In Episode 1, President Robert Iuliano discusses higher education, the liberal arts, and the future with Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow.
Welcome to the first episode of Conversations Beneath the Cupola with host Gettysburg College President Robert Iuliano. With an extensive career in higher education, Iuliano has been in positions of administrative leadership and has been a professor at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In this episode of Conversations Beneath the Cupola podcast, Iuliano has invited Lawrence Bacow, Harvard University’s 29th president. Bacow has extensive experience in higher education and has held his current position since 2018. Aside from this, Bacow’s career experience with teaching and educational leaders spans three decades.
As Iuliano and Bacow get into the interview, Bacow notes that the view of higher education has changed, where it is more common to consider higher education as an investment and less as education. Skepticism of higher education has risen and public support for higher education has fallen due to unreasonable costs, left-leaning bias, and self-aggrandizing focus. However, regardless of naysayers, Bacow underscores the role of a liberal arts education in teaching students to master critical reasoning skills, an invaluable skillset for all aspects of life.
Bacow shares his insights into the cost of higher education. He mentions that it is important to address this issue. In addition, there is pressure to make sure that stakeholders’ desires are seen to. These desires include curriculum design, setting a right price, transferring the right skill sets, enabling services for students, and the like. One important aspect that needs to be maintained is making sure to represent the different opinions across the societal and political spectrum.
At the end of this episode, Bacow shares final advice and his impressions from Inauguration weekend at Gettysburg College. Subscribe to our podcast and listen to the full episode to hear the entirety of these thoughts and insights into the future of liberal arts education.
Guests featured in this episode
Lawrence Bacow, President of Harvard University
Lawrence Bacow: In a world in which more and more decisions are likely to be made by machines, I think part of what we teach in institutions like Gettysburg and Harvard is, what does it mean to actually be human in such a world?
Robert Iuliano: Hi, and welcome to Conversations Beneath the Cupola, at Gettysburg College Podcast, where we underscore the great work of our students, faculty, and alumni today and since our founding in 1832, while bringing attention to the impact and value of a liberal arts education in the 21st century. I’m Bob Iuliano, president of Gettysburg College and it’s my pleasure to be your host. This podcast is recorded beneath the Cupola of historic Pennsylvania Hall, which served as a vantage point for union soldiers during the civil war. Today, the Cupola serves as a significant reminder of how this institution with this distinct advantage point affords us the responsibility and opportunity to shape future generations for living lives of meaning and service.
Robert Iuliano: During this debut episode, we are joined via phone call by Harvard University’s 29th president Lawrence Bacow, a friend and someone with whom I had the pleasure of working for many years. Larry has been the president of Harvard since 2018 and has extensive experience in higher education. Larry was also the president of Tufts University from 2001 through 2011, and chancellor and chair of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three years. In recent years, Larry has devoted his time to mentoring new and aspiring higher education leaders, like myself, mentoring students interested in careers and education, teaching programs in executive education, and writing and speaking on timely topics in higher education.
Robert Iuliano: Larry, thank you for joining us today. This is our inaugural podcast and this series has as its goal, bringing the vitality of our campus to friends, alumni, and others. What I hope to do today is to set the table for the conversations that will follow in future podcasts. I’m hoping to give members of the extended Gettysburg community an up-close sense of the state of higher education, and I can think of no better person than you to do so, given your breadth of experience in higher education. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Lawrence Bacow: My pleasure.
Robert Iuliano: Let me start with the most general question. You’ve been involved with higher education for more than 30 years. What do you see as the most significant changes in the Academy over that period, especially those changes affecting liberal arts colleges?
Lawrence Bacow: I probably think the biggest change has been the way in which the public views higher education these days. I think that a number of things have happened as the real cost of higher education has increased. I think students and their parents see it more as an investment that yields a very specific return in terms of future job prospects. I always say that higher education is both investment and consumption. We study some things because they’re going to enhance our future earnings, but we also study some things because they are going to help us to understand the world that we live in and our role within it much better. As I think prices and costs have risen, people are focusing far more on the former rather than the latter.
