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Jay Ruderman (00:05):

Harvard University is one of the most prestigious and well-known universities in the world. Universities and educational systems are now facing significant challenges as a result of a worldwide pandemic and calls to address systematic racial injustice in our society.

Jay Ruderman (00:21):

Today, I’m honored to be joined by Harvard’s 29th president Dr. Lawrence Bacow to find out how he is addressing these challenges and how his personal history has shaped his outlook on life.

Announcer (00:39):

All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.

Jay Ruderman (00:50):

Welcome President of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow. I hope you’re well and thank you for joining us on All Inclusive.

Lawrence Bacow (00:59):

Thanks for the invitation.

Jay Ruderman (01:01):

Let me just jump right in and ask you. How has Harvard reacted to the Coronavirus pandemic and how will Harvard and other universities in your opinion move forward in supporting their students and faculty during this unique period in time?

Lawrence Bacow (01:17):

We’ve been focused on the Coronavirus since it first broke out in China in early January. We have lots of students who come from China, we have faculty who do work in China, so we were attentive to what was going on there because we were concerned as with any new virus that there was a potential for people to travel there and bring it back to our campus.

Lawrence Bacow (01:38):

We’re also blessed at Harvard to have some of the foremost experts in the world on epidemiology, on virology, on public health. And so from the very beginning, they were advising us in terms of what was going on. We had the opportunity in mid to late January to enter into a partnership with the Guangzhou Institute for Respiratory Health. This is a world-renowned Chinese research organization and they wanted to know whether or not we would be willing to collaborate, which we agreed to do so.

Lawrence Bacow (02:10):

We started collaborating with them very early on and created something called the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, which engages all of Harvard schools, our affiliated teaching hospitals, but also our colleagues at MIT, at BU, at Tufts, the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. And as a result, Harvard has really become the center for research on the coronavirus worldwide. The first two vaccines that have gone into human trials have come out of Harvard. So we’re quite proud of that.

Lawrence Bacow (02:40):

So Harvard’s been deeply involved wearing our scholarly hat. And I would say that this is a time in which the nation’s research universities more broadly have never been more important. Because if we’re going to find a solution to this pandemic, it’s going to come out of scholarship and research. And we were, I think the second university in the country to send students home. This was after the University of Washington.

Lawrence Bacow (03:03):

We did so prompted by the timing of our spring break. We were criticized at the time for acting prematurely. In retrospect, it looks like it was certainly the right decision. So now we’re focused on plans for the fall. As you ask, what are we going to do like many other institutions? A number of our professional schools have already made announcements and we’re trying to prioritize public health and safety. The events in the last several weeks have demonstrated to us that we must be modest in our ability to predict and control this virus.

Jay Ruderman (03:33):

First of all, I want to thank you and all of Harvard for working towards a vaccine, because I think a vaccine will allow all of us to resume a normal life. And I’m sure this is a very trying time to lead a major university in terms of scheduling and trying to figure out how the future looks when the future looks so uncertain.

Jay Ruderman (03:54):

I know that you and your wife came down with COVID a few months back and I hope you’re better and that she’s better and that was the experience, I’m sure it was not a great experience for those of us who have not contracted it. Can you give us a few words of what that experience was like?

Lawrence Bacow (04:10):

Sure. We were among the very first to actually to get on in the Harvard community as luck would have it. We were quite fortunate, for us, we managed to avoid the severe respiratory problems that landed so many people in the hospital. And I would say for the two of us, it was like having a bad case of the flu. We were sick for about 10 days with 102-103 fever, cough.

Lawrence Bacow (04:32):

I had severe muscle aches, Adele avoided that. We both had chills and extreme lethargy. And after the fever broke and after about 10 days, we started feeling much better, although it took us another good 10 days to regain our strength. It took a lot out of us.

Jay Ruderman (04:48):

I’m glad you’re better. As a Massachusetts resident, I know things are getting a little bit better here. The state has been very strict in rolling out the recovery plan. And other places in the world and in the United States are having a much more difficult time.

