The lawyer and economist, who is currently the Hauser leader-in-residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership, will succeed Drew Faust on 1 July.
Dr Bacow led Tufts for a decade between 2001 and 2011 and, before that, spent 24 years at Massachusettes Institute of Technology, where he served as chancellor, chair of the faculty and the Lee and Geraldine Martin professor of environmental studies.
William Lee, chair of Harvard’s presidential search committee, described Dr Bacow as “one of the most accomplished, admired, insightful, and effective leaders in American higher education”.
At a time when elite US institutions face increased pressure to improve diversity within the academic and student body, Harvard highlighted Dr Bacow’s efforts to “embrace diversity and inclusion as foundations of excellence” at Tufts, where doubled the institution’s annual budget for financial aid, and launched an Office of Institutional Diversity, which worked “to increase the presence of women and minorities on the faculty and in positions of leadership”.
Speaking after his election, Dr Bacow said he was “humbled and honoured” by the opportunity.
“The Harvard I have known has always stood for at least three things: the pursuit of truth, an unwavering commitment to excellence, and opportunity,” he said. “In a nation divided, these guiding ideals have never been more important.
“We should never shy away from nor be apologetic about affirming our commitment to making the world a better place through our teaching and scholarship and our commitment to truth, excellence, and opportunity for all. And we should always recognise that, for all of our progress toward realising these ideals over decades and centuries, there is much more we can learn, more we can contribute, more we can do better.”