Larry Bacow: ‘I agreed to preside over Harvard because higher education had been attacked as elitist’

The former president of Harvard — the son of European Jewish immigrants who arrived to the United States with nothing — feels the responsibility of fighting poverty in a country ‘where democracy is under threat’

Larry Bacow, former president of Harvard University, in Madrid, on Thursday, October 19, 2023.
Larry Bacow, former president of Harvard University, in Madrid, on Thursday, October 19, 2023.Jaime Villanueva
Elisa Silió

Lawyer and economist Larry Bacow, 72, left the presidency of Harvard University last June, during a time of turbulence. His mandate — from 2018 until 2023 — was filled with obstacles. He dealt with the pandemic management, the end of affirmative action and the revelation of a bribery scandal in the university admissions process.

The son of Jewish emigrants, Bacow — who was previously the president of Tufts University (2001-2011) and a professor at MIT for 24 years — avoids speaking up about Israel’s bombings. However, with great emotion, he remembers his efforts to ensure that a Palestinian student deported from the U.S. was able to return in time for classes.

Bacow — an expert in environmental policies — gave an interview to EL PAÍS last week. He was in Madrid for a meeting of the Talloires Network, a group of socially responsible academic institutions that he founded. Camilo José Cela University is a partner and acted as the host.

At the end of the interview, Bacow hands over his business card with such humility that it’s overwhelming.

Question. Why did you found this network of universities, which is currently meeting in Madrid?

Answer. In 2005, when I was the president of Tufts, I organized a conference of 28 university presidents in Talloires, in the French Alps, to discuss the social responsibility of universities. Some leaders came from the former Soviet bloc, from countries with emerging democracies, or from extremely poor places, where there was an opportunity through education to try and lift them up. In the Talloires Declaration, we committed to exchanging good practices. There are now 431 of us. Really important things are being done in areas where universities are a beacon of hope and opportunity.

Q. For many, the Ivy League — the conference consisting of eight top universities in the Northeastern United States — is an elite that’s far removed from society. Has your contribution during the pandemic — such as with Harvard’s laboratories participating in the creation of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines — improved its image?

A. We contributed, just like many others. In addition to vaccines, we need to help universities in countries without resources, so that they can have a local impact. Harvard and MIT have created edX, a platform with huge number of free online courses. We also allow local institutions to adapt content without having to pay for it.

There are many opportunities to do things, [not just abroad], but domestically. The United States is a very rich nation, but one with a lot of poverty. We also have a long-standing tradition of democracy that’s now being threatened.

Q. Do you really believe that?

A. Absolutely. For the first time in our history, we had an election contestant where there was not a smooth transfer of power. It seems that democracy is under pressure wherever you go in the world. In our own backyard, we need to help the homeless, improve access to medical care, education and justice. And a sense of civic and social responsibility needs to be instilled in the students who aren’t going to work for NGOs.

Jamie Dimon — the CEO of JPMorgan Chase and a graduate of Tufts and the Harvard Business School — has invested billions of dollars in poor neighborhoods in the United States, not only because it’s the right thing to do to end inequality, but because it’s good for business. If [people living in these areas] progress, they’ll need more banking services. We need more leaders like Dimon.

Q. Do you think that the American dream persists? Will meritocracy survive?

A. Yes, it still exists, but we need to work to ensure that the next generation has the same kind of opportunity that many of us enjoyed. I’ve had the privilege of living the American dream. Both of my parents were refugees [Belarusian and German]. It’s remarkable that, in a single generation, one can go from having nothing to being the president of Harvard. That motivates me. Each of us who have been fortunate have a responsibility to help the next generation.

Q. The Supreme Court of the United States has ended affirmative action. Are you worried?

A. Will [the ruling] have consequences? Absolutely. A diverse learning environment creates a richer environment for everyone to learn. It’s a lucky thing [for us all to be together], because one learns from others. Many factors must be taken into account during the admissions process — it’s not just about standardized tests.

Q. But if you’re poor, you can’t pay for someone to write a recommendation letter for you to enter Harvard.

A. Students from disadvantaged families have many, many disadvantages. Parents with money — who have often already studied at colleges — can ensure that they send their children to the best schools and that they have experiences that will make them better applicants: internships, working or studying abroad...

When you’re looking to hire someone, you don’t just look at their work experience, but also at other references. The admissions process also has to be like this.

Q. At the moment, the story of Ismail Ajjawi is very symbolic.

A. He’s a Palestinian boy who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. He was admitted to Harvard in 2019 with a full scholarship: room and board, books… at customs in Boston, they checked his cellphone’s social media and concluded that his friends had written radical messages. They deported him. I thought this was an outrage. I remembered the stories my mother told about her attempts to leave Germany across the French border [she was in a concentration camp for three years]. They sent him on the first flight back to Lebanon, and we worked hard to get him back in time for the start of classes. We did it! He arrived five minutes before his class photo was taken. Some Lebanese sweets were waiting for him in his room. We wanted him to feel welcome.

Q. Around 30 student groups at Harvard have stated that all the blame in the conflict lies with Israel. Do you think the university should take sides?

A. I prefer not to talk about it. I don’t want to appear like I’m giving advice to my successor or being critical.

Larry Bacow, the former president of Harvard University, at Camilo José Cela University in Madrid.
Larry Bacow, the former president of Harvard University, at Camilo José Cela University in Madrid. Jaime Villanueva

Q. Finally, Harvard has a second woman as president. Claudine Gay also happens to be the first Black president of Harvard.

A. Yes. We’ve had 30 presidents since 1636. Harvard is the oldest university in the United States. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Harvard was already 140 years old. By the way, seven of the signatories were Harvard alumni.

Q. Why did you accept the position of president in 2018?

A. Higher education had being attacked as elitist, as not good for the country. That wasn’t only wrong: it was a danger that could deprive young people of the opportunity to study. I was concerned about efforts [in the United States] to limit the ability of certain groups to vote, a threat to the democratic process. Harvard’s president is often seen as the voice of higher education — I thought that this wasn’t the time to sit on the sidelines, but to do public service. So, I accepted.

I’ve dedicated a lot of time working so that students from war zones or deprivation could remain in the United States when our government [the Trump administration] intended to send them home. And, furthermore, I thought that Harvard had to dedicate more efforts to climate change, social justice and the future of democracy. Institutions have to contribute to finding solutions to every major challenge confronting the world, such as the future of cities, global pandemics…

Q. You created a $100 million fund to redress Harvard’s ties to slavery.

A. We’ve traced a lot about the legacy of slavery in [contemporary] inequality, poverty, access to healthcare, education... after the Civil War, colleges and universities emerged for young Black people, because the state schools didn’t want them in their classrooms. [These HBCUs] have been poorly funded…a group of institutions is working hard to improve them.

We want to make sure that racial minorities can get into Harvard. That’s why we fought hard in the Supreme Court. Ending our entanglements with slavery is an enormous challenge, but we have to start somewhere.

Q. Is it true that Harvard is the second-richest private institution in the world, after the Vatican?

A. I don’t know. We’re the wealthiest university in the United States…

Q. And you’re the best university, according to international rankings.

A. I don’t give them much credit. Students can receive a good education in many places. People pay too much attention to elite universities and not enough to their own backyard. At Harvard and in the Ivy League, we only train a very small number of students. We admit 1,650, and we have between 40,000 and 60,000 applicants. I didn’t get my degree at Harvard, but down the street, at MIT, which is a great university. I think they’re both very good, because they compete and collaborate.

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