Jay Ruderman (05:03):

Just wondering, Massachusetts has lost approximately 8,000 people and other countries have kept the death rate much lower. Any feelings about why that happened here in the Northeast, as opposed to let’s say a country like Israel that has had less than 400 deaths with a similar population size?

Lawrence Bacow (05:23):

Yeah, I think that the United States collectively, we were slow to recognize this threat. We were even slower to act on it. I think candidly, we received mixed signals from our government in terms of how seriously to take this. We continue to receive mixed signals from the government in terms of people maintaining social distancing, wearing masks.

Lawrence Bacow (05:45):

And I think all of this has contributed to a spread of the virus and unfortunately to a large number, not just a large number of cases, but a larger number of fatalities and perhaps might’ve been case if we had acted faster, more decisively and without the kind of mixed messages that continue to be sent.

Jay Ruderman (06:04):

You had mentioned that many students at Harvard are learning online. And I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about the future of education in higher education and education in general.

Jay Ruderman (06:15):

Do you think classroom learning is necessary or do you think that the future for students will be online learning?

Lawrence Bacow (06:22):

So I think that online learning is here to stay. I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think it will only get better over time. We’re still learning how to teach online in ways that capitalize on the opportunities that are made available through online education. But I also think that there are certain subjects that are really hard to teach online. And that, again, this experience of having students be separated from their teachers and vice versa. And students separated from each other has been one of the reasons that students are so desperate to get back and why we want them back is we’ve all come to appreciate that some activities just can’t be replicated completely or fully online.

Lawrence Bacow (06:59):

I often say that our students learn as much from each other as they’ll learn from us. And I think if you or I or any of your listeners were to reflect on their own college experiences for those who are fortunate enough to go to college and ask themselves the following question, if you think about what’s the most amazing experience you had in college for most of us, it’s not actually something that happened in the classroom. It’s something that happened outside of the classroom.

Lawrence Bacow (07:24):

It may have been a casual conversation with a faculty member that wound up changing our lives. That was certainly the case for me. It may have been a conversation that occurred late at night after students had finished their study, or it may have occurred on a playing field or the student activity, or whatever. So I could go on about this. I do think online education will evolve. I think it will get better, but I don’t think it will ever truly replace in person face-to-face education for many, many people.

Jay Ruderman (07:53):

I’m sure you’ve done some studying about the future of sports at the university. I mean, college sports is a big part of the college experience and I know at Harvard there are some excellent teams. So I don’t know what that looks like going into the coming academic year.

Lawrence Bacow (08:09):

We’re not quite certain, either. I will just tell you that it’s at the moment certain. It’s difficult to imagine with restrictions that the government has imposed already on travel, on large gatherings, that we could have intercollegiate sports that will look anything like what they would look in a normal year.

Lawrence Bacow (08:28):

In an athletic context, it’s difficult to imagine how certain sports can take place at all, wrestling for example. But until people can really travel and travel freely and not worry about infecting those that they encounter, it’s also hard to imagine that athletic teams would travel to play other teams as well.

Jay Ruderman (08:48):

I’m sure it’s going to be a very different year going forward in that aspect. Our society has, since the murder of George Floyd has dealt with an explosion of calls against racial injustice. How has the university dealt with racial injustice at the university and in society in general, what changes do you think will be made going forward?

Lawrence Bacow (09:10):

I think over the years, we’ve done a lot at Harvard, but it’s clear as is too I think for every institution in our society, we need to do more. This is just not where we want to be as a society. And it’s certainly not where Harvard wants to be. This is a time in which I think we need to act, but we also need to listen. There are many people who are suffering right now and suffering greatly. And those of us who have not shared that lived experience need to take the time to really listen and listen carefully, and understand in a deep way what they have gone through and what they continue to experience.

Lawrence Bacow (09:42):

And then we need to look inward, both as individuals and as institutions and ask ourselves, “What could we do in order to respond?” At Harvard, we’ve done a number of things. Some time ago, we set up a task force on diversity and inclusion and belonging several years ago that reported. And as a result of that, we’ve done strategic plans for every school at Harvard and what it can do to make Harvard a more diverse and inclusive and welcoming place for everyone.

