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Harvard President Larry Bacow Reflects on Past Year, and Looks Ahead

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Harvard President Larry Bacow is pictured at the Elmwood residence, where he has been leading the University during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

By Colleen Walsh
Harvard Staff Writer/The Harvard Gazette

A year after making the difficult and somewhat disputed decision to de-densify Harvard’s campus, and a year after recovering from COVID-19 himself, Harvard President Larry Bacow sat down with the Gazette over Zoom to reflect on how the University and the community have met the challenges posed by COVID-19. Bacow also looked ahead to Harvard’s ongoing development in Allston and to a range of programs, collaborations, and initiatives aimed at tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Q&A

Larry Bacow

GAZETTE: You and your wife, Adele, had COVID-19 last year. How are you both feeling today? Have you suffered any lasting effects from the virus?

BACOW: Fortunately, we recovered completely from it. We had no long-term effects, other than what everybody’s experiencing from being confined within a very narrow circle. Adele and I were just talking the other day and realizing that we’ve had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together virtually every day for an entire year. That has never happened before. The good news is that we still look forward to the next meal together.

GAZETTE: Have you gotten the vaccine yet?

BACOW: We’ve each received our first shot. And we are going to get the second one in a couple of weeks.

GAZETTE: After you had recovered, I remember seeing a photo of you both giving blood at Massachusetts General Hospital in an effort to help researchers develop a treatment or vaccine.

BACOW: We both went through leukapheresis. They take blood from one arm, spin it down to harvest the plasma, then put the red blood cells back in the other arm. It takes a little over an hour. The plasma is then given as treatment to those hospitalized with severe cases of COVID. We did it because, having survived the disease, we thought that if our experience could help others, we should do whatever we could to help. We’re also in a study being conducted by the Ragon Institute and Mass. General to understand how antibodies persist over time in people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Adele and Larry Bacow

Adele and Larry Bacow.

GAZETTE: Turning to Harvard in the age of COVID-19, how do you think the University has been weathering the pandemic?

BACOW: First, I should note that the storm is not over. We are still weathering it. But I think the University has responded extraordinarily well. I’ve been incredibly proud of the institution along so many different dimensions. Our faculty, especially in the health sciences, have been on the front lines helping us find a way out of this crisis. Two of the three vaccines currently available in the United States have their origins in Harvard Medical School laboratories: the Moderna vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Our faculty have also been helping the world understand this pandemic. I recently watched Rochelle Walensky, a Harvard Medical School faculty member who’s now the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explain what vaccinated people can and can’t do safely. Other faculty members have been educating the public, both through articles in the popular press, but also by appearing in the electronic media. Others have been developing treatments for this disease, rapid diagnostics, and trying to understand its basic biology. That work continues and it’s very exciting.

I am proud of the role that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT has played in enabling colleges and universities throughout New England to operate safely throughout the pandemic. They very quickly created testing capacity, which has proven to be extremely efficient and effective, and relatively affordable for all of us. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done without the assistance of the Broad.

Recently, I spoke to a group of the University’s most loyal donors via Zoom. As I reflected on the role our faculty have played in making vaccines possible, I said, “If you ever wondered why you support this work, the answer is you are literally helping to save humanity as we speak.”

GAZETTE: So much has changed with students and faculty restricted from campus in the past year. In terms of the curriculum, how do you think the University has adapted to online teaching and learning?

BACOW: I am proud of how our students, faculty, and staff have rolled with the punches and pivoted to online education and dealing with the pandemic. Faculty have been extremely creative in figuring out how to teach certain subjects remotely. For example, we have faculty teaching laboratory subjects who are, in some cases, shipping specimens to our students so they can examine them at home. We have students who are literally dissecting fish that have been sent to them together with the necessary instruments. We have design courses in which we have shipped students kits so that they can design and build things at home. Faculty have created virtual laboratories that allow students to do experiments online, experiments that are subject to certain natural laws. In the process, we’ve learned you can do things in a virtual lab that would be dangerous to do in a real lab. For example, in a virtual setting, students can push things to see at what point a certain process becomes exothermic and explodes. You don’t want to try that in a real laboratory. Faculty have taught in the middle of the night so that they can reach students who are on the other side of the planet, across many, many time zones. I’ve been impressed by that. And our staff have moved heaven and earth to ensure that our students and faculty have what they need to continue their teaching, learning, and scholarship.

