Inauguration of Larry Bacow, 29th President of Harvard University

Friday, October 5, 2018

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon!

From time to time, MIT has made an appearance at certain iconic Harvard events – unexpectedly. So I’m especially honored to be here this time by proper invitation!

I come to you from one school, just next door. But I speak on behalf of thousands of academic communities, near and far, who join in expressing our highest hopes and our warmest greetings to the great Harvard family and to your new president.

I begin with congratulations – because I have reason to believe that no one may have ever been better prepared than Larry Bacow to lead this extraordinary institution. I say that because, at MIT, we have spent decades getting Larry ready to take this job. 

When he arrived as an undergraduate, we instantly saw his potential. So first, we taught him to love very hard problems. (For a university president, this masochism is essential.) Next, we taught him to take advice from Nobel laureates. This will come in handy too.

I wish we could take credit for having found Larry his soulmate, Adele. But once they found each other, obviously we had to make sure that Adele got an MIT education too! 

At one point, it briefly appeared that Larry might have a career collecting advanced degrees from Harvard. But after he earned his third one, when he nearly chose a career in Washington, we intervened. We steered him to the MIT faculty, and he naturally rose to become our chancellor. That’s when we taught him the fine art of working with faculty over whom you have no actual power. In 2002, we sent him to Tufts, so he could get the hang of being president. 

And finally – and this was the tricky part – we had to get him installed on Harvard’s Presidential Search Committee. I am not allowed to reveal our methods. But obviously – it worked!

So as you can see, the best MIT hacks take time!

But of course, the truth is that Larry came to MIT with the same extraordinary talents and values that have made him one of the most delightful, brilliant, creative and inspiring leaders in all of higher education: A commitment to excellence. Integrity. Humility. Boldness. A taste for hard facts. An openness to talent and ideas from everywhere. A passion for collaboration. A strong desire to make a positive impact. And a sense of responsibility to help heal the world.

Throughout his career, in times of community crisis, Larry has proven that, as a leader, he is built to offer comfort.  And – as we have seen from his decisive actions in the past three months – he is also built for speed!

And that is a very good thing, because at this moment in the history of higher education, there is no time to lose.

Everyone gathered here understands very clearly that this is a time of great uncertainty for the nation, and for American higher education too. I am certain that our country continues to need what the research university does better than any other institution: create the new knowledge and innovation that fuel our economy, and incubate brilliant young talent: the Larry Bacows of tomorrow!

Let me underscore this point: The research university is not an ornament or a luxury that our nation can choose to go without. The residential research university may be the most powerful source of leaders, ideas and economic growth that the world has ever known. 

But today, it is clear that not everyone shares that view. And some of our fellow citizens have come to doubt that America’s universities are a source of our national strength. 

It is my dearest hope that, with the inspired leadership of President Bacow, our great universities can prove their value to the nation once again. Moreover, while we continue to be a source of leaders and ideas and knowledge, I hope we can also be a source of healing, and wisdom, and a broad, deep ethic of service to the common good.

Larry, Harvard was in very good hands before you arrived. But at this moment, I believe that Harvard needs you. Higher education needs you. And the country needs you too.

As I hope I have made clear, at MIT, we regard Larry Bacow as something of a favorite son. Today, I am here to drop MIT’s favorite son off at college.

So Larry, before I go, I have a present – a little something to remind you of home. It is a piece of limestone from the original MIT Dome.

The inscription says…

“Lawrence S. Bacow, MIT Class of ’72. The 29th president of Harvard and a chip off the old block!”