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Summer 2004
Photo by Robert Schoen
An Unconventional Plan
President Lawrence S. Bacow's vision underscores the importance of thinking beyond traditional boundaries

President Lawrence S. Bacow arrived at Tufts in 2001. Recently, he shared his vision with the Tufts community, (“A University Poised,” spring Tufts Magazine), and set a pace for change that might best be described as sharply disciplined. His training for the Boston Marathon, one suspects, has also been good training for a job that is its own long-distance run—and with more than a few Heart-break Hills to test the most solid resolve. Yet, as Bacow speaks candidly about his ideas, a brisk authority is balanced by the indis-pensable virtues of patience and optimism. Below, he talks with Laura Ferguson, expanding on his vision and ideas, and how he sees Tufts growing and thriving in the years ahead.

You came to Tufts from MIT, where you were chancellor. What were the surprises you met as a university president?
The biggest surprise is how much fun this job has been. Adele and I have really enjoyed our life as part of this community. I find the work to be incredibly interesting and stimulating. People often assume that this is a stressful job. I don’t. I find it engaging. It’s a full life, but it is also extremely rewarding.

And disappointments or challenges?
Certainly September 11 was a challenge for me. It occurred the second week I was here. And probably the hardest times in this job have been when we’ve lost students or colleagues. Being president of a university is like being mayor of a small town. Between our students, faculty, and staff, we’re a community of roughly 14,000 people. As in any small town, we have accidents and illnesses. When somebody dies, each of us feels it very personally. Often, my role is to try to console people. I sometimes characterize this as the pastoral dimensions of my job, and it’s the hardest thing I do.

You spent some of your spring break as a guest of Tufts-New England Medical Center for an infection that settled in the lining around your heart. I wonder what it was like to have to suspend your normal schedule for several weeks.
It changed my life quite dramatically. I really had to leave the running of the university to others for close to a month while I focused on getting healthy. I turned to the people immediately around me—the provost, the executive vice president, the deans, my senior direct reports, and I said to them, “I need you to step in and figure out what needs to be done and just do it.” And they did a wonderful job. I think their performance demonstrated to the community the great strength that we have in the senior leadership of the university. My heart may have skipped a few beats, but the university’s didn’t.

You identified some of your chief priorities in “A University Poised.” Could you talk about how the scholarly reputation is lagging behind the reputation of prospective students?
There is a simple explanation. Each fall we recruit an entirely new generation of students. Thus the student body turns over every four years. By contrast, the average faculty member stays at Tufts for close to 30 years. So it takes us much longer to effect change in the faculty than in the student body. Hence, the reputation of our students changes faster than that of our faculty.

How can we address that issue?

We already are. Every time we make an appointment at Tufts, that appointment should raise the average quality of the unit into which the person is being appointed. If we are to constantly improve as an institution, it means the people have to be improving as well. I’m very proud of the appointments that we’ve made in the last three years. We’ve recruited a cadre of deans as well as a provost who I think are absolutely superb. Jamshed [Bharucha] has been a wonderful successor to Sol [Gittleman]. He’s helped recruit a fabulous dean of the Medical School, Michael Rosenblatt, who came from Harvard, a fabulous dean of Engineering in Linda Abriola, a member of the National Academy who came from the University of Michigan, and now a fabulous new dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy, Eileen Kennedy. Mike Rosenblatt worked with the provost to select Naomi Rosenberg as the dean for the graduate programs at the Medical School and the Sackler School. We recruited her from within. She’s a distinguished biologist and terrific. Susan Ernst has recruited a superb new dean of admissions, Lee Coffin, to succeed David Cuttino. Lee is off to a fast start. I’m proud of Mary Jeka’s appointment as vice president for university relations, a new position that has brought energy and focus to how we get the university’s messages across to our key constituencies. Our deans are working with our department heads to recruit the next generation of faculty. Our new faculty appointments are also exciting. I could go on.

