A Conversation with
Lawrence S. Bacow
Fleet Bacow: First Lady of Tufts
It is early morning in late July,
and the future president of Tufts University is already behind the
desk of his temporary office at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
It is not unusual to find Lawrence S. Bacow crisp and articulate
at 7:30 a.m.; he frequently rises by 5:00 a.m. for a four-mile run.
Nor is it surprising that the 50-year-old former
chancellor of MIT has spent the past several weeks doing his homework.
He knows that the journey from MIT to Tufts is measured in far more
than a few stops on the Red Line. It's measured in building new
relationships. It's visiting three Massachusetts campuses to learn
about the past and the potential of seven schools. It's about identifying
what priorities must rise to the top.
For the following interview, Editor-in-Chief Laura
Ferguson caught up with Bacow and found him candid and personable
on a wide range of subjects. From his background in economics, teaching
and administration, to his impressions of Tufts and his visions
for the future, he is clear and energized. And he is ready to go
You grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the son of Russian-German
Jewish immigrants. Did your parents inform your interests or influence
any of your paths?
My parents were a profound influence on me. My father is a lawyer,
so it is not surprising that I studied law. He also is a person
of great honesty and integrity. I would like to think that he passed
these traits on to me as well. My mother came to this country after
World War II. She was the only member of her family to survive the
war. Although she was a personal witness to one of history's darkest
hours, she was always a great optimist. When I was a kid, and my
sister or I would worry about school or the pressure of an upcoming
exam, our mother would always say to us, "What is the worst that
can happen? Can you live with that? Then why worry?" She also had
an extraordinary ability to relate to virtually all kinds of people.
Adele [Bacow's wife] sometimes says that I have my father's analytic
view of the world tempered by my mother's compassion and humanity.
I hope she is right.
What do you recall from your early school years?
As a kid I was always interested in science and math. I entered
science fairs and was an avid ham radio operator, a hobby I picked
up from my father. I used to love to tinker with radios and chemistry
sets, so I guess it is not a surprise that I wound up going to MIT.
In high school I spent a lot of time on the debate team and started
sailing competitively. I also developed a great interest in how
the economy worked. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, a factory town
dominated by three GM assembly plants. When the UAW went out on
strike, everybody in town was affected dramatically. So I guess
it was natural that I developed an interest in the economy.
And you majored in economics at MIT.
I came to MIT pretty certain I wasn't going to be a scientist or
an engineer. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. What I discovered
was that I enjoyed economics more than law. Other than working for
a law firm the summer between my second and third year of law school,
I never practiced law. I found economics absolutely fascinating.
One could apply analytic techniques to make a real difference.
After graduating from MIT in 1972, you went on to the Kennedy
School of Government, Harvard Law School, and then went back and
picked up a PhD from the Kennedy School. Is there a connecting thread
through your different educational experiences?
Yes, the serendipity of life. There's an important lesson here for
students--the best form of career advice I can offer is to recognize
opportunity when it walks up and hits you in the face. I went to
MIT intending to go to law school; I realized after my junior year
I could graduate a year early and save a year's worth of tuition.
But it was too late to apply to law school. One of my professors,
Bob Solow (noted MIT economist and Nobel Prize winner), knew I was
interested in policy more than theory, so he encouraged me to go
to a new program at Harvard in public policy, which I did. After
my first year at the Kennedy School, I applied to law school and
got accepted for the next fall. I met Adele my first day of law
school; my roommate was going out with her roommate, and they introduced
us. After we got married, Adele enrolled in a two-year city-planning
program at MIT. She was scheduled to graduate a year after I was.
So I needed something to do for a year before we moved to Washington,
DC, to both work for the federal government--or at least that was
what we thought we were going to do. I had really enjoyed my work
at the Kennedy School, so I decided to try to complete a PhD in
Public Policy while Adele was finishing up at MIT. As I was finishing
my dissertation, I learned about a two-year non-tenure-track teaching
job at MIT. I went back to Bob Solow for advice. He said, "The government
will be there when you're ready. Teach for a couple of years. It
will always look good on your resume." And I stayed for 24 years.
So, you have to be prepared for opportunity.
And other opportunities presented themselves at MIT, too.
