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Meeting Larry Bacow

Jason H. Wasfy

I didn’t take away a great impression when I first met Larry Bacow. It was the fall of 1998, and I was a young, overeager campus journalist trying to coax him into admitting in front of my tape recorder that MIT wasn’t paying enough attention to undergraduate life and learning.

But I was no match for MIT’s chancellor that day. He was composed and sensitive, no matter what I threw at him. He told stories of his undergraduate days (“We used to go to mixers at Wellesley”) that I could relate to my own experiences. And so my probing questions began to ease up a bit. Bacow struck me that day as a suave politician in a university full of scientists, a polished attorney among engineers. When I walked out of Bacow’s second-floor office after the interview, I felt that I had fallen victim to his potent charisma.

Some students hold the impression of Bacow that I took away from that first meeting. They sense that his powerful personal skills allow him to push unpopular policies, like the redesign of the residence system.

Since that interview, I’ve had a good deal of exposure to Bacow. Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed him, bumped into him at receptions and meetings, and we’ve exchanged lengthy e-mails and notes on a wide range of issues. And because of that exposure, I’ve slowly learned that my first impression was dead wrong. Sure, Bacow’s suave and disarming, but behind the polished image is a man with a lot of substance.

During his tenure as chancellor, that substance has come across through his vision for a better undergraduate experience. Bacow was an undergraduate at MIT in the early 70s, and he knows the problems that we still face -- substandard student life resources, a disjointed residential experience, and classes that emphasize one-way lectures over interactive learning. So when Bacow became chancellor, he remembered the weaknesses of his own experience 30 years ago and mobilized the power of his new office to solve them.

The redesign of the residence system, the new athletic center, residential advising, and active learning in freshman physics have all reflected Bacow’s efforts to address those weaknesses. Bacow has said that he wants each undergraduate to get to know at least one professor well enough “to keep in touch the rest of their lives.” That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an important step forward for an institution that traditionally has neglected those more intangible elements of a well-rounded education.

The uproar over Bacow’s initiatives from students has been aimed mostly at some of the peripheral aspects of those initiatives -- not their core values. Students didn’t object to redesigning the neglected, under-funded residence system, for example, but they opposed the part of that redesign that would end freshmen living in fraternities. And much of the initial resistance to residential advising came from Senior House students threatened by the idea that residential advisers would enforce drug laws in their dorm. The resistance had little to do with the basic principle that advising should play a prominent role in our residence system.

What I fear is that Bacow is now leaving to become the president of Tufts because he thinks that all of this controversy over the past few years never would have allowed him to take the top job here. If I’m right, then we’ve lost a good man for no good reason.

Bacow is a visionary. He has pinpointed how MIT has failed its undergraduate students in the past, and he has been determined to prevent those shortcomings from persisting. He has shown the courage to take on entrenched interest groups to work for the good of the student body as a whole.

I misjudged Larry Bacow three years ago. Many other students still don’t give him the credit that he deserves. He’s done a great job.