Lawrence Bacow: The second big change is, and I think they’re not unrelated, is I think we’ve seen an erosion of public support for higher education more broadly. I think that there are many who view institutions of higher learning skeptically for a whole variety of reasons, which you probably understand at least as well as I do.
Robert Iuliano: Well, let’s follow that thread a little bit. So there’s skepticism and decline in trust, and I made this point briefly in my inauguration, addressed across all institutions including higher education. What do you see as the reasons for the decline in trust in higher education? And what can institutions like Harvard and Gettysburg and leaders like you and me do to begin to address some of those concerns?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, I think there are number of reasons that we’ve seen a decline. I think one reason I’ve already suggested, and that is there’s a perception that we are either unwilling or incapable of controlling our own costs. So I would lead with that.
Lawrence Bacow: Second, I think there’s a perception that we are not truly as open to ideas from across the ideological spectrum as perhaps we should be. And a view that institutionally we lean left. And then I think at least for some institutions, and I would certainly say that this is true for Harvard, there’s a perception that we perhaps are far more concerned about making ourselves great than we are making the world better. You know, I think for each of these, if I believed that they were all true, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But I do think it’s how we are perceived.
Robert Iuliano: So let me shift gears a little bit if I may. And that is, you mentioned earlier on the increasing impetus behind the notion of an education as being instrumental or vocational. Both Harvard and Gettysburg believe in the broad liberal arts education. What do you see as the strengths of the liberal arts education? What do you see as its continuing vitality? And if it is important, as I think it is, how do we help make the case to prospective parents and students, and in fact to the government and to other onlookers that it is important and matters enormously to society?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, so the first thing I would say is that I actually think that the value of a liberal arts education has actually never been higher. What we teach students in the liberal arts education is to be critical thinkers and critical consumers of information. We teach them how to write. We teach them how to communicate. We teach them how to sift through vast quantities of information. We teach them how to ask the right questions. We live in a world today in which all of us are being assaulted by information constantly. And moreover, increasingly that information is actually not being edited by anybody else. And so the return to critical reasoning skills, the ability to be able to differentiate the signal from the noise, I think has never been greater.
Lawrence Bacow: Second, I don’t know if you saw it, but there was a recent paper that was published by David Deming who’s an economist here at Harvard. And David looked at what happens to lifetime earnings and earnings over time of liberal arts graduates, actually humanities and social science graduates versus STEM graduates. And while it’s true that STEM graduates start out at higher salaries initially, by mid to late 30s almost all of that differential has disappeared. And there are a couple of good explanations for it.
Lawrence Bacow: The jobs in the STEM fields, the halflife of those jobs is getting shorter and shorter and shorter. And so the job that one may be educated for today may not exist several years down the road. But the students who wind up studying the humanities and the social sciences tend to go into positions that are not as easily, if you will, eliminated by technology as some of the others, or positions that are likely to be there and are more durable over time. They also tend to go into more managerial positions at a faster rate, and over time their salaries not only catch up but may exceed that of others. So I think one can take a rather short term view of the world, but there’s a lot to be said by taking a longer term view, even if you’re only interested in the instrumental value of an education.
Lawrence Bacow: The last point I would say is that in a world in which more and more decisions are likely to be made by machines, I think part of what we teach in institutions like Gettysburg and Harvard is, what does it mean to actually be human in such a world? How do we appreciate the essential qualities that contribute to a meaningful life, that help us to understand our role within the world and how we can shape it, that help us to appreciate that which is beautiful, that which has meaning, that which actually gives life meaning? And I do think that’s what we teach at places like Gettysburg and Harvard.