Seven years ago, while on sabbatical in Amsterdam, I received a
call asking if I would serve as chairman of the MIT Faculty upon
my return. And three years ago, Chuck Vest, MIT's president, asked
me to join the senior administration as chancellor. But none of
these steps were planned. I feel like I've had a charmed life. I've
always managed to find a set of interesting problems and to stay
engaged. That's true for most of us who are scholars; there is a
set of puzzles. We think about them our whole lives. We keep discovering
the same problem in different guises.
One of your inquiries was about environmental dispute resolution,
and your book on this subject, published in 1985, was very well
received, winning the Center for Public Resources Legal Scholarship
Award. Why was it outstanding?
It was one of the first books on alternative dispute resolution
as applied to environmental problems, which has since become a popular
field. Unfortunately--revealing my biases in that one word--litigation
is the traditional means for resolving environmental disputes in
the United States. My book, co-authored with my colleague Mike Wheeler,
explored how one might create incentives for parties to resolve
their differences through bargaining and negotiation. Litigation
is an incredibly expensive process. It's highly formalized and while
well-suited to addressing some problems, it is ill-suited to others,
especially complex environmental problems.
You've taken on several leadership roles on environmental issues,
including at MIT's Center for Environmental Initiatives and the
Consortium on Global Environmental Challenges. Where do you see
progress in the environmental records and what remains our biggest
I think we have made great progress in the U.S. in improving both
air and water quality. By most measures, air and water are substantially
cleaner today than they were 30 years ago. One of the great triumphs
of environmental regulation, for example, has been the dramatic
reduction in airborne lead, stemming largely from the deleading
of gasoline. This has great consequences for public health. We still
have a long way to go, however, in addressing other environmental
problems. Global climate change is easily our greatest challenge.
Poverty also remains the world's greatest environmental problem.
You played a major role in the development of the Cambridge-MIT
Institute, an enterprise that includes student and faculty exchanges,
integrated research, and the creation of a national competitiveness
network in Britain. You were quoted at the time of the launch in
1999 that the partnership was "potentially historic" and that it
"could create a new model for the global research university in
the 21st century." Could you expand on the influence of globalization?
Globalization has affected virtually every aspect of our economy,
with the possible exception of higher education, where it is only
just starting. If you look at strategic alliances that exist between
companies, it's clear that the shrinking world is giving people
opportunities to work together in new ways. New communications technologies
are bringing us all closer together culturally. I took my first
sabbatical abroad in 1981. Adele and I spent six months in Jerusalem.
We would exchange letters with friends and it would take at least
two weeks to complete a cycle. We always asked visitors to bring
us a New York Times. Today, life is totally different. You
go to Israel or anywhere else in the world and CNN is available.
Email connects you to virtually everyone. With my laptop I can read
the Boston Globe and the New York Times online wherever
I go. So we have these new opportunities to work with colleagues.
The venture with the University of Cambridge and MIT was an experiment
in defining what the global research university might look like.
The Cambridge-MIT Institute gives students, faculty and staff at
the two universities unparalleled opportunities to collaborate.
And on a scale never done before.
And with incremental resources that were made available to support
it. Universities enter into collaboration agreements all the time.
Often they are just pieces of paper that express an interest among
faculty to work together. What differentiates this partnership is
that the government committed substantial resources to build bridges
between the two institutions.
It's a lot of work, some might argue. Is it really worth it?
Yes, it's a lot of work, but both universities will be made stronger.
We have to ask the question: What makes a great learning environment?
In part, it's diversity. This partnership represents diversity in
yet another dimension. MIT and Cambridge bring complementary strengths
to different disciplines. That's why Tufts students study abroad--to
expose them to different ways of thinking, learning and different
cultures. It's wonderful when students have that opportunity, but
not every student can do it. So the question becomes, can we bring
those opportunities to students through technology?
I was struck by the international flavor of your academic career;
you've lectured and taught in a number of places: the Netherlands,
Chile, Italy, Germany, among other countries. You must enjoy travel.
We've developed some wonderful friendships with colleagues abroad.
One of the most important things about traveling is that you learn
a lot about your own country when you live in another. For example,
we take the geographic mobility of our labor force for granted in
the U.S. This came home to me while having lunch with colleagues
in Amsterdam shortly after the Los Angeles earthquake. I noted that
since we were still in recession in New England, "every unemployed
carpenter and bricklayer in New England is throwing his/her tools
in their truck today and heading for California to rebuild and find
work." And their response was that a Dutch carpenter would no more
think of moving to Italy to rebuild after an earthquake than they
would think of going to the moon. We take for granted labor-force
mobility. Spending time in England has also helped me to appreciate
the degree to which we accept social mobility in the U.S.
