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The Practicality of a ‘Pracademic’

Lawrence S. Bacow, recently announced as Harvard’s 29th University President, is no conventional academic. During his long career in the field of American higher education, he has held a mixture of academic and administrative roles. He served on the faculty of MIT for more than two decades, before moving to administrative positions at MIT as chair of the faculty and then chancellor. In 2001, he left those roles to become the president of Tufts University, where he served until 2011. Given this lengthy resume, Bacow has been described as a practical academic—a “pracademic”—who has built a career balancing his interests in administration and research.

Compared with his two immediate predecessors—University President Drew G. Faust and Lawrence H. Summers—Bacow has accrued more administrative experience before taking Harvard’s helm. Alternatively, he has published a smaller body of published research, compared to Faust, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Summers, who was a John Bates Clark medalist. This contrast in professional focus—Bacow has been removed from academia for over twenty years—could raise questions about his preparedness to take over as University president.

While academic attributes are crucial, we believe that it is equally if not more important for a University president to have prior administrative experience. While the leader of any university must be familiar with the world of academia, they must also have substantial and tested experience in administration. As Bacow fulfills both of these requirements, we believe that his experiences make him an ideal candidate to lead Harvard through a time of rigorous challenges and change.

As Harvard struggles with a lagging endowment alongside internal controversies such as sanctions on unrecognized single-gender social organizations, we believe that the president must be equipped to steer Harvard through the uncertain years ahead. The current faculty and administration undoubtedly possess the skills needed to overcome the University’s challenges, and much of that potential lies within Harvard’s academic productivity. To tap into these resources, we agree that Bacow must understand the inner workings of academia. His 24 years on MIT’s faculty are more than enough to establish this familiarity, which is unlikely to be forgotten by any length of hiatus.

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Harvard’s presidency also entails a number of non-academic roles, from lobbyist to fundraiser to advocate for higher education. In all of these positions, a leader of the University must have experience in managing and representing schools at the highest level. In addition to his administrative experience at MIT, Bacow’s experience as the president of Tufts gives him the type of practical experience that no similar role could. In that position, he showed not only that he could balance the multifarious tasks at the helm of a major institution, but that he could do so while pushing that institution forward. Bacow exceeded all expectations at Tufts, heading a revolution for their financial aid and endowment.

Given this track record, and during these crucial moments in Harvard’s history, we require a practical administrator more than an accomplished academic. We believe that Bacow’s “pracademic” skills will allow him not only to succeed, but also to cut new paths in higher education.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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