How Harvard’s Next President Can Repair Its Reputation

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Dear Lawrence Bacow:

Congratulations on being named as the next president of Harvard University.

I am hoping that you are a huge success in the new job. Partially that’s for selfish reasons. I have a Harvard degree and own a house in Boston, and the value of both those assets may fluctuate depending on your success or failure. Also, you mentioned in the introductory announcement video that your father was a Jewish immigrant to America from Minsk. One of my own grandfathers was also a Jewish immigrant from Minsk, so I feel like I have even more of a personal stake.

The main reason I’m rooting for you, though, is that strong universities are good for America and good for the world. They cure diseases, fuel economic growth and job creation, expand opportunity, inspire creativity, and reward excellence.

Unfortunately, as you also mentioned in the video, the reputations of American colleges and universities are pretty tarnished at the moment. At Harvard, there are still plenty of applicants lined up and willing to pay. But in Washington and all across America, there are plenty of people who think higher education is one of America’s problems, and that our campuses have become cesspools of leftist indoctrination and elitist privilege. That perception can be costly:  the Republican Congress and President Donald Trump imposed a new endowment tax on Harvard and similar institutions.

One of your biggest challenges will be to figure out what to do about the fact that, to overstate it just a bit, the half of the country that voted for Trump basically hates Harvard. And it’s not because they went to Yale.

Some people will advise you to wait it out. Eventually, in two, four, or six years, the Democrats will take back Congress and the White House. Instead of new taxes and investigations coming from Washington, there will again be invitations to state dinners and increases in research funding. This problem, though, didn’t begin with the Trump administration. It dates back at least to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, published in 1991. Perhaps it even goes back to William Buckley’s 1951 God and Man at Yale. It’s not a quarrel that’s going to be solved by the application of patience.

Other people will advise you to do a better job of telling Harvard’s existing story. Instead of sending Mayflower descendants and former Clinton and Obama administration officials to Washington as lobbyists, try showcasing Harvard graduates from military backgrounds, like Brian Mast, who enrolled in Harvard’s extension school after losing two legs to an improved explosive device as a U.S. Army special operator in Afghanistan. Mast is now a Republican congressman from Florida. How many of Harvard’s conservative critics realize that Harvard scientists have been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in Defense Department research grants, in part to help develop military technology that will win wars and protect America from enemy attack?

One winning tactic is to be secure enough to acknowledge when the critics of higher education have a point. You did this nicely in 2009, as president of Tufts University, when you expressed hope that the financial crisis would encourage colleges to control costs better. “Competition for students has led some institutions to invest in lavish athletic facilities, opulent dormitories, and concierge services in residence halls. It is my hope that Yankee frugality will reemerge as a virtue in higher education as a consequence of this economic crisis,” you wrote. “We must resist the temptation to add glitz for glitz’ sake.”

You even floated the idea of ending lifetime tenure for professors. That also might help campuses seem a bit less unrealistically cushy compared to the rest of the American economy.

The boldest response might be actually to make some adjustments to the university. That doesn’t mean surrendering principles. But it could mean doing some things differently. As you told a University of California audience last year, “if you’re not managing change, you’re not leading, you’re presiding.”

What might that mean in Harvard’s case? It could mean redefining the emphasis on diversity beyond race and gender also to encompass ideology. It could mean reaching even more students via online courses and the extension school, so that the university shifts its measurement of success away from how many tens of thousands of applicants it rejects, and toward how many it educates. 

It could mean expanding geographically beyond relatively prosperous, and politically liberal, Cambridge and Boston, toward more economically challenged and politically diverse parts of the state. Tufts has a veterinary school in Grafton, Massachusetts and its medical school founded a rural community health center in the Mississippi Delta. Harvard has a forest in Petersham. With NYU operating in Abu DhabiCornell in Qatar, and Yale collaborating on a college in Singapore, it’s harder to make the case that Petersham, in Central Massachusetts, or even, say, Pittsfield, in Western Massachusetts, are so remote from Cambridge that ramping up activity there would prevent effective control or definitely dilute the brand.

In that University of California talk, you talked about the importance of a president’s “taste” — taste in people and taste in problems. The taste in people you described as the ability to distinguish between “merely excellent” and “truly extraordinary.” The taste in problems you described as the ability to look over the intellectual horizon and identify fields or disciplines worth investing in or disinvesting from. 

Repairing the reputation of private research universities may not be a presidential “problem” in the classic academic sense that, say, precision medicine or nanotechnology might be. But it’s a job too important to leave to mere lobbyists. Good luck with it.



Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.