Summer Reading, and Then Some

What was considered a quick question on what President Lawrence S. Bacow likes to read (“If you were stranded on a desert island . . . ”) led instead to a wide-ranging and lively response. Bacow, who admits to a tendency to wander around libraries and bookstores, said he’s working through a tall stack of books on his night table. They are almost exclusively history and biography. “I read history because I learn from it. As president of the university, I feel obliged to understand different ways and modes of thinking.” Below, an at-a-glance review of some of the president’s literary pursuits, not on a remote island, but on Packard Avenue, aboard airplanes, and over summer vacation while plying the New England waters on the family sailboat, Quest.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, by Richard A. Clarke

April 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret Macmillan

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox

Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, by G. Pascal Zachary (Bush, one of Tufts’ most noted alumni, graduated from the School of Engineering in 1913.)

Cruising at Last: Sailing the East Coast from South Carolina to Maine, by Elliott Merrick (A book about a couple who build a boat and then sail it from the Carolinas to Maine and back.)

Is there a time period over which one establishes a top reputation?
One ought to look at it over the course of at least a decade. Reputation is really a function of the quality of faculty and students. We recruit great faculty who help us to recruit great students, and the great students then help us to recruit faculty, so our recruiting efforts reinforce each other. It takes a while for this process to be understood by the rest of the world. There is always a lag function. However, I think we’re already starting to see progress. I wouldn’t want to make too much of it, but in a recent survey that’s done annually of university presidents, provosts, and deans of admission, our scholarly reputation index started to move upward. For the past 15 years it had remained constant.

The past year or so has been important to a relatively new feature of Tufts, the University College of Citizenship and Public Service, now better known as the University College. Could you talk about its progress?
I’m very excited by the progress that the University College continues to make. We have an opportunity through the University College to create a new model for educating active citizens at Tufts and beyond. Every organization looks to a few people for leadership when the organization meets a challenge. These are people who have the capacity to bring others together for a common purpose. They are people who frame issues in ways that help to move things forward. They are people who succeed in identifying resources where others only see scarcity. The people who perform these functions in one organization tend to be the same people who do the same in other organizations. They are society’s true active citizens. What we seek to do in the University College is to educate people with these skills, and to motivate our students to be these people. I see the University College as an amplifier of everything that we do at Tufts.

You’re fostering a resourcefulness —
A willingness to engage and to listen and to not necessarily think that you’ve got all the answers. Again, as I like to point out, active citizenship does not mean shouting louder. It means working as part of a community, and with that goes a responsibility to engage others, to listen, and to help make the process work better.

Are we one of the few schools to really take that on at this level?
Absolutely. Service learning has been around for a long time, but the University College is a new model for education for public service—a sort of diffusion model. Other institutions have typically created programs focused on students who put their hands up and say, “I am interested in a career in public service” or “I’m interested in a career in the nonprofit sector.” Our view is that everybody who graduates from a college or university has a responsibility to be engaged in his or her community and to give back. This is equally true of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, humanists, veterinarians—everyone. We want to encourage active citizenship across the political spectrum, and we are trying to do it by encouraging every student at Tufts to be so involved.

Do you think prospective students, because of the tuition, are extra-critical of what they see in front of them when they visit Tufts, that they have very high expectations?
Students ought to have high expectations. It is expensive to attend an institution like Tufts. However, I think the rise in tuition has influenced attitudes in ways that are not always healthy. Students sometimes view themselves as customers, and the university as merely providing a product. If a certain course or requirement is not to their liking, they may believe it should be changed simply because “they are paying the bill.” I find this unfortunate. The reality is that tuition only covers a modest part of the true cost of an education. Everyone who attends Tufts is being subsidized by the generosity of those who have come before them. Also, while we study certain things because they yield a very tangible economic return for our tuition dollars, we want students to study other things because these subjects will make them better, more interesting people. Thus, education is both investment and consumption.

Right, it costs money.
I mean it in a different way. You study some subjects not because they are going to yield an economic return, but because they’re going to enrich and ennoble your life, because they’re going to help you see the world and understand it through a lens that can only be understood through the value of a true liberal education. One cannot measure these benefits in economic terms, but they are very real. Now I think we do a spectacular job of delivering on this kind of education. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Tufts is that this is a place where students, faculty, and staff find balance and harmony that does not exist at many other institutions.