Lawrence Bacow (10:07):

We recently appointed a new chief diversity and inclusion officer a year ago. I asked the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who was both a constitutional law scholar and a historian to lead an effort to examine Harvard’s ties and legacy with slavery and ask ourselves, “What are our responsibilities as a result of the institution that was founded in 1636?”

Lawrence Bacow (10:30):

It‘s certainly the case that we’ve had individuals who’ve donated to the university who had ties to slavery. Our individual schools, I think, changed the world through our teaching and through our scholarship. That’s how we influence the world. And so we’re looking at our curriculum, we’re looking at our research and asking where are there opportunities to do more?

Lawrence Bacow (10:51):

And we’ve also tried to ask ourselves, how can we do a better job educating every member of our community to not just cleanse themselves of any implicit bias, which they may have, but also what can we do affirmatively when we recognize racism, when we see it in our society, in our communities, how can we act affirmatively positively to counteract it?

Announcer (11:19):

You’re listening, to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more view the show notes and transcripts at

Jay Ruderman (11:30):

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Jay Ruderman (11:36):

There have been several recent changes to the immigration laws and these changes will affect new students and faculty. For the upcoming class, international students make up 12% of those accepted. How do you see these changes impacting Harvard and the lives of international students, and how will this impact your faculty?

Lawrence Bacow (11:59):

Well, first of all, this is an issue which I feel quite strongly about it. Both of my parents were immigrants. They were both refugees to this country. And I often say, where else in the world can you go literally in one generation from off the boat with nothing to rise to become the president of Harvard? I think the experience of immigrants coming to this country is central to our experience.

Lawrence Bacow (12:21):

And so I’ve tried to be a strong voice in support of the notion that we should continue to welcome people who want to come to this country to seek a better life, to seek freedom, to seek opportunity, which is, I think, deeply rooted in the American experience. The issue is not just the 12 or 13% of our undergraduates who come from abroad. If you take a look at our graduate and professional schools, the number of international students enrolled is much higher and many of them, the Kennedy School, for example, 48% of their students come from abroad.

Lawrence Bacow (12:52):

Right now, the United States is not processing F-1 or student visas for new students seeking to come to this country. That’s because in many cases, our consular offices and our embassies are closed because of COVID. And one of the reasons why so many of our graduate and professional schools will be online in the fall is because international students will not be able to study at Harvard otherwise, simply because they cannot get here.

Lawrence Bacow (13:16):

Long-term, Harvard tries to recruit the very best students and the very best faculty and the very best staff from wherever we can find them. 35% of Harvard’s faculty were born someplace else. And so if we are to continue to recruit the very best people in the world to come work and study at Harvard, that it’s an imperative, they be able to gain access to Harvard. And this is true not just for our institution, it’s true for every college and university in the country.

Lawrence Bacow (13:49):

Every major university in this country, both public and private at this point as welcomed international students. And it’s one of the reasons that I think has strengthened these institutions. And ultimately it’s also strengthened the country. Because many of these young people when they finish their education, they want to stay here and work here.

Jay Ruderman (14:08):

Are you getting through your discussions with the government correspondence? Are you getting any type of response that they understand the dramatic effect this will have on higher education and research?

Lawrence Bacow (14:21):

It’s certainly the case that they do with respect to granting of student visas more broadly. I think things are a little bit more complicated when it comes to H-1B1 visas, which we use to recruit faculty and also industry uses to recruit people from abroad for jobs that they feel that they cannot fill domestically. And this is particularly acute in the STEM fields where 50% of the PhDs awarded in engineering and mathematics in the United States are awarded to foreign students. And many of these foreign students would like to stick around in our industry.