So you see how America is "the land of opportunity."
Like John DiBiaggio, both of my parents were immigrants. Look at
what can happen in one generation--it is really extraordinary. We
have to make sure that everyone has similar opportunities.
At MIT you championed an improved residential community for
the students. Now that you look back on that process, what did you
discover about working within a university to change something so
fundamental as how students live together?
Universities are complex organisms and they consist of a lot of
people who have an investment in their future. Students, faculty,
alumni, parents, staff, the neighboring community, all have an interest
in the future evolution of the University. If you want to change
an institution, you have to engage everyone. It's important to sound
people out and to recognize that nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.
Good ideas can come from a lot of different sources. That's the
principal lesson I learned.
What would be three factors that describe a good student community?
I think the first one would be diversity. Good learning environments
are diverse in multiple dimensions, including intellectual, political,
ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, religious, gender and geographic
diversity. Students learn a lot from each other. The more different
they are, the more opportunities they have to learn. The second
factor would be engagement. In a great learning community students
are engaged in what they do and are passionate about their interests.
Hopefully, students are engaged by their studies. But passions can
run in multiple dimensions: students can be engaged on the playing
fields; they can be engaged in the arts; they can be engaged in
politics; they can be engaged in public service. The key is engagement.
The third factor that makes a great student community is the opportunity
for students and faculty to come together outside the classroom.
I think the single best predictor of whether or not a student has
a great experience at college is whether they know a few faculty
members really well. By that I mean well enough that they are likely
to stay in touch with them the rest of their lives.
That's an emotional connection as well as an intellectual one.
Absolutely. It's a sense that there is somebody there who is deeply
engaged in his or her future. Over time the relationship ceases
to be one between student and faculty member, but rather peer to
peer. Now, on some level, faculty are like parents; our students
are always our students as our children are always our children.
The difference is that for faculty our students do become our peers,
our colleagues. There is no greater sense of pride for a faculty
member than when they see one of their students rise to prominence
in their chosen profession.
I believe you had the benefit of an important mentorship.
It happened first semester of my sophomore year. I was in an intermediate
macroeconomics course with Bob Solow, one of MIT's most distinguished
faculty members. I timidly went up to him at the end of a class
to ask a question about a footnote in a reading, and he suggested
I come back to his office to talk to him about it. We had an interesting
conversation, and he suggested that if I wanted to learn more about
the topic, I should do a reading course with him. So the next semester
I spent about an hour every other week with him. It was an experience
that changed my life. I would hope that every Tufts student at some
point would develop a similarly close relationship with a faculty
It's a credit to Professor Solow that he thought of a new way
to relate to you outside the classroom.
We were exploring an emerging topic in economics so it was an opportunity
for mutual learning. One of the great opportunities that undergraduates
have is to collaborate with faculty on research. The traditional
student-faculty relationship is one of scholar to student. But when
students and faculty work together on research it is a process of
mutual learning and discovery. It is an extraordinary experience
for students in part because it's exciting to be taken seriously.
There are a variety of ways this can happen: in a seminar, a reading
course, a tutorial, in writing a senior thesis, in a laboratory,
in fieldwork or in independent research. I think most of us can
identify one or two teachers who have had a profound influence on
our lives. Those are magical moments, and I think we need to create
an environment where they happen more frequently.
When you look back, do any career highlights come to mind?
Oh, sure. Walking in and teaching my first class.
Were you terrified?
Absolutely. I'm still a bit scared at the start of every term. A
little anxiety is a good thing, though. But I love teaching. Having
my first book published was exciting. Leading the MIT faculty into
commencement as the chair of the faculty. Completing negotiations
for the creation of the Cambridge-MIT Institute was a great thrill.
Being named the 12th president of Tufts is an extraordinary honor.
It's a good number.
Better than 13!
Some observers might say leaving MIT and coming to Tufts after
rising through the ranks: that's a huge risk. Are you sure you want
to do that? How did you see it?
It wasn't an easy decision. I must say I never thought I would leave
MIT. My ties run deep, not just my own. Adele and I both have degrees
from MIT and our son is a student there. However, I think it's possible
to get too comfortable. I had been at MIT virtually my entire professional
life and it was time to take on a new challenge.
I've heard you're not entirely unfamiliar with Tufts.