Robert Iuliano: So you and I are both believers in that proposition. How do we persuade the skeptics that what you and I think is fundamentally true is something that they should take seriously?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, one way to persuade them is actually to cite what the leaders of some of the nation’s largest companies say they look for when they hire people. Because what they will say routinely is the truly scarce skills in the work place are the soft skills, again, critical reasoning skills, communication skills, the ability to work in teams, the ability to write clearly. These are the skills that tend to be most highly valued in a workplace. And I do think it’s the kind of skills which we actually teach students on campuses like ours.
Robert Iuliano: Couple of years ago, you gave the Kerr lecture and spoke to questions of the economics of higher education. And if I remember the thesis right, one of the points you made is that there is no constituency for the control of cost in higher education. Can you say a word or two more, first whether I got the thesis right, secondly, if so, how you might think about addressing that concern prospectively, and more generally how you think about the cost of higher education?
Lawrence Bacow: Sure. Well first you did get the thesis right. That was a the the crux of my argument, and that is that one of the reasons that cost control is so difficult on any college or university campus is that there’s no natural constituency for cost control. I like to say that there are three major constituencies that any college president has to be attentive to at any moment in time, there’s students, there’s faculty, and then there’s alumni. And the board is often a good proxy for alumni. And it turns out that none of them are natural advocates for cost controls. So just a few examples. If you take a look at students and faculty, their interests are often pretty closely aligned. You know, students like to take small classes. Faculty like to teach small classes. Students generally like to engage in hands on learning, and faculty like to teach that way. I could go on, all of those things are actually more expensive, not less expensive to do.
Lawrence Bacow: And it turns out that parental interests align closely with student interests. So when parents take kids on college tours, what do they look for? They want smaller classes, they want more engagement with faculty, they want better facilities, they want better support for co-curricular life. All these things tend to drive costs up, not down.
Lawrence Bacow: And I think that alumni and boards also are very, very interested in doing what they can to enhance the reputation of their institutions. And usually given a choice between doing that by trying to spend a bit more to either spiff the place up, or alternatively do a better job of teaching, do a better job of engaging students in a variety of ways, they’ll do that as opposed to thinking very, very hard about what’s the best way that we can perhaps provide the services that we offer more efficiently? So there’s no real natural constituency for cost control on a college campus. And for people in a position like yours or mine, to get anything done, you need support, and it’s difficult to fly in the face of all three of these groups at various times. That doesn’t mean that we’re incapable of doing things, but it means that it’s hard.
Robert Iuliano: So let me press a little bit on the question of particularly class size and the like. A central premise of a residential liberal arts college really is about the intimate relationship between the faculty and students. Are you suggesting that that model needs to be rethought? Or how do you think about what has historically at least been a central premise of colleges like this?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, I do think we need to think about how we might enhance faculty productivity in certain ways so that faculty can actually spend their time on their relationships with students and not diverted by other things. So let me offer just a few examples. As I said in the my Clark Kerr lecture, back when I was a faculty member, we used to say, “We teach for free. They pay us to grade.” Nobody really enjoys grading. I think that there are ways that we could use technology to enhance the grading process, so it is in fact less burdensome to faculty. I don’t think any faculty member would object to that. If we did that, that would free up time that faculty could actually spend more productively engaging with students. That’s an example of something which we might do.
Lawrence Bacow: We, I think, are often too willing to submit to what I sometimes describe as curricular entropy. The fact that we offer more and more flavors of different kinds of courses and options for students. That actually puts lots of burden on faculty to create new courses all the time, to constantly be inventing new ways of teaching things. And while some of that certainly produces great teaching, we don’t want to discourage that, we’re not very good at sort of saying, “Fine, if you’re going to do that, let us relieve you from having to also offer a slightly different version of the same material but under a different guise.“ So I think we need to be focused and disciplined in how we expand the curriculum. Sometimes we may want to change the curriculum without expanding it. And then I think that we need to be able to frame real choices for our faculty and students.
