Bacow and David Rubenstein Discuss the Value of ‘Incremental Change’ at IOP


University President Lawrence S. Bacow discussed the value of incremental change to address complex issues in a virtual forum at the Institute of Politics Monday.

In a talk on the “Leadership Playbook,” Bacow said that advocates calling for change often lack an understanding of the limitations leaders face.

“I always say it's very easy to be an advocate if you never have to take responsibility for a decision,” he said. “We've all been in positions where we've had people shouting at us, saying 'just do this, just do this,' never understanding the constraints under which leaders operate, never understanding how it's necessary to build sustainable coalitions to bring about meaningful change.”

Bacow — who spoke alongside Havard Corporation Fellow David M. Rubenstein — said leaders must take into account a range of perspectives, not just those espoused by vocal advocates.


“There's a time and a place for advocacy, but also leadership sometimes involves helping people to understand that problems are sometimes more complicated than they may be perceived by those who don't have responsibility for dealing with a broad swath of society or an organization, and who only are responsible to those who think like them,” he said.

This is not the first time Bacow has addressed the role of activism on a college campus.

In April 2019, at another talk at the Institute of Politics, Bacow clashed with divestment activists who interrupted the event to protest the University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels and companies tied to the prison industry.

In a terse address to protestors, Bacow told them that he responds to “reason” not “demands” — a sentiment he expressed to prison divestment organizers earlier that year.

“You’re not being helpful to your cause and I suspect you’re also not gaining many friends or many allies in the audience by virtue in the way in which you choose to express your point of view,” he said at the time.

In the conversation on Monday, Rubenstein also said he thinks “incremental change” is the best strategy to enact desired reforms.

“The reason that people make change in an incremental way is that, historically, it’s easier to get things done if it’s incremental,” he said. “Most humans don't like change. Most people like what they have and what they're doing, and so getting them to change is not that easy. So I think it's going to be harder and harder to make revolutionary changes.”

In response, Wendy R. Sherman — the director of the Center for Public Leadership who moderated the discussion — asked Rubenstein how leaders can “break through that extraordinary resistance” and prevent stagnation.

“From time to time, extraordinary events come along,” he said, naming Sept. 11, 2001 and the Civil War as examples.

“You need extraordinary people who are prepared to take advantage of this extraordinary situation and then lead with great revolutionary changes, as Lincoln did with the Emancipation Proclamation,” Rubenstein explained. “That's when you have to make big changes, when the country is more willing to listen to something because they're afraid.”

Bacow noted that Abraham Lincoln, too, was criticized by abolitionists for not acting on the issue of slavery sooner.

“But Lincoln recognized that he needed to bring people along and to create a coalition which could survive and to prepare the country for change,” Bacow said.

He agreed with Rubenstein that gradual change is the norm, while “dramatic change” is often only prompted by a specific historical moment.

“Incrementalism will always be with us,” Bacow said. “That's not to say that there will not be times in history in which we will see more dramatic change that occurs, but that’s usually because of disequilibrium, which has been often imposed by some exogenous shock to the system.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.