every student
who came to Harvard came from the same
geographic location, wanted to study
exactly the same thing, wanted to pursue precisely
the same career path, had exactly the same
extracurricular or cocurricular interests– I could go on. We learn from our differences. Now, if everybody
came from New Jersey, everybody wanted
to study economics, everybody wanted to go
work for Goldman Sachs, and everybody wanted to
play the French horn– I have nothing against people
playing the French horn, studying economics,
it’s my field, you know, working
for Goldman Sachs– that’s not the point. It would be a far
less interesting place if that were true. And so that’s the first point. And so I try and
frame it that way. The second way that I try and
frame it is that I ask people, how many of you
ever hired anybody? If you’ve hired
people, how many of you hired people without
interviewing them? Without checking
their references? Without looking at
their work product? Well, why not just hire people
based upon their grades, and nothing more than that? Well, the answer
is that all of us are more than our grades
and our board scores. And so it’s helping
people to understand that we are only doing what
most of us do routinely. And then I also, in
this particular case, make the point that
we’re only doing what the Supreme Court has
specifically said we could do– two out of the last
three cases that have gone to the Supreme Court
on race conscious admissions have specifically cited
Harvard as the gold standard for how an institution
can consider race as one factor among many
in constructing the class. So I think leadership
involves framing, but it also involves
teaching, and helping people to understand and see issues
from your perspective. I always try and
make my problems other people’s
problems, as a leader. People are forever laying
problems at your feet, as you know, as dean
of the Chan school. And so, you know, this is why
I try and paint a vivid picture for people, and say, OK, let’s– do we really want an institution
where this is the only way that we select our students? I don’t think so. And I don’t think you
want it that way either. So if we can agree
on that, then you can sort of see how we need
to move forward in this way. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: So
many rich lessons– framing, teaching,
social anthropology. Thank you. I wanted to ask you to
look forward, look ahead to the challenges that we
may anticipate in higher education going forward. And maybe even help us
think through advancing possible solutions. Or– we’re in a school
of public health, how do we mitigate or prevent
some of these challenges? And I think I can anticipate
some of the answers that you might provide here. LAWRENCE BACOW: Well,
one of the challenges I think I’ve always
already named, and that’s changing the narrative
about higher education. I’ve spent a lot of
time thinking about, how do we bend the cost
curve in higher education? How do we use
technology in ways that allow us to enhance
productivity of faculty, so that we can make the
kind of wonderful education that we have available here
more accessible to more people. We know how to make
higher education cheaper. It’s not that hard. It’s called bigger classes,
it’s called less hands on learning, fewer curricular
options, less support for cocurricular life,
simpler facilities, less support for
students and alumni when they leave the institution. We know how to do it. The problem is, that’s
not what people want. In fact, higher education–
one of the challenges in higher education is
that competition tends to drive costs up, not down. We need to get a handle on that. I think technology
plays a role in that. We’re using it today as a way
of extending this conversation to people literally from around
the world, and also temporally. So there are ways in
which we can do it. The challenge is to
figure out how to do it and to preserve all that’s
special about what happens. When we confine
students and faculty under temperature
and pressure, you know, for four years in
a residential setting, if we’re talking about
undergraduate education, and what also happens in
graduate and professional schools. But the Chan school is
doing some very interesting experiments right now in
using blended learning and using technology to
try and extend things. So that’s one way,
one big challenge, and one way which I hope
that we will be different going forward. There are other things
that I could talk about. We have other opportunities
that are made available to us at this point,
because the world is changing in interesting ways. I think it’s really,
really interesting watching the conversation that’s
occurring right now in the tech sector, where there’s a lot of
hand-wringing that’s going on over what our world
is going to look like and how it’s going
to feel as we, you know, entrust more
and more decisions to computationally
intensive solutions, whether or not we’re talking
about machine learning, artificial intelligence, other
ways in which our world is going to be driven by this. I think it raises
lots of really, really interesting questions
of, what does it going to be human in a
world in which an increasing amount of decision-making is
controlled by machines and not individuals. And what are the values
that are embedded in the algorithms
that are driving this decision-making process? And I’d like to think that as we
struggle with those questions, we’re starting to understand
that we need to think deeply about the ethical
implications of this, about what are the values that
are embedded in the algorithms? And you know, I’m
starting to see interest in these questions. And, you know, we have a
tremendously interesting program that’s
going on right now at Harvard, which we call
Embedded Ethics, in which we’re embedding philosophy graduate
students in computer science courses as teaching fellows,
to try and stimulate the conversation. Sort of say, OK, what
are the ethical issues, so that people will start
to think about those. And as we live in
a world in which, again because of technology,
information is now ubiquitous– I can answer almost any
question of a factual nature just with this little device. We no longer have– MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
Something much more powerful than your first computer. LAWRENCE BACOW: Oh, by a lot. But there are no– people no longer have
arguments in bars anymore about who batted
third for the Red Sox in 1948. I can answer it in 10 seconds. But the same technology
that brings us that also brings us a
lot of other things. You know, it makes
it– the good news is that it makes it a lot
easier for people to connect. It also makes it
easier for people who have extreme ideas to connect. It makes it easier for
people to propagate information which is untrue. I’d like to think in
this world that we are going to come to
understand and appreciate that a liberal education
is even more valuable, because it helps
people to differentiate the signal from the noise, in
a world in which information is ubiquitous. I’d like to think
that we’re going to have a renaissance
in the humanities, as we contemplate,
what does it going to be human in a world
increasingly dominated by machines? What is it that’s distinctly
human, that a machine will never replicate? In understanding
what is beautiful, what does it mean to
love, to be loved? These are questions which people
have been asking for centuries. And I think that,
as I look forward, I think we’re going
to get back to those and understand that
they are central to what we do in universities, as
they have been for centuries. MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
I love your vision about our being embedded
in these conversations, and definitely not
standing on the sidelines as these conversations continue. And the liberal arts education
is the most powerful way to prepare us for the future. LAWRENCE BACOW: Well, and
also the most powerful way to prepare us for
a world in which, again, because
technology has broken down so many barriers, a world
in which we are going to have to confront differences daily. Daily. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I regret
that we are approaching the end of our session. And because this has been
such a rich conversation, I want to end with asking you if
you could share with us today, the students here in the
audience and online, two top leadership strategies
as they go forward? In addition to the many
that you’ve already shared, there must be a few
more that you can impart in the few minutes we have. LAWRENCE BACOW: So I would say– I’ve already said– well, I’m
not going to repeat anything. I had a friend who used to
say to me that there are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who do things. And there are those who
try and take the credit. And it’s a lot easier to be
a member of the first group, because there’s a
lot less competition. The higher you go
in an organization, the less you need
credit for anything. And so I think one
important leadership lesson that I would leave people
with is, surround yourself with good people and
really help them achieve what they would want to do. And the last thing
I would tell you is, if you remember nothing
from this conversation, it would be to always
do the right thing. It’s usually not that
difficult to figure out. It’s often excruciatingly
difficult to do. And leadership is about
doing the right thing, especially when it’s
very, very hard. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Hear, hear. Thank you. LAWRENCE BACOW: Thank you. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I am
delighted and honored and grateful for the time
you’ve spent with us here in the studio, on
the Longwood campus here at the Harvard Chan
School of Public Health. Thank you, President Bacow– if I may call you
President Bacow, in honor of our
respect, our due respect of your leadership of
Harvard, and we look forward to you joining us again. Thank you all. LAWRENCE BACOW: Thank you.