Bacow May Be Harvard’s New President, But It’s The Entrenched Bureaucracy That Runs The Show

Bacow May Be Harvard’s New President, But It’s The Entrenched Bureaucracy That Runs The Show


This piece was originally published by WGBH News/

Years ago, my law partners and I had a bright and energetic Harvard College-educated lawyer on our staff who was a terror when managing the work of our equally bright and energetic law student clerks. I remember vividly the left-handed compliment this young associate paid to a clerk who had just turned in a research memo on a thorny issue. “You have done an excellent job,” intoned the lawyer. “This could have been done this well only by you.” And then, after a pause, the compliment concluded: “Or somebody very much like you.”

The Harvard Corporation’s conspicuous and dramatic announcement that it has selected perennial academic administrator Lawrence S. Bacow as Harvard’s 29th President to succeed the retiring Drew Gilpin Faust, comes as no shock, nor even mild surprise. It’s not that I had a crystal ball. Rather, the selection of Bacow, or somebody very much like him, was virtually predictable.

Bacow, who has held a long list of top administrative posts in elite higher education institutions, is without doubt qualified for what the Harvard (or any other elite college) presidency has become: a seat from which he can issue high pronouncements on the educational, political and moral issues of the day; influence policies throughout Massachusetts and the nation (even the world); and, most importantly, raise money for Harvard, all without unduly shaking up the entrenched power structure.

The one thing that Bacow almost certainly will not be able to do, as he will doubtless learn soon after he assumes office on July 1st, is effect any fundamental changes in the university. It’s not that he is not smart, accomplished and talented – he is all of these. Rather, the obstacle he will face, and that he will almost certainly accept as reality, is that Harvard, just like almost every other liberal arts college and university in the country, is now run by —  and to a disturbing extent for — the benefit of, its growing army of administrators. Harvard’s bureaucrats outnumber its teachers, although the precise numbers are hard to come by, given the proclivity of administrators to assume a vast array of titles that make it difficult to discern whether they teach or administer.

At Harvard, the shift from governance by a centuries-long but now obsolete division of powers between the Arts and Science Faculty and the Corporation has been gradual but certain. The mid-level student-life administrators have held the reins for many years now. In my 1998 co-authored book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, I peg the shift in power to the mid-1980s, when for the first time in American history substantial numbers of students in racial, religious and sexual minority groups started to arrive. Fearful that such diverse students would all but kill one another without the benign supervision of student-life administrators, colleges began to ramp up their staffs. Soon every dean of student life had several deputy deans, and each deputy had assistant deans.

Given the simultaneous proliferation of governmental requirements in exchange for growing piles of federal money (nearly all of which came with strings attached), college and university legal staffs likewise grew. And don’t forget the increasing corporatization of American higher education: Harvard, for example, has a large number of lawyers in its Office of the General Counsel who do nothing but enforce the university’s property interest in the value of its “brand”. Don’t try to sell a t-shirt with the name “Harvard” on it without giving the university its cut.

Consider this revelatory incident. In 2012, there arose a cheating scandal. When the matter was leaked and appeared in the student paper and the Boston Globe, the administration authorized a secret “leak investigation” into the supposedly confidential Harvard email accounts of a group of “resident tutors,” graduate students who were considered, in part, to be faculty members because of their teaching duties. When the Faculty learned of this intrusion, all hell exploded, resulting in Professor Evelyn Hammonds’ resignation as Dean of Harvard College. Yet Harvard’s Vice-President and General Counsel, Robert Iuliano, along with another dean, Michael Smith, who had joined with Hammonds and Iuliano in authorizing the search, have survived in their positions to this day.

Indeed, even the Harvard Corporation has found its powers radically diminished in recent years. In 2010, Senior Fellow William Lee, a Boston intellectual property lawyer and Harvard grad, joined his fellow Corporation members in radically diminishing their own powers. They enlarged the size of the Corporation from seven (which had remained constant since 1650) to 13 members and, most importantly, substituted life terms with a limit of two, six-year terms. This single reform, enacted in secret without any public debate within the university, passed real control of the university from the President and Fellows (the formal title of the governing Corporation) to the mid-level administrators. The latter, after all, will have been at Harvard long before Bacow takes office, and will be there after he leaves. (Given his age of 66, he likely will not serve even as long as Faust did, 11 years. Presidents before Faust took office at much younger ages, which likewise tells us something about the diminishing power and influence of modern-day Harvard presidents.)

And so Bacow arrives at Harvard at a time when the permanent bureaucracy assumes even more power than it has had to date. The only significant mark that he is likely to leave, other than the kinds of highly public window dressing innovations that excite the Harvard Press Office and the fundraising staff, will be an enhanced endowment. At Harvard these days, as the French are wont to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Editing and research assistance provided by Nathan McGuire. 

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