In what components?
In multiple dimensions. For example, our faculty care passionately about teaching. That’s why they’re here, but they also are very serious scholars working at the cutting edge of their disciplines. And they don’t view one as being done at the expense of the other. Our students are incredibly gifted intellectually, but also recognize that much of what they are going to learn will come from outside the classroom. So they are equally engaged by everything that they find on this Hill and beyond. They also manage to do something that lots of students at other elite universities don’t do—they have fun. They enjoy their classes. They have a life. They succeed in preparing themselves to earn a living while also exploring the great and enduring questions that people have grappled with through the ages. That’s a wonderful balance.

Another way in which I think we have great balance and harmony and why we are attractive as an institution is our physical environment. We enjoy this quintessential New England college campus, which literally could be located anywhere. But stand on the roof of the library and according to Boston Magazine you get the best view of Boston around. We’re cheek-by-jowl with one of the world’s great cities, four stops away on the Red Line. At the base of the Hill, Davis Square has become the hot place for young people to live. You give up nothing when you come to Tufts

So what’s your pitch to parents?
It’s very, very simple. Every university attempts to present its best face through the campus tour. My advice is to get off the tour. Stop any student at Tufts, and ask them about their experience. I also encourage students and parents when they visit this campus to separate. I tell parents that their kids will see things differently on their own than if their parents are standing next to them. Whenever students visit a campus, they should go off on their own and go to places where students are. Go to the library, a cafeteria, the student center, stop people and ask them about their experience. In effect, create your own tour.

One of the great strengths of higher education in this country is its diversity. Different institutions have different approaches to education. At Tufts, we believe that a liberal education should expose people to a broad variety of fields, and that the faculty should articulate what it is that they think is important that all students should know. I’m proud that we’ve maintained a strong commitment to foreign languages and culture at a time when some other institutions have abandoned them. In the global world that we inhabit, being able to speak more than one language, to understand different cultures, is important. We also demand that our students sample broadly from the sciences, mathematics, the humanities, and the social sciences. I am proud that unlike at some institutions, students do not complain of lack of faculty contact at Tufts. Education here is a full-body contact sport. Students cannot help but to get to know faculty members. Finally, we are expanding the opportunities for our undergraduates to interact with faculty in our professional schools through expanded research opportunities, more joint courses that are offered between the college and the professional schools, and more joint degree programs for our undergraduate students with the Fletcher School, the Medical School, the Dental School, and the Veterinary School.

Will you be addressing alumni about your next campaign and academic and research priorities?
Everything is pretty transparent. We are going to drive every single decision that we make at Tufts by our academic priorities—every single resource allocation decision. If you were to go into the schools right now, you would find them each engaged in a strategic planning process. We will put the individual school plans together for presentation to the trustees for their approval next year. And then we will share it with the larger community, much in the same way that I shared the vision of the trustees with the rest of the community. It’s my intention to keep sharpening our focus and to keep sharing it. I want everybody to understand where we’re going. When we are clear on our priorities, then we will move forward with the campaign. It is important that the campaign be driven by our academic priorities, not the other way around.

Do you have a plan for knitting the schools together?
We’re doing it in a variety of ways. For example, the university-wide Council on Graduate Education is one such effort. This group has already come forward with a very innovative new graduate program in water systems, in which all the schools participate. We’re doing it right now with the Summer Scholars program that provides our undergraduates with an opportunity to work with faculty in all of our schools and our four affiliated teaching hospitals. Last year the Summer Scholars came with their faculty mentors to Ballou Hall for a poster session on their projects. For some of the faculty from the Boston campus, it was their first visit in 25 years to the Hill. So programs like the Summer Scholars are bringing our faculty together as well. As we make new faculty appointments, we are consciously looking to make joint appointments. For example, Linda Abriola, Dean of Engineering, and Mike Rosenblatt, Dean of the Medical School, are working closely together on a number of recruitments. Similarly, Susan Ernst, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Steve Bosworth, Dean of the Fletcher School, also have been collaborating on faculty appointments. We recently created something called Tufts High Table. [University Professor] Daniel Dennett runs it. He invites a group of faculty for dinner once a month, each representing one department on the Tufts Medford-Somerville campus. It’s faculty talking to colleagues from other disciplines about their scholarship. This initiative has proven to be very popular, and a number of interesting scholarly collaborations have emerged from High Table.

