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‘Somewhere in the Middle’: Students React to Bacow’s Decision to Step Down with Shock, Apathy

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Ibta S. Chowdhury ’25 met the news of Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s decision to step down next June largely with indifference.

“It’s kind of hard to make that connection to an administration that does not show itself as much or does not make itself seem as human,” Chowdhury said.

Bacow announced his departure after just five years in office in a Wednesday email to Harvard affiliates. During his tenure, Bacow oversaw the University’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ramifications of Trump’s presidency on higher education. Students across the University reacted to the news of Bacow’s exit with a mixture of shock, ambivalence, and reflection.

Deven Hurt ’18, who now attends Harvard Law School, said Bacow’s term felt “quick” in comparison to his predecessor, Drew G. Faust.

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“I was definitely surprised. I also did not have, initially, a great feel for how long University presidents traditionally served,” Hurt said. “When I was originally a student at the College, Drew Faust eventually finished her tenure after 11 years.”

Still, Hurt said he was ultimately “very happy” with Bacow’s presidency, citing his “phenomenal” handling of the pandemic.

Other students praised Bacow’s Covid-19 response, which included the decision to evacuate campus as the health crisis escalated — making Harvard one of the first schools to do so. The following year, the University opted for remote learning on a low-density campus.

“He had a really hard job dealing with Covid,” Soren E. Choi ’24 said. “I think there’s some pent-up frustration against him because of factors he couldn’t control, such as the pandemic.”

Choi said he believed Bacow “really cared about the students overall,” despite facing a challenging term shaped by the virus.

Nicholas R. Gjerde, a student in the Extension School, lauded Harvard and MIT’s decision to sue the Trump administration over a policy that restricted international students from residing in the United States if they were only taking online classes.

“I thought that was a really strong message,” Gjerde said.

During Bacow’s tenure, Harvard graduate students went on strike twice during contract negotiations with the University.

Denish K. Jaswal, an executive board member of Harvard's graduate student union, said while she initially was indifferent toward Bacow, she grew dismayed by the president’s “silence” toward her union’s demands.

“He literally wrote a dissertation about unions and still turned a blind eye towards any of the things that we were working on,” Jaswal said.

Victoria “Vicki” DiLorenzo, a student at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former member of the HGSU’s bargaining committee, said she hoped the next administration would be “more supportive” of the union.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on Bacow’s interactions with the union.

At the College, many students reacted to the news of Bacow’s departure with apathy.

Brammy Rajakumar ’23 said she was surprised that Bacow decided to step down “in the middle of a pandemic” but otherwise felt “fairly neutral” about the news.

“People were just making jokes about it and just not being very interested,” said Rajakumar, a former Crimson editor. “There’s just so many other roles in the University that are just as equally important and serve students more directly.”

Bacow’s departure sparked a barrage of memes on Sidechat, a social media platform which allows Harvard students to anonymously create posts about Harvard life.

“larry bacowed out,” one anonymous student punned.

“Larry’s in his UC era,” another poster wrote, referencing the recent resignation of former Undergraduate Council President Michael Y. Cheng ’22.

Henry S. Bae ’25 said though the announcement was unexpected, he believes the general sentiment surrounding Bacow’s presidency was “somewhere in the middle.”

Hurt said he is “looking forward” to following Harvard’s search for Bacow’s successor and hopes the new president is responsive to student needs.

Still, DiLorenzo said she does not expect radical change under new leadership.

“I certainly hope that the next person is a person of color, a woman, or both,” DiLorenzo said. “But I don’t know that I am expecting something particularly transformative, just given the structures that they’re going to operate under.”

Correction: June 9, 2022

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Harvard Kennedy School student Victoria “Vicki” DiLorenzo is a member of the Harvard graduate student union’s bargaining committee. In fact, she formerly served on the committee.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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