6 Challenges Facing Harvard’s Next President

The next Harvard president will take the helm of an institution at the center of numerous conversations about the role of elite universities in America.

June 23, 2022 · Updated on June 23, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
6 Challenges Facing Harvard’s Next President
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Porter Gifford / Contributor / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

  • Harvard's president recently announced he's stepping down as of June 30, 2023.
  • His successor can help shape conversations on critical issues affecting U.S. college students.
  • The issues include affirmative action, legacy admissions, online learning, and standardized tests.
  • Greater transparency could help restore public trust in higher education.

Harvard is getting a new president.

But not quite yet. The university's current president, Lawrence Bacow, recently announced his decision to step down in June 2023.

Bacow's tenure will be relatively short, at least by Harvard's standards. On average, college presidents stay in office about 6.5 years, says the American Council on Education. When he steps down, Bacow will have served five, though he did serve another seven as a member of the Harvard Corporation, the university's main governing board.

Harvard has a history of long-tenured leaders. From 1869-1971, Harvard had four presidents. Bacow's predecessor, Drew Faust, served 11 years. The Harvard Crimson notes Bacow's five-year stint ties him with another Lawrence — Larry Summers, whose presidency crumbled amid controversial remarks about women and science — for the shortest Harvard presidency since the Civil War.

The tenure of every college leader whose presidency coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic will forever be considered in that context.

Under Bacow's leadership, Harvard responded to the public health crisis by donating funds for local relief efforts and investing in interdisciplinary research efforts to better prepare communities for future pandemics. It's one example, notes the Harvard Gazette, of how Bacow has "sought to marshal the University's academic resources across disciplines to tackle complex societal issues."

And that's one challenge for the next president — how to optimally deploy the university's vast intellectual and financial resources. Another will be responding to various external pressures related to access and social responsibility.

Harvard operates under a societal microscope given its wealth, reputation, and status in the higher education firmament. Along with a few other institutions, it leads the national conversation around critical issues facing higher education and college students. Bacow believes the world "pays too much attention" to Harvard. But it most certainly bears the weight of expectation, as will its new president.

What sort of individual will that be? Harvard doesn't exactly have a stellar track record of choosing racial minorities (read: none). It has had one female president.

Whoever takes the helm will inherit numerous challenges. Here are a half dozen that figure to land on the new president's agenda.

Affirmative Action and Diversity

An eager higher education community awaits the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action, which should come sometime this year. The case, brought by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, will determine whether or not the court deems the consideration of race in college admissions unconstitutional.

Should the court rule against Harvard and UNC, college leaders will be obligated to operate under a new reality while maintaining some form of commitment to diversity. If the universities prevail, the debate surrounding affirmative action, access, and the benefits of diversity will persist nonetheless.

Either way, it promises to remain one of the most contentious issues college leaders face.

Bacow has been a staunch advocate of affirmative action. No doubt his successor will be as well. A change in the rules governing admissions wouldn't dampen that commitment.

Regardless of the decision, Harvard's new president should have ample opportunity to address the value of diversity to the classroom and campus community and the importance of education in promoting socioeconomic mobility.

The 'Legacy of Slavery' and HBCU Partnerships

Last April, Harvard released a committee report on the university's "legacy of slavery." The report documents how the university benefited from the institution of slavery and outlines a plan for "reckoning and repair."

That plan involves establishing a $100 million endowment to underwrite various activities, including the development of "enduring partnerships" with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) through research collaborations, faculty and student exchanges, and joint library initiatives.

Some critics claim Harvard's plans aren't aggressive enough, suggesting the university should contribute funds directly to HBCUs or fortify their research and fundraising infrastructures. Others call for Harvard to revamp its curriculum to reflect a greater focus on slavery's role in American history.

What other ways might these or additional funds be allocated? What kinds of benefits will be realized? Will the collective efforts satisfy critics?

Harvard's next leader will inherit this initiative and serve as its spokesperson. Imagine, then, if Harvard were to appoint its first Black president.