GAZETTE: Can you outline some of the other ways the University community has been responding to the pandemic?

BACOW: Some students lack the capacity to study from home and can’t get back to campus. Our alumni have helped these students by offering them places to study with good internet access and privacy essential to studying effectively. Our students have been marvelous in respecting the necessary restrictions we’ve had to place on them — mask wearing, social distancing, limiting communal gatherings. And I’ve been impressed by how our community has gone out of its way to help other communities. The Ed School has created curriculum for both teachers and parents to help them with remote instruction of young kids who are working from home. Our students have helped out by offering to tutor K‒12 students remotely. Everyone has struggled to make remote learning for kids work. Our students have really pitched in to help out.

Early in the pandemic the University partnered with the city of Cambridge to make facilities available to first responders. We also supported efforts to house the homeless and feed the hungry. Students, faculty, and staff have worked in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and the University has contributed resources to support these efforts.

Every member of the Harvard community has pulled together to ensure we can continue to make progress even in the most difficult circumstances.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things. It has not been all sweetness and light. As a nation, we have lost over 530,000 people to this disease. Members of our own community have suffered incalculable loss — parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and friends. We have had to bury loved ones without the benefit of rituals that help people cope with their grief. We have all had to cope with isolation and the mental toll that it brings. Parents of school-age children have had to supervise at-home schooling while simultaneously trying to work from home. People have really struggled, and it’s been really, really hard. But in reading histories of Harvard, I’ve come to appreciate that every generation finds itself challenged in one way or another. This is our challenge, and I think we are meeting it.

GAZETTE: You have pointed to the two pandemics facing the nation: COVID-19, and racism. How is Harvard is involved in supporting racial justice?

BACOW: We need to look at and tackle racism from every dimension and in every way possible. We need to address diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Harvard as an institution. We have made progress as a community, but there is much to be done, and the appointment of Sherri Charleston as the University’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer is a vital step toward the inclusive excellence that we aspire to achieve as an institution. We need to continue to defend the importance of race as a factor among many in our admissions processes against a group that would seek to divide us and turn back long-established legal precedent. And we need to forcefully reject in our words and deeds the growth of racism — white supremacy, anti-Asian hate crime and violence, anti-Semitism, and hatred in every form. As a community and as a nation, we need to fight this pandemic with urgency.

In our teaching and research we can take steps, too. The pandemic has really laid bare inequities that exist in so many dimensions throughout our society. Every one of our Schools is focusing on these issues. For example, faculty at the Ed School are looking at issues of inequality in access to education. At the Law School, faculty are focused on the question of access to justice and inequality that serves to perpetuate racial injustice. The Medical School and the School of Public Health are focused, especially right now, on how we have institutionalized, sadly, racial inequality in the provision of health care. For example, one of things that is striking when you line up to get your vaccine, assuming you’re getting it in a public place as we did, is how few people of color are being served. So we need to ask hard questions about what gives rise to these conditions and how we can address them? Several years ago, back when she was dean of social sciences, Claudine Gay created the Inequality in America Initiative within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to study inequality, why it persists, and what we can do about it. Again, virtually every School at Harvard is focusing our teaching and scholarship in ways that will help us as a society address these difficult questions.

GAZETTE: Can you offer any updates or information on what the campus will look like this fall?

BACOW: All of us hope that by fall we will have returned to some semblance of normality but we’re also planning for contingencies. If this virus has taught us anything, it is that we need to be flexible, and adaptable.

GAZETTE: Along those same lines, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of work for so many. Do you have a sense of what work will look like at Harvard going forward? 

