Lawrence S. Bacow announced Wednesday that he would step down as president of Harvard in June 2023 following a tenure of five years, a period in which he not only fought a coronavirus infection himself but also steered the university through the pandemic as well as an attack on its admissions policies, one that faces a Supreme Court test later this year.
A lifelong academic, Bacow, 70, first arrived at Harvard as a graduate student in 1972, ultimately obtaining three separate Harvard degrees. Before assuming his current job at Harvard, he had served as a professor and chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then as president of Tufts University.
While his five-year tenure as Harvard president is brief by comparison to that of his predecessor, Drew Gilpin Faust, who served 12 years, Bacow said in a statement issued Wednesday that it felt like time to leave.
“There is never a good time to leave a job like this, but now seems right to me,” he wrote in a message to the Harvard community. “We have worked together to sustain Harvard through change and through storm, and collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways.”
Harvard’s announcement that Bacow would be departing follows similar announcements recently by several high-profile college presidents.
Among them, Lee Bollinger, who has served as president at Columbia University for 21 years, said in April that he will leave his post at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year; Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, a surgeon who has served at Howard University since 2013, said in April that he will leave in 2024; and Andrew Hamilton, the president of New York University, said he will step down next year in his eighth year on the job.
Bacow, who grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the son of immigrants who escaped Nazi persecution, said he planned to spend more time with his children and grandchildren. A Harvard spokesman said Bacow was not granting interviews Wednesday.
Both Bacow and his wife, Adele F. Bacow, an urban planning consultant, announced in March 2020 that they had contracted COVID. At the time, Lawrence Bacow told The Harvard Gazette that he was susceptible to infection because of a previously diagnosed autoimmune disorder, which he did not identify.
Something of a dark horse candidate for the presidency when his selection was announced in 2018, Bacow was a member of the Harvard Corp., the Hauser leader in residence at Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership and on the committee to select a successor to Faust.
The committee had reviewed 700 candidates before settling on one of its own members, Bacow himself.
Bacow was credited with lobbying Congress for more lenient visa policies for international students during the pandemic, for announcing a university-wide climate change initiative and for investigating the university’s ties to slavery, recently announcing an endowed Legacy of Slavery Fund, allowing scholars and students to bring Harvard’s connections to slavery to light for generations to come.
The university has committed $100 million to the effort, with some of the money earmarked to trace descendants of enslaved people at Harvard and also to create exchange programs between students and faculty members at Harvard with those at historically Black colleges and universities.
Bacow’s tenure at Harvard has not been without controversy.
Last year, Cornel West, considered one of the country’s most prominent Black philosophers and progressive activists, announced he had resigned from Harvard Divinity School as a result of a tenure dispute. At the time, West attacked Harvard, calling it an institution in “decline and decay.” Bacow, who had declined to comment on the specifics of the case citing the confidentiality of the process, nevertheless defended the university’s handling of it.
In another highly publicized controversy, three female graduate students filed a lawsuit against Harvard this year, accusing the university of ignoring allegations that John Comaroff, a professor of African and African American studies and anthropology, had sexually harassed students.
By the time the case was filed, Comaroff, who denied the allegations, had been placed on leave after the university found he engaged in inappropriate verbal conduct — but he was found not responsible for unwanted sexual contact.
Perhaps Harvard’s biggest challenge, however, has involved a lawsuit filed by the organization Students for Fair Admissions charging that the university’s race-conscious admissions system had discriminated against Asian American applicants.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case this fall. Bacow said the challenge to Harvard’s admissions process “puts at risk 40 years of legal precedent granting colleges and universities the freedom and flexibility to create diverse campus communities.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.