Digital Universities US: world ‘pays too much attention’ to Harvard, says Lawrence Bacow

Chief of renowned university sees positive leadership role during Covid but admits miscues on edX and blind spots on cost discipline

May 12, 2022
Harvard University
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As the world of higher education charts its responses to the complicated transformations of pandemic, virtual learning, and political and financial peril, Harvard University’s president, Lawrence Bacow, has a request: don’t copy us.

Addressing Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities Week US conference in Harvard’s hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Professor Bacow joined dozens of experts in sketching out the future of online learning and its implications for student equity gaps.

Harvard’s leader since 2018 said his top-ranked institution has its own roster of accomplished experts who are making major contributions to guiding the evolution of teaching and learning.

But in terms of its institutional choices, Professor Bacow said, Harvard should not necessarily be a model for others.

“The world would be a better place,” he told the conference of online teaching specialists, “if it paid less attention to what goes on at Harvard than it does.”

Accepting a common complaint directed at Harvard, Professor Bacow also admitted that his university – with an endowment exceeding $50 billion (£40 billion), by far the world’s largest – doesn’t have the cost discipline seen across much of higher education.

“When you’re well resourced, there’s a tendency to solve problems by throwing money at them, as opposed to really trying to address the underlying problem,” he said. “One thing that I think would be good is if Harvard could demonstrate to the world how to control costs.”

Professor Bacow also conceded major regrets about edX, the open online course provider created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. The universities sold edX last June to for-profit competitor 2U, acknowledging they couldn’t see a long-term future in its business model.

Professor Bacow said edX was successful in that it was used by hundreds of millions of people, and that it gave the largely for-profit world of online providers “some healthy competition”. It fell short, however, in appealing mainly to people who already had a college degree, rather than the needy population that edX’s creators envisioned. “Where we really failed was to reach the target audience that we really intended to,” Professor Bacow said.

Harvard and MIT – where Professor Bacow earlier served as a professor of environmental studies and chancellor – promised to use the $800 million proceeds from the edX sale to create a non-profit organisation dedicated to “transforming educational outcomes” and “tackling learning inequities”.

Nearly a year later, Professor Bacow told the Digital Universities Week conference – sponsored by THE and MIT – that the establishment of the entity was “still in its early stages”, without a board or executive director yet named.

The operation will, however, both create content and fund research dedicated to furthering educational equity, Professor Bacow said. Emphases will include producing short-form content and funding local experiments, he said.

Professor Bacow said Harvard does take pride in cases where it has used its influence in especially productive ways. He cited two examples related to the pandemic – one where it used its scientific expertise to quickly understand the threat of Covid in its very early days and lead US higher education in shutting down their physical campuses, and the other where it used its legal expertise to defeat a Trump administration bid to send international students home once their classes went online.

“So there are examples like that where it’s absolutely clear to me that we do have responsibility, that we can do things on behalf of the sector and others,” Professor Bacow said. “But there are also times when I have to be careful, because, I think candidly, the world pays too much attention to what goes on at Harvard, and that’s not helpful.

“I’m proud of what we do at Harvard, but we do not have a monopoly on good ideas. More than that, just because somebody sneezes at Harvard, it’s not worth being covered in the press.”

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