Robert Iuliano: I’m going to change the gears again, Larry. Harvard recently won round one of a very contentious piece of litigation, challenging the college’s right to admit a diverse student body through the consideration of race in admissions. I think it’s fair to say that at it’s core of the litigation reflected very different views about the importance of diversity on college and university campuses. What’s your view? Why does diversity matter to a liberal arts education?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, it matters for a couple of reasons. First, it matters because we learn from our differences. Any college would be a very, very dull place if every student who came to the college came from the same place, had the exact same lived life experience and wanted to study the same subject, wanted to pursue the same career. We need far more than that to create an interesting student body. And our students learn as much from each other as they learned from us. So we embrace diversity in part because it creates a far more interesting, rich learning environment for everybody. That’s one reason.
Lawrence Bacow: The second reason is because each of our campus seeks to educate the leaders of the world that we will inhabit going forward, and that is a more diverse world, and I believe we have an obligation, a responsibility to try and ensure that we are educating the people for that world who reflect the world that they will themselves inhabit. And that’s a serious responsibility, which I think all of our institutions have to take.
Lawrence Bacow: There was a powerful moment in the trial at the very, very beginning, which you’re probably familiar with and which Bill Lee, who was our lead counsel in the case and who himself is Asian-American, the end of his opening argument said to the judge, and I’m paraphrasing, but I think I’m getting it pretty close to right, he said, “Your Honor, I recall the very first case I tried here in Federal District Court as a young attorney some 40 years ago. On that day, there was one woman in the courtroom, she was the court reporter. I was the only person of color in the court. Your Honor, look at this courtroom today. This courtroom looks differently than it did back then because of the good work of America’s higher education institutions seeking to reflect the diversity of this nation, and we’re a better country because of it.” That’s what was at stake in the case, and I think that’s one of the reasons why diversity is so important.
Robert Iuliano: Well said. I was in the courtroom that day and it was a powerful, powerful statement by Bill. Harvard has worked really hard, not only creating the fact of diversity, the state of diversity among its student body, but is really working as well hard on the question of how to take the full measure of that diversity to ensure that every student has the ability to be their authentic selves in the words of our taskforce on belonging and inclusion, that they fully belong and our included. What thoughts do you have about the sort of work that we have to do to ensure that diversity isn’t just a fact, but it’s something that in the words of the taskforce, if I recall right, that the fruits are fully harvested?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, I think this is very much a work in progress and we’re still understanding how to ensure that the class not only, as you say, is diverse, but that the experiences of our students who come to campuses like ours, each has the opportunity to thrive. In some cases, it requires a lot more resources than we have understood in the past. Students who are the first in their families to go to college face challenges that students who have older siblings, who have parents who have gone to college, do not. We need to be attentive to that. We need to recognize that students, while we may provide generous financial aid which allows students to attend college, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they each have the same opportunity to have the same kind of experience while they’re there. There are many kinds of experiences that kids have, you know, classmates who are just going into town to get a sandwich or a burger, students who are on full financial aid may not be able to afford to do that. Kids like to be part of a group. And so we need to be attentive to make sure that we don’t unintentionally provide for very different kinds of experiences for students based upon either their socioeconomic status or whether or not they’ve had access to the kind of advice and guidance before coming to campus that some of our students do.
Robert Iuliano: Thank you. This is work that all of higher education has to undertake with real purpose, and I know Harvard’s doing a lot of this work as is Gettysburg. A couple of more questions, Larry, and again, I’m grateful for your time today. You said earlier that there is a perception that institutions of higher education may not be open to the fullest range of perspectives. What do we do to combat that perception and is it just a perception from your perspective?
Lawrence Bacow: Well, you know I think there are a number of things which we can do to combat it. I think we need to go out of our way to ensure that every voice on campus feels like they can be heard, sometimes and what we’ve learned at Harvard is that some of the students who feel most reluctant to express themselves are conservative students for fear that there’ll be judged. I think we need to be attentive to how social media is used in classes and actually to discourage it there. I think we need to be clear about the ground rules so that students feel comfortable expressing themselves and not worry that they’re going to be called out on social media. Somebody tweets something that somebody says, and then have them become the object of attention from people outside of our campuses for something which they may have said on campus, that does not encourage open and honest debate.