Adele and I started our married life literally down the street from
Tufts, in East Arlington. In fact, Emily Bushnell (at Eliot-Pearson)
just sent me a note that she discovered after going through her
files showing that our younger child was in one of her child development
studies 19 years ago. She sent us a permission slip we signed. But
long before that, in 1969, I spent literally my first weekend night
at college at Tufts. My freshman roommate was from Atlanta. He had
a friend at Jackson who invited us to a party. We managed to get
to campus on the T but nobody told us the T stopped running at 1:00
a.m.! We had no way of getting back to MIT so we wound up knocking
on a door of a fraternity and they let us sleep on the floor.
I also spent a lot of time on the Mystic Lake
because I was on the MIT sailing team, and Tufts was one of our
What does being president of Tufts afford that you've always
wanted to do?
It's not as if I ever had aspirations to be a university president.
In fact, I've had a relatively short career in academic administration.
I was chancellor of MIT for three years and prior to that I was
teaching my courses and writing my books. So this is a new world
for me. It's a new opportunity. This is a wonderful time for Tufts.
The University has grown enormously in stature in the last 15 years.
It has grown enormously in strength under John DiBiaggio's leadership.
It is now fortunate to be attracting among the very best students
in the country. We also have an incredibly committed and dedicated
faculty. The neighborhood around the Medford/Somerville campus--Davis
Square, Teele Square, for example--is a lot more interesting than
when I was a student. The other campuses are also flourishing. There
is major renewal on the Boston campus downtown with the construction
of the Jaharis Building, and we just opened a terrific new building
last spring at the Veterinary School in Grafton. So it's a wonderful
time to be at Tufts. It's also a very interesting time in American
higher education. It's a time when all universities face significant
challenges, some due to affordability in the face of rising costs,
others about managing expectations. Challenges are posed by new
technology because the borders of the university and the outside
world are becoming more permeable as we find new ways to collaborate
with government, industry and universities in other parts of the
world. For me, it's exciting; it's a chance to become part of an
extraordinarily successful university and to help strengthen it,
to lead it to the next level.
What initial impressions did you form when you visited the school
on your own?
As Adele and I toured the campus, we visited the Campus Center,
the athletic facilities, Dowling Hall, Tisch Library and a few other
places. We also had one lunch at the Campus Center and another in
Carmichael. Students came up to us at each place on their own and
talked to us without knowing who we were. It was very clear they
loved the place and were very forthcoming with praise for their
Tufts experiences. Tufts is a very welcoming community. I hope every
visitor to Tufts would have a similar experience.
Do you know how you'd like to spend your first few months at
Listening. I am trying to go around and meet as many people as I
can. I spent the latter part of June and better part of July meeting
faculty, staff and trustees. I have tried to meet people where they
work. It's important for context. I enjoy hearing about people's
passion for their work and their vision for Tufts. I'm looking forward
to having similar conversations with students in the fall.
They'll be at your door.
Well, I intend to be at theirs. I will seek them out. One of the
things I've always enjoyed at MIT is spending a lot of time eating
meals in dormitories and fraternities.
Have you identified any top priorities?
There are a number of themes that are starting to emerge. Clearly,
there are priorities that relate to resources. If we face a significant
challenge it is that we are facing the consequences of success.
We now find ourselves competing with institutions that have vastly
more resources than we have. So the top priority is to increase
the resource base for the University. I like to say there are only
two things that make for a great university: great students and
great faculty. Everything else is a means toward this end. We need
great facilities to attract and support great students and great
faculty. We need great staff to enable the faculty and students
to do their best work. Everything we do should strengthen the ability
of the faculty to do great teaching and great research so that students
can grow and learn while they are here. We need resources to do
that. In my meetings around campus I like to ask the following question:
If I gave you three wishes to make Tufts a better place, what would
they be? And one wish cannot be just "more resources." We will do
that anyway. The answers are very revealing. At this point I characterize
myself as the blind man groping the elephant, if you'll pardon the
pun. But it's a very useful process, just listening. I try hard
not to jump to any conclusions.
Another priority has to be that we need to nurture,
support and encourage collaborations across traditional disciplinary
boundaries. For most of us our virtues are our vices.
In the sense that . . .
Well, for Tufts our virtue is our intimate size. We are among the
smallest of the major research universities. And that lends an intimacy
to the place that I think everybody likes. People are attracted
to it. But it's also a vice in that we tend not to have large departments,
so we have to be more clever in the way we work across fields and
between schools. So that has to be a priority. I think another priority
has to be that we work to try to achieve the same level of diversity
among the faculty and staff that we have achieved among our students.