Lawrence Bacow (14:56):

We’d like to hire them as well, simply because they cannot fill many of these jobs without them. And I’ve been assured by those in government that they recognize the F-1 visa problem. They want to try and expedite the awarding of those visas. The challenge, which our government faces is that as long as the coronavirus continues to be a threat in many parts of the world, it’s difficult for them to staff the counsel offices sufficiently in order to be able to process these visas. But they’re looking to solve this problem.

Jay Ruderman (15:23):

I want to talk a little bit about mental health. Mental health is a growing issue in our society and maybe even more compounded by COVID-19. It sounds like Harvard has been more proactive in dealing with the issue of stigma on campus in order to allow people to feel more comfortable.

Jay Ruderman (15:40):

What is Harvard doing to help students who are dealing with issues concerning mental health?

Lawrence Bacow (15:46):

Well, we try and provide a healthy environment for all of our students. Every college and university in the United States, I think has seen an explosion and the demand for mental health services. There are plenty of students who have always had the ability to make it to college. Unfortunately, what happens to many of them once they get to our campuses is they no longer have their mothers and fathers there to say, “Have you taken your meds today?”

Lawrence Bacow (16:09):

They get exposed to other kinds of influences, which are not necessarily healthy for them and not it’s alcohol or recreational drugs. And so it’s an emotionally sort of fragile population, at least more so than it was perhaps 30, 40, 50 years ago. So we’ve tried to staff up given the particular stresses right now that come from the coronavirus, we’ve extended the allowed number of visits under our student health insurance plan to 52 outpatient visits a year.

Lawrence Bacow (16:40):

So basically you can see a therapist once a week on our plan. We’ve added staff under the current circumstances. We’re also doing a lot of telehealth. So mental health consults remotely, because students are removed from their therapist at this point. And we’ve tried to de-stigmatize asking for help as well. And that also accounts for some increase.

Jay Ruderman (17:03):

What were the factors that influenced your decision to pursue a career in academia and in administration of higher education?

Lawrence Bacow (17:12):

Jay, for most of us, I think our careers are often a series of fortuitous accidents and mine is no different. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a lawyer and long story short, when I enrolled in graduate school at Harvard, I started out at the Kennedy School in a master’s program in public policy in my first year, and then went to Harvard law school the next year. And it was only in doing that, that I realized I was enjoying what I was doing at the Kennedy School, more than law school. I completed a PhD at the Kennedy School as well as my law degree. And I expected to go to Washington D.C. to work in the start of the Carter administration.

Lawrence Bacow (17:45):

And as luck would have it, I had an opportunity to fill in for a faculty member at MIT was going on leave for two years. And when I was trying to decide whether or not to go to D.C. or go back to MIT and teach for a couple of years, I went to one of my undergraduate advisors who said, “The government will be there when you’re ready to go work for it. It will always look good on your resume to spend a couple of years teaching at MIT.”

Lawrence Bacow (18:07):

So I did that in two years, turned into a 24-year career at MIT. So I did not set out to be in academic. It sort of just happened. And then the president of MIT asked me if I would come into the senior administration as one of MIT’s two most senior academic officers as chancellor of MIT. MIT had been very, very good to me. And so now the president asked, I said, yes. I mean, it was a chance to serve. If you have the number two job at a place like MIT, you get called for every presidential search in the country. I didn’t think I wanted to be a president.

Lawrence Bacow (18:37):

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to have a conversation with the search committee at Tufts. So the rest is history. I wound up becoming president of Tufts. I had a wonderful 10 years as president at Tufts. I stepped down expecting just to go back to doing some teaching and some writing. And then seven years later, I found myself as president of Harvard. So life happens.

Jay Ruderman (18:57):

So you’ve had the unique opportunity to have leadership positions at three excellent universities and very different institutions. Can you talk about maybe a significant memory that you might have from each of them that sort of guided you through your career?

Lawrence Bacow (19:13):

They are each very, very special places in my own mind and my own heart. So I really grew up at MIT. It’s where I really learned how to think analytically. Where I was challenged in ways that I never thought imaginable and where a couple faculty members really took me under their wing and changed my life. They saw that I was capable of doing things that I didn’t think I was capable of myself. I also made some lifelong friends who are my best friends today.