Lawrence Bacow: I think we need to make sure that our campuses are places where speakers from across the ideological spectrum are welcomed and feel comfortable coming and debating the great issues of our time. I make it a point to tell everybody that, as you know, our motto at Harvard is Veritas, and truth needs to be discovered, it needs to be revealed, it needs to be tested on the anvil of ideas. And so we have to be willing to engage with people who think differently from us.
Lawrence Bacow: So I think as leaders we have an affirmative obligation to go out of our way to bring people to campus who are going to challenge conventional wisdom on almost any subject. So those are things which we can and which we need to do. I also think we need to be firm in situations in which some may attempt to limit the right of free speech of others. You know, when people disrupt speakers or public events, we should not allow the heckler’s veto to prevail. I also think it’s incumbent upon all of us to try and ensure that freedom of speech is not exercised to the detriment of a few, and that those few are not left themselves to sometimes bear the burden of the free speech of others. Because free speech can sometimes be hurtful to others and we need to recognize that as well.
Robert Iuliano: Very well said. As you know, because I was thrilled that you attended the inauguration, these were some of the themes that I sounded in my comments, and it was in fact reassuring for me to look down, and since the delegates were arranged in order of the age of the institution, to see you in your Puritan robe sitting in the first seat. Thank you again for coming to the installation and inauguration weekend. What impressions of Gettysburg did the weekend leave with you?
Lawrence Bacow: The most important one is how steeped in history and shaped by history Gettysburg is. I was very touched and moved by your description of the experience of first year students walking to the site where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address, how that bonds the community, but also how the values that were represented in Lincoln’s iconic speech continue to be values which I think people on your campus try to embrace and live up to on a daily basis. His words in many respects have never been more important, and so I think the mission of the college is equally important today, that more than anything else is what came through for me.
Lawrence Bacow: The other thing I have to say is just how enthusiastically the Gettysburg community is embracing your leadership and is also embracing Susan. That was wonderful to see, but not a surprise.
Robert Iuliano: Well, thank you. It was, again, great to have you there. And I felt incredibly lucky to be welcomed by the community as I have.
Robert Iuliano: So I have one last question from a very experienced president to someone who is now in his third and a half month. Any advice to me?
Lawrence Bacow: Watch your waistline.
Robert Iuliano: You should know that the food here at Gettysburg is phenomenal. So I’m already struggling with that. But I’m working on it.
Lawrence Bacow: Yeah, we eat for a living in these jobs. I often say that my real title is not president, but university stomach.
Robert Iuliano: Well, Larry, thank you so very much for joining us today for kicking off this podcast series. I know we are wiser by virtue of the words that you offered us today. I’m grateful for it. So thank you for taking the time out of your day to join us.
Lawrence Bacow: Great to talk to you, Bob, and best of luck to you and to Gettysburg.
Robert Iuliano: Thank you, Larry.
Robert Iuliano: Let me conclude with a slice of life at Gettysburg College. I recently had privilege of attending the Hall of Athletic Honors Ceremony, where each of the inductees gave such powerfully personal testimony to what athletics meant to them, but even more so what teamwork meant to them and the community that they found at Gettysburg College. One of the touching aspects of the ceremony was the number of teammates, former teammates who came to celebrate along with the inductees. But perhaps the highlight for me of the entire night was with one of the inductees, Joe Cordova went up to acknowledge his award and brought with him his two young children, and his son the entire time that Joe speaking had such evident pride in his father and was holding up the placard with his father’s face engraved on it, with the largest smile you could ever imagine. It was such a statement about family and such a statement about Gettysburg. It was so much fun to be there.
Robert Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting Gettysburg.edu. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. Until next time.