We have to be willing to tap all of the human capital that is available.
One of the signatures of a Tufts education is an emphasis on
public service and citizenship. You're a trustee of Hebrew College,
Wheaton College, director of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly
and past board member of the MIT Hillel, among other involvements.
Could you describe your own work in the public sector and what it
means to you?
I feel blessed to have received an extraordinary education. I think
anyone who is similarly blessed has an obligation to try to leave
the world a better place, to give something back to the community.
It is important to be engaged in the world beyond one's own narrow
On the topic of family, how would you describe the Bacow family?
We are very close. We have always enjoyed doing things together.
We ski in the winter and sail in the summer. Our friends are sometimes
amazed to hear that our 21- and 19-year-old sons are still interested
in spending a week sailing with us in close quarters on a small
boat in Maine. I attribute our closeness to the fact that we have
always spent unencumbered time together as a family.
When you agreed to come to Tufts, how did you and Adele approach
the opportunity, but also the enormous impact this would have on
your personal lives?
We were excited by both the change and the challenge. We both love
people. Coming to Tufts gives us the chance to make a wonderful
new set of friends as well as to have a positive impact on a very
special place. We both are looking forward to becoming a visible
part of the campus community. We work hard to find balance in our
lives, so we hope that we will be able to embrace this wonderful
new opportunity with energy, enthusiasm and equanimity.
Let's talk about your non-work interests: running, skiing and
sailing. What do they mean to you?
I got serious about running about ten years ago. It's exercise,
it's a way of clearing my head, it's a way to spend time with Adele.
We run early in the morning, often before 6:00 a.m. Just a four-mile
I learned to ski when I was four. I did a bit
of racing in high school, and taught Jay and Kenny [the Bacows'
sons] how to ski when they were the same age. I have to give Adele
a lot of credit--she grew up in Florida and learned to ski as an
adult. Now she is the most avid skier in the family.
I'm passionate about sailing. I learned to sail
as a kid in Michigan. I did a lot of racing when I was in college.
One reason that I went to MIT was that it has a strong sailing program,
but not as good as Tufts'!
I rarely race now. Instead, sailing is a way to
spend time with my family, to be in harmony with the elements, to
completely decompress. I will race occasionally with friends, but
I'm not looking for competition, given the intensity of the rest
of my life.
Let's talk, albeit briefly, about a couple of pressing issues
facing presidents of universities and colleges across the country.
Financial aid, for one, is a key challenge. How are we going to
ensure that diversity is indeed possible, that many different students
have equal access?
We have to help our students understand from the day they arrive
that everyone who attends Tufts receives some financial aid because
tuition pays only a fraction of the true cost of a Tufts education.
Every student benefits from the generosity of those who came before
him or her. We must instill in our students a responsibility to
continue this tradition so that other students will have the same
opportunity. Raising money for financial aid for all our students--undergraduate,
graduate and professional--will be a priority.
Attracting the brightest minds of students and faculty will
keep Tufts at the top of its game. Have you thought about how Tufts
has the potential to draw faculty and students?
Tufts offers students the opportunity to study in an environment
that is comparable to the very best small liberal arts colleges.
Students can receive the same kind of attention that they do from
faculty at an Amherst or a Williams, but with all the benefits of
a research university. We do that in an environment that is friendly
and nurturing. We have an extraordinarily beautiful campus that
offers easy access to one of the world's great cities. Who wouldn't
want to come here? For the faculty, we attract scholars who are
passionate about teaching, but teaching is not just what they do.
They are very engaged in the scholarly community. So I really think
it's the best of both worlds. We are also known for our commitment
to public service and we are among the most international of universities.
How do you respond to the assertion that university presidents
need to be, first and foremost, fundraisers?
It's certainly an important part of the job, but one can't be a
fundraiser without being a passionate, articulate leader of the
scholarly enterprise. The way you get people to contribute is by
engaging them in the mission of the institution, by helping them
understand the challenges we face and how they can make a difference.
So asking for money is the smallest part of raising it. We must
articulate sharply the University's mission and engage people in
that dialogue. We must help them appreciate how an investment in
Tufts can yield wonderful returns for all of society--returns measured
in helping talented young people to achieve success in life. What
better investment can one make?