Lawrence Bacow (19:41):

And then of course, I had the opportunity to go back and teach at MIT and work there, and become part of the fabric of the place. MIT is an unusual place because of its focus. As we used to say at MIT, “We don’t do everything at MIT, but what we do, we try to do as well as anybody in the world.” I then came to Harvard for graduate school and Harvard and MIT, even though they’re two stops away on the red line are about as different as two institutions could possibly be. I sometimes joke when asked about the similarities and differences, I will say that organizationally and culturally they’re identical with assigned change, meaning they’re exact opposite.

Lawrence Bacow (20:18):

MIT’s very centralized. Harvard’s very decentralized. MIT is focused. Harvard’s very broad. As different as they are organizationally and culturally, these are two of the greatest universities in the world. And that to me says that excellence is path independent of the organization and culture. And I see that now as president of Harvard. This is an extraordinary place. What makes it so is that it’s extraordinary in so many different dimensions. What also makes it so is its history. I like point out that Harvard on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed was 140-years-old.

Lawrence Bacow (20:53):

To put that in context, that’s older than Stanford is today. So now this is an institution which literally helped to bring this country into being. George Washington commandeered the building during the Revolutionary war to quarter his troops. It just gives you a sense. John Adams when he was a student, John Quincy Adams when he was a student at Harvard, lived in the building where my office is and where students continue to live today on the 4th floor. So Harvard’s just steeped in history.

Lawrence Bacow (21:21):

And then there’s Tufts. Tufts was founded by the universalists and they were passionately committed to social justice. And it’s a place where service is deeply, deeply embedded in the DNA and the fabric of the institution. What I loved about Tufts is that it’s an exceedingly modest institution and it’s a place that is warm and embracing. It doesn’t have an attitude of any kind. It attracts students, faculty, and staff who just want to make the world a better place.

Lawrence Bacow (21:53):

Tufts educates more primary care physicians than all three of the other medical schools in Massachusetts combined, and Tufts hosts the only vet school in New England. So it’s a pretty unique and special place. So all three special. Don’t ask me to say which one I like the most, it’s like asking a parent, which one of your children do you love the most.

Jay Ruderman (22:12):

Of course. You touched on your parents and that they were both victims of persecution and came to the United States. How has that shaped your life and your world outlook?

Lawrence Bacow (22:24):

Look, we’re all children of our own circumstances. I think my parents’ experience affected me greatly. My mother didn’t talk a lot about her experience when I was growing up initially, she was the only member of her family to survive World War II and the only Jew from our town who survived it as well. She was liberated by the Russians. She was in Auschwitz when the war ended and spent most of the war in different stops before being transported East.

Lawrence Bacow (22:51):

I think her circumstances and now her journey and my father’s, and again, my father left before the war, but to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe, he was born in Minsk, have left me with a deep appreciation for both the resilience of the human spirit, but also for how lucky and fortunate I have been. And I think that has given me a sense of responsibility to ensure that other students have the same kind of opportunity that I enjoyed, that so many of us have enjoyed and that we cannot take for granted.

Lawrence Bacow (23:23):

And one of the reasons why I’ve spent as much time as I have in Washington, D.C. and lobbying Congress on issues of immigration and issues of DACA, on issues of temporarily protected status for many workers that we have at Harvard is because I remember my mother telling the story about how difficult it was for her after having been liberated from the concentration camps to then just manage to secure entry into the United States.

Lawrence Bacow (23:49):

I’d like to think that there are other people who are also seeking a better life who have much to contribute to this country as I think my parents did. I’m not talking about contributing me, but just what they did in their own lifetimes. And so I work on behalf of all of those people. One of the many things which I love about this country is that it has always stood for opportunity.

Lawrence Bacow (24:10):

And so part of the reason I do what I do is because it gives me a chance to champion opportunity for others, whether or not it’s helping to identify the resources that allow a brilliant student from anywhere in this country or in the world to be able to come to Harvard, regardless of the ability of their parents to afford it. That’s one kind of opportunity or arguing on behalf of our dining workers who originally came from places in this world, which do not grant human rights and were granted temporary protected status to enter this country.

