Harvard Names Former Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow To Lead University

Harvard University on Sunday named as its new president Lawrence S. Bacow, a former president at Tufts University and previous chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Bacow takes the top spot at one of the world’s most prestigious universities at a time when traditional higher education is under fire from some corners as too politically liberal and not practical enough. Schools like Harvard, historically intellectual bastions for the elite, also have been under pressure to diversify.

Even those efforts have had challenges. Harvard is facing a probe by the Department of Justice about the use of race in its admission policies, with some Asian-American applicants alleging the school’s efforts at diversification through affirmative action are discriminatory.

Dr. Bacow, who is 66 years old, will take the helm in July from Drew Gilpin Faust, who held the top spot at Harvard for 11 years and announced in June her intention to step down this summer. She was Harvard’s first woman president.

Dr. Bacow, currently the Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership, spent 10 years as president of Tufts and another 24 as an environmental-science professor, faculty chair and chancellor at MIT.

From 2011 to 2014, he was President-in-Residence in the Higher Education Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Havard’s main governing board, the Harvard Corporation, voted Sunday afternoonto approve Dr. Bacow’s appointment.

Dr. Bacow’s academic focus in environmental policy has been on dispute resolution. In recent years, he has targeted issues affecting higher education, including schools’ civic responsibilities and expanding access for poor students.

Coming up through academia, Dr. Bacow is a relatively traditional choice for the top job at Harvard. Some other schools in recent years have begun to look to corporate-executive teams and government offices for candidates, highlighting the fact that college presidents have roles similar to those of CEOs, and with a need for significant political connections. Dr. Bacow’s work at Tufts and Harvard has focused in part on education-leadership issues.

“This is a pivotal moment for higher education—one full of extraordinary possibilities to pursue knowledge, enhance education, and serve society, but also a time when the singular value of higher education and university research has too often been challenged and called into doubt,” William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of the school’s presidential search committee, said in a statement. “Such a time calls for skillful leadership, strategic thinking, and disciplined execution. Larry will provide just that.”

Dr. Bacow, in a statement said he is “humbled and honored” by the opportunity, and spoke of the importance of continuing to focus on Harvard’s pursuit of truth, commitment to excellence and opportunity. “Those of us privileged to lead this university are invested with a precious trust. I promise to do everything within my power to prove worthy of it,” he said.

Dr. Bacow also will have to grapple with controversy over recent Harvard policies that some have criticized as being too politically correct, at the cost of tradition. For example, the school in December finalized its plan to ban single-gender social clubs, known as final clubs at Harvard, though the groups have the option of going co-ed.

“Political correctness is the antithesis of the kind of intellectual freedom that one needs to have a successful liberal arts education, and at Harvard it is very bad,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge, Mass., attorney who is representing one of the clubs in a potential legal challenge to the policy.

Dr. Bacow inherits a university system with significant financial resources and ambitious expansion plans. However, the school has made some investment missteps in recent years that led to an overhaul in the office that oversees Harvard’s now $37.1 billion endowment.

Under Dr. Faust, Harvard completed a $6.5 billion capital campaign, expanded financial aid for undergraduate students and expanded its footprint around Boston. The school also tried to rein in its reputation as elitist by cracking down on single-gender social organizations, and has grappled with its historic ties to slavery.

Dr. Bacow received his undergraduate degree from MIT, and a law degree, master’s and Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard. He serves on the school’s Corporation governing board.

—Jim Carlton contributed to this article.

Write to Melissa Korn at melissa.korn@wsj.com

Appeared in the February 12, 2018, print edition as ‘Former Tufts President to Lead Harvard.’

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