Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow, who guided the Ivy League school through the coronavirus pandemic and put together a panel to examine the university’s deep ties to slavery, announced Wednesday that he plans to step down next year.
“There is never a good time to leave a job like this one, but now seems right to me,” Bacow, whose last day will be June 30, 2023, said in a letter to the university community. “Through our collective efforts, we have found our way through the pandemic. We have worked together to sustain Harvard through change and through storm, and collectively we have made Harvard better and stronger in countless ways.”
He did not announce any future plans other to say he and his wife, Adele, plan to spend more time with their children and grandchildren.
Bacow, 70, who took over as president in 2018, expanded and updated the university’s teaching and research missions, and he fostered cooperation across disciplines to address complex issues including climate change and inequality.
An economist, lawyer and environmental public policy expert by training, he has also been an advocate for the free exchange of ideas.
Under his leadership, Harvard joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s decision to make international students leave the country if they planned on taking classes entirely online in the fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic. He criticized the policy for its “cruelty” and “recklessness.”
Harvard became one of the first universities early in the pandemic to switch to remote learning, and Bacow and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020.
Under his leadership, Harvard announced in 2021 that it would fully divest its $42 billion endowment of fossil fuels holdings, part a wider effort to address climate change.
Harvard also faced challenges during his tenure. The university survived a legal challenge to its admissions policies in U.S. District Court, a case that is now being weighed by the Supeme Court.
It was also disclosed that disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein visited Harvard’s campus more than 40 times after his 2008 sex crimes conviction — long before Bacow’s tenure — and was even given his own office.
The commission created by Bacow in 2019 to study how the university benefited from slavery found that Harvard’s faculty, staff and leaders enslaved more than 70 Black and Native American people from the school’s founding in 1636 to 1783.
He announced in April that the school has pledged spend $100 million to study and atone for its ties with slavery.
“Harvard could not have asked for a better, wiser, more thoughtful, dedicated, experienced, and humane leader through these times of extraordinary challenge and change,” William Lee and Penny Pritzker, senior fellows of the Harvard Corp., said in a joint statement.