BACOW: I think we’ve learned that people can work far more effectively from remote locations than we ever might have imagined. I have not set foot in Mass Hall since March 13, except for five minutes to reclaim a notebook that I left there shortly after I departed. If you had told me that I could do my job from my study here at Elmwood for a year without seeing the deans and VPs, the faculty, students, staff, alumni, donors, or the governing boards in person, I would have said, “No way.” But now we’ve all learned that we can accomplish a lot remotely without having to travel nearly as much as we did previously. I think that when the day comes that this pandemic is in the rearview mirror, we will be looking at how we can provide more flexibility in how people work.

GAZETTE: Harvard’s efforts to help advance lifesaving research extends well beyond the coronavirus. Its public-private partnership with MIT that is focused on developing gene-based therapies recently signed a 10-year lease for a 40,000-square-foot facility in Watertown. Can you say more about this collaboration and if you anticipate entering into similar partnerships in future?

BACOW: You’re referring to the Center for Advanced Biological Innovation and Manufacturing, or CABIM. CABIM is a partnership with a number of our neighboring universities, our affiliated teaching hospitals, as well as industry to develop and manufacture cell lines that can be used to develop new treatments for various diseases. Provost Alan Garber worked together with colleagues at other institutions to put together this consortium. The project grew out of a years-long strategic planning process that involved state officials and will greatly add to the research infrastructure that is so essential to maintain the commonwealth’s lead in the life sciences.

The pandemic has actually helped to foster new opportunities for collaboration across traditional institutional boundaries. Early on, we formed the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness led by George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School. MassCPR, as we call it, supports research on vaccines, rapid diagnostics, new therapies, and the basic biology and epidemiology of COVID-19. It engages the Medical School, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the [Harvard John A.] Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences [SEAS], all our affiliated teaching hospitals, the Broad Institute, the Ragon Institute, MIT, Tufts University, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, pharmaceutical companies, as well as the local biotech community. We have learned how to collaborate in ways that I believe will prove to be durable post-pandemic. Our new cell-manufacturing facility is yet another example of this type of cross-institutional collaboration, which I think is good, not just for each institution, but for the region because it helps to underscore the capacity of the entire life-sciences ecosystem in Massachusetts to work together for mutual benefit.

GAZETTE: What is the current status of the relocation of the School of Engineering and Applied Science to Allston?

 BACOW: The Science and Engineering Center is open. Faculty from the Paulson School have occupied the building. Their laboratories are operating. We are ready for students when we have students back, and we are looking forward to teaching in it. It’s truly a spectacular building, one of the most striking on campus, and I can’t wait for people to come back and experience it in person.

There’s lots going on in Allston right now. The building itself gives us opportunities to collaborate and to create interesting industry partnerships. It’s adjacent to our Enterprise Research Campus — plans for that are also moving forward briskly. This past year we selected our development partner, Tishman Speyer, and they’ve been moving forward with plans for a spectacular new district that will include laboratory and office space, housing, and a hotel and conference center. We hope to attract industries that are knowledge-intensive, that can benefit by being cheek by jowl, if you will, with the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard Business School, and the i-lab complex. Plans are also moving forward for a new building for the American Repertory Theater. So Allston is a real hotbed of creativity — the scientific and engineering creativity that is embraced by the Paulson School; artistic creativity that’s represented both by the American Repertory Theater and the ArtLab; and entrepreneurial creativity that is represented by those companies that will reside within the Enterprise Research Campus, but also the work that’s done in the i-lab and related laboratories.

GAZETTE: Harvard in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies recently announced a new $150 million investment to establish a University-wide Bloomberg Center for Cities. Can you say more about the center and why you feel it’s so important for Harvard to be engaged so directly in helping strengthen city leadership across the country?

BACOW: Mayors play a key role in delivering important services directly to the people — schools, public safety, public health, housing, mass transit — I could go on. Fortunately, most municipal elections are nonpartisan, so mayors have a chance to shape their cities and address problems outside of the hyper-partisan environment that many other branches of government find themselves in. The focus of the Bloomberg Center for Cities is enhancing the capacity of mayors to address these problems. It brings together faculty from the Business School, the Kennedy School, and from throughout the University who have subject-matter expertise in the challenges faced by cities. And it brings them together with other mayors so that they can exchange best practices and learn from each other informed by the best scholarship available on topics relevant to cities.