Expanding Access Through Online Learning

In 2021, the educational technology company 2U purchased edX, the massive open online courses (MOOC) platform established by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012. Some portion of the $800 million realized from the sale was used to establish a nonprofit organization, led jointly by Harvard and MIT, dedicated to "transforming educational outcomes" and "tackling learning inequities."

This new nonprofit, notes Harvard Magazine, aims to "partner with community colleges and other educational institutions that serve under-resourced communities, and with other nonprofit organizations, enterprises, and governments seeking to address inequities in education and the challenges of workforce reskilling in the context of forces such as globalization and technological innovation."

What that means, specifically, and how these efforts get funded remains to be seen. The pandemic exposed the uneven online playing field and laid bare the digital divide. What will Harvard and MIT say and do about it?

Harvard's new president has a ready-made opportunity to advocate for expanded access through nontraditional educational pathways and the continued democratization of knowledge.

The Future of Standardized Tests

Another byproduct of the pandemic was the suspension of standardized test requirements across higher education given the difficulties of administering the SAT and ACT. Like most other competitive colleges, Harvard went test-optional in 2020, allowing students to apply for fall 2021 admission without submitting scores. Harvard has since extended that moratorium through 2026.

Applications rose dramatically at selective institutions, as did the diversity of the applicant pools.

The University of California system announced it will remain test-optional permanently. Among top privates, the University of Chicago has been test-optional since 2018.

Before 2026 rolls around, Harvard will have to make its own decision on requiring the SAT and ACT. The other Ivies and similarly selective institutions will be paying close attention. It's certainly an opportunity for the next Harvard president to make a bold statement about standardized tests and equity in college admissions.

Ending Legacy Admissions

Speaking of equity in admissions, the longstanding practice of giving favorable consideration to children of alumni has recently come under fire. Critics claim the practice perpetuates advantage for those already advantaged — children of college graduates — and correspondingly disadvantages first-generation applicants, who more often come from low-income backgrounds.

For Harvard's Class of 2022, 36% were legacy admits. A Harvard Crimson editorial argues admission to the college shouldn't be "inheritable."

Johns Hopkins University eliminated legacy admissions in 2014, and Amherst College followed suit in 2021. Will Harvard's new president respond to the nation's clarion call to end legacy admissions? Such a move would put pressure on sister institutions to enact similar policies or explain publicly why they're not.

Transparency Around Endowment Management and Spending

Arguably Harvard's greatest asset — its massive endowment — is also its greatest headache. Any article or report calling for endowment reform among rich universities invariably points to Harvard's war chest, which, currently at $53 billion, exceeds the gross domestic product of 108 countries.

Some say Harvard should use this money to enroll more students. Others suggest the university, along with other wealthy schools, should spend a higher percentage of the endowment income, particularly on scholarships for low-income students.

The Trump administration levied a 1.4% tax on the richest schools, which translated into almost $50 million for Harvard in fiscal year 2019. A more recent Senate bill, the Ivory Tower Tax Act, proposed a 1% tax on large endowments to fund apprenticeship programs. Legislators clearly want a piece of the endowment pie, and Harvard offers a tantalizingly large slice.

For most casual observers, endowments remain enigmatic. Why does a university need $53 billion? What does it do with all that money? Why does it keep raising funds to add to it? Why can't it give more to students in need? Why can't it give some to needy colleges?

The truth is, endowments play a critical role in university management, especially at private institutions, and they're not nearly as fungible as people assume. At the same time, universities could be more forthcoming about how endowments work and where the money goes.

Harvard's next leader could answer a skeptical nation's questions and perhaps find creative ways to better allocate some of the unrestricted funds the endowment generates.

Public Scrutiny Increases as Trust Wanes

Institutions like Harvard face increasing scrutiny even as demand for their brand of education has never been higher.

Acceptance rates are at all-time lows, making arguments about access and transparency even more intense. The Varsity Blues scandal fueled the narrative about wealth and privilege. Calls for elite institutions to expand enrollments persist, as do questions about student loan debt and return on investment. Tuition costs continue to rise even as endowments reach stratospheric totals.

It's no wonder public trust in higher education has declined in recent years.

The new Harvard president won't be expected to provide a panacea but certainly will land squarely in the center of these ongoing debates.