It seems that beyond that educational qualifying process there are things that transcend the boundary of an individual school.
Boundaries can be geographic. Boundaries can be disciplinary. Boundaries can be temporal. We are trying to make all of these boundaries much more permeable. Let me speak to the temporal dimension. One of the things which I’m most excited about, and proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last three years, is reaching out to our alumni. That’s making the boundary that constitutes “Commencement” more permeable. We are working to develop a lifetime, value-added relationship with our alumni, one in which alumni will continue to participate in the intellectual life of the university through more intensive programming of regional Tufts Alliances, digital access to resources on campus, and more engagement through reunion and other events. Sol Gittleman always likes to say, “If you amortize the cost of your education over a lifetime rather than four years, it doesn’t seem so expensive.”

As I’ve traveled around the country I’ve learned from our alumni that they want to be engaged. They want to know what’s going on. They want to continue to participate in the life of the campus. We are trying to accomplish this objective through the creative use of technology. The Tufts Career Network gives alumni access to career contacts and connections throughout the world. The Tufts Online Community connects alumni with classmates, notifies alumni about regional events, and allows alumni to advertise business services to others. We have developed our webcasting facilities so that now we webcast Commencement live, and we’re going to webcast major lectures like the Fares lecture in the future.

When you talk about Tufts and bringing the schools together, what drives you to think that way?
I think that the great intellectual challenges that we face as a society lie not at the heart of disciplines anymore, but at the edges and intersections of the disciplines. Let me expand. Probably the greatest scientific achievement of the last 20 years has been the sequencing of the human genome. We now have a road map that basically describes how the human body works at the genetic level. How did this happen? It occurred in part because there were some very clever biologists who figured out how one could isolate and sequence a gene.

But if they had done just that, we would still be sequencing the human genome for the next 20 or 30 years. Parallel advances in robotics, information technology, and bioinformatics allowed this process to be automated, to be speeded up, to be done in a way that was not random. Through sophisticated mathematics, biologists were able to identify where the mother lodes of genetic information were located within the genome, and concentrate their sequencing efforts in these locations. This approach advanced the sequencing of the genome by years, maybe even decades. This process was then automated through the use of robotics and computers. Without the collaborative efforts of biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and mechanical and electrical engineers, we would still be working on the sequencing process.

From a medical standpoint, sequencing of the genome gives us the capacity to develop new therapies and treatments. It also may allow us to predict with great certainty who is likely to come down with different types of genetic diseases. For example, based upon a small sample of your DNA obtained from your saliva, we may be able to predict with a high degree of certainty whether you are likely to get Alzheimer’s, certain types of cancer, or other dread diseases. So now that we have the capacity to generate this information, how are we going to use it? If I am an employer, can I ask for a sample of your DNA before hiring you? Can I refuse to hire you if it is likely that you are going to come down with cancer in the future? Is it okay to refuse to allow someone to adopt a child because their DNA suggests that they are likely to die before the child graduates from high school? I could go on. There are huge social, moral, economic, political, and philosophical consequences to these questions. If we have any hope of crafting reasonable policies, we must bring together philosophers, ethicists, political scientists, economists, and others. Our answers to these questions will reveal how we think of ourselves as a society. The only way we will succeed in addressing these questions is by working across traditional disciplines.

You see a larger, integrated picture.

I see great opportunity. I want Tufts to be the kind of place that is uniquely suited to addressing these complex questions that cut across traditional disciplines. If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we need to break down many of the traditional boundaries that divide the university.

What advice would you give someone who’s considering becoming a university president for the first time?
Be curious. Read voraciously. And learn to get by on not much sleep.