Lawrence Bacow (24:44):

And now they’ve made their home here. They’re productively employed here. They’re contributors to society. They pay their taxes and now they risk being sent back to a country that they don’t know anymore. And in some cases at great risk to themselves if they were to return home, because we’re going to potentially withdraw that status. So that’s why I do what I do. And I do it in part because of my parents.

Jay Ruderman (25:09):

Well, thank you for sharing that. I just wanted on a personal level, I know that you’re an avid runner. Where does that passion come from and what do you get out of running?

Lawrence Bacow (25:17):

Well, so one of the occupational hazards of being a university president is an expanding waistline. I sometimes joke that my real title is not university president, but university stomach. I eat and service to Harvard. At least that was the case before COVID-19 sent us all to our homes, but my days used to consist of breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings. And then if I would show up at a faculty meeting for a department, they’d always have a big plate of cookies.

Lawrence Bacow (25:42):

So running in part, I run because it allows me to eat. It allows me to control my weight. But I also run because given my life, my days are scheduled from the moment I wake up and when I start doing email, till the time I closed my eyes and hit the pillow. It seems I’m almost always working. And running is one of the few opportunities I get to be alone with my thoughts.

Lawrence Bacow (26:04):

It’s when I do my best thinking. It is when I solve really hard problems and sort them out is when I’m on a long run. It’s when I compose my speeches when I write important communications to the community. So that’s what I get out of running. I also from time to time run with students and others, and I find that’s a healthy way to have a conversation with people in which after a while they stop looking at me like I’m the university president, right?

Lawrence Bacow (26:31):

Just become another sweaty runner. And I hear things that I wouldn’t hear otherwise. And for somebody who travels as much as I used to travel, this is the longest I think I’ve ever gone in my professional life without listening to somebody say to me, “Put your seat back and tray table in the upright position.” But given how much time I spent on the road, it’s a great way to see cities and I’ve run in every major city of the world.

Jay Ruderman (26:52):

We’re going through very momentous times, huge challenges on many different fronts. What one piece of advice would you give to a student regardless of the year, but coming into the fall semester of 2020. What advice would you impart?

Lawrence Bacow (27:08):

I would say to them that every generation gets challenged in one way or another. And the crises that we are dealing with in this moment in time are the challenge for their generation and that they need to be part of the solution. They need to think hard about what they can do to respond. So they’ll have students back on campus in the fall. It will be a different experience. One of the things which I will say to them is, “This experience is going to be shaped by what you make of it. If you take responsibility to wear your mask, wash your hands, to engage in social distancing, you are going to help keep this virus under control and to keep not only yourself healthy, but everybody around you healthy. You have the capacity to do that. We expect that from you.”

Lawrence Bacow (27:52):

I’ll say to them with respect to the moral crisis that would be dealing with right now that you referenced the issue, the search for racial justice. It’s in their hands to be better understanding of the inequities that exist in our society. To listen and understand the lived experience of others better than those who’ve come before them. And I will challenge them to do that as well. So I think each generation is challenged. Each generation, I think is often found a way to rise to this challenge. And I would say to them, “I hope that they will embrace this and try and rise to the occasion as well.”

Lawrence Bacow (28:26):

One of the things which keeps me optimistic is always being around young people. Young people have hope, I think for good reason. And when you see their hope combined with their idealism and their desire to repair the world, it can’t help but make you feel optimistic about the future.

Jay Ruderman (28:44):

Larry, I want to thank you for your time. You’ve been very generous. I wish you a lot of good health moving forward and a lot of success in what I know is a very challenging time for all of us.

Lawrence Bacow (28:56):

Thank you very much, Jay. It’s been a pleasure to have this conversation with you and I hope you and your family also stay safe and healthy.

Jay Ruderman (29:02):

Thank you.

Announcer (29:07):

All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society.

Announcer (29:17):

You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.