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Q&A: Harvard’s new president on challenges, ideals

October 5, 2018

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2018 file photo, Lawrence Bacow speaks after being introduced as the 29th president of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Bacow will be inaugurated into the position on Friday, Oct. 5. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes, File)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Harvard University’s new president is taking over at a contentious time for the nation’s oldest college.

It faces a new federal endowment tax that could cost more than $40 million a year. Its admissions office is the subject of a discrimination lawsuit and a separate inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department. Some on campus have accused Harvard of moving too slowly to recruit more students and professors of color.

Meanwhile, Harvard joins other colleges grappling with questions about free speech and the public’s flagging faith in higher education.

Yet President Lawrence Bacow is confident the Massachusetts Ivy League school is headed in the right direction.

At his ceremonial inauguration Friday, Bacow said he will navigate challenges while upholding values that have become a recurring theme in his speeches: the pursuit of truth, a commitment to excellence and opportunity for all.

Bacow, 67, who took over in July, is new to the job but not to Harvard. He has three degrees from the school and has been on its governing board since 2011. Before that, he led nearby Tufts University for a decade.

In the run-up to his inauguration, Bacow spoke with The Associated Press on a range of issues. The following remarks have been edited for brevity.

Q: At a time when the public’s faith in higher education seems to have faltered, what message do you want to send to the country?

A: If you look at the rest of the world, it’s doubling down on investment in higher education. The rest of the world is trying to build institutions that will compete with or at least emulate ours. Now is not the time to be disinvesting in these great colleges and universities. People have gotten scared about the ever-rising cost of sending a kid to college. And I understand that. But what’s also interesting is that the differential in lifetime earnings between a college and high school graduate has never been greater. There’s a good case to be made, but I think we need to do a better job of explaining to the nation why this system is working and is worthy of public support.

Q: Some university leaders have taken it upon themselves to stand up to the Trump administration on topics from immigration to climate change . Do you see that as part of your role?

A: Look, I will speak out on those issues that affect higher education, that are important for Harvard and important for us collectively. But part of what we need to learn to do is to engage more broadly with people who think differently from us. So I think it’s important to be able to at least have a civil conversation with all sorts of folks, and I intend to do that.

Q: What are the most important issues Harvard is lobbying on in Washington right now?

A: I think the endowment tax is misguided public policy. It was done in the name of making colleges and universities more affordable, at least those to whom it applies. But I don’t understand why taxing us to the tune of 25 percent of our undergraduate financial aid budget, how that helps make Harvard more affordable for anybody. I’ve also mentioned that we are enormously dependent upon the free-flow of ideas and the free-flow of talent. I think it’s important that we continue to welcome talented people to this country, from wherever.

Q: Some students have said Harvard doesn’t do enough to recruit students and faculty of color. What are you doing to address those concerns?

A: Four of our schools are now headed by African-American women. I think the face of leadership is changing within the university. We have greatly diversified our student body, and we have achieved enormous gains on the faculty side as well. I would also tell you that we have a ways to go to make sure that, having diversified our community, everybody feels like this is their Harvard, too. Inclusion and belonging is important work for every institution, and it’s not enough that we recruit people here — it’s important that they can thrive here.

Q: Harvard is being sued by a group that says schools should not consider the race of its applicants, a position the Trump administration has supported . What would it mean for Harvard to adopt an admissions policy that doesn’t consider race?

A: I think it would be a far less interesting place if the courts did not give us the freedom to construct our class in ways that enhance the learning opportunities for everyone. I think there’s a lot at stake here, and obviously not just for Harvard, but for every college and university. It goes without saying that the country is a far more diverse place today than it was in the past, and I think institutions like this one have some social responsibility to reflect what the country looks like. That doesn’t mean that we should have quotas or targets — we don’t — and I’m confident that the facts in this case will demonstrate we are not discriminating against anybody.

The Associated Press asked a follow-up question regarding Brett Kavanaugh’s decision not to return to teach a course at Harvard Law School next year. A Harvard spokeswoman said Bacow would not be able to respond before the story was published.

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Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley

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