GAZETTE: One of the most pressing challenges facing cities across the country and around the world is climate change. Can you say more about Harvard Management Company’s commitment to go greenhouse-gas-neutral by 2050?

BACOW: Well, it’s an ambitious commitment on our part because it attempts to address both the supply and the demand, if you will, for fossil fuels. We are the first university endowment to make such a commitment. As the recent report of the Harvard Management Company suggests, it’s not an easy task. It requires gathering lots of data, which right now does not exist. We are working with other large institutional investors to create means by which both companies and investment managers would disclose the carbon footprint of their holdings. There is an old saying that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So if we can succeed in pushing the entire investment industry to do a better job of measuring the carbon intensity of certain investment opportunities, then I think we can do a far better job of decarbonizing our investment portfolio. And if we can do that, we can demonstrate to others that it can be done.

GAZETTE: Can you speak to some of the other efforts to combat climate change that are happening around the University? 

BACOW: In almost every School at Harvard, we have people who are working on climate change. In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, faculty are working with their students on the basic science of climate change. With the combined forces of FAS, the Kennedy School, and the Law School, we probably have the strongest group of scholars anywhere working on public policy for addressing climate change. At the Business School, people are working to integrate concerns over climate into corporate strategy and governance. At SEAS we have faculty who are working on issues of technology and battery design, on adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, on geoengineering. At the Graduate School of Design students and faculty are exploring how we adapt to climate change and plan for it through smart-building design, better land-use planning, and through better utilization of mass transit. In the School of Public Health and the Medical School, students and faculty are focused on the impact of climate change on public health. In the humanities, we have faculty who are wrestling with important ethical and philosophical questions about the responsibilities of current generations to future generations. I don’t know of a School at Harvard that is not involved in some degree with research on issues of climate.

GAZETTE: Another area of focus in Schools across the University is quantum computing. What is happening at Harvard in that particular field?

BACOW: We’ve created the Harvard Quantum Initiative, which focuses on quantum computing, quantum information science, and quantum engineering. We are among the world’s leaders in quantum computing, and Misha Lukin, one of the three directors of the Harvard Quantum Initiative, leads this effort. We are working collaboratively with industry in the quantum space as well. We have had recent conversations with a number of companies on issues ranging from quantum computing to quantum cryptography to quantum networking, all of which may be enabled by the development of these new technologies. This is another area in which we have close and deep collaborations with our colleagues at MIT.

GAZETTE: What is your hope for the Biden administration and its vision for the role of scholarship and science?

BACOW: I think the early signs are quite encouraging. I was pleased to see Eric Lander appointed to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy and that President Biden has made it a Cabinet-level agency. Eric is not only a brilliant scientist, he has a unique capacity to explain very complicated scientific concepts in ways that virtually anybody can understand. To me that signals the administration is serious about grounding policy decisions in good science. Similarly, my former colleague from MIT, Maria Zuber, will serve as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That’s a superb, superb appointment. So, by virtue of the people whom the president is naming to these positions, I think we’re encouraged that this administration will be guided by data and scholarship in formulating policy. We’re also pleased by the early efforts of the administration to address issues related to immigration, to undocumented students, to ensure the free flow of people and ideas to institutions like ours. Time will tell. It’s still early in the process. But I’m looking forward to working with this administration on a variety of issue and initiatives, which I think can help strengthen all of higher education.

GAZETTE: Last year, during the fall semester’s morning prayers, you talked about developing new rituals during the pandemic. Are there any other rituals you have adopted in the past several months?

BACOW: I think the enforced isolation of the pandemic has led many of us to reach out to friends and family in ways that we might not have done previously. Adele and I now have regular Zoom sessions with our college roommates and our extended family. We also have taken advantage of the opportunity to participate in a variety of lectures and seminars that are now ubiquitous online. I suspect that many of those activities will continue when the pandemic is over. We’ve all learned that it’s possible to engage with others without getting on an airplane, without having to get together in person. I suspect many of these activities will continue long after this nightmare is thankfully over.

Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette. To read the original article, please click here.)

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