Bacow looks back on 27 years at MIT


"The single greatest predictor of whether a student has a great experience at MIT is whether or not they get to know one faculty member really well," said Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow.

For Larry Bacow, that faculty member was Robert M. Solow, the Institute Professor emeritus in economics who was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1987.

Professor Bacow, 49, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, talked about his 27 years at MIT on Monday. It was announced May 9 that he will leave MIT to become the 12th president of Tufts University beginning in the fall.

"I had an extraordinary experience as an undergraduate at MIT. As a sophomore, I took a course with Bob Solow, 14.06 (Intermediate Macroeconomics). One day, timidly, I went up to him to ask a question about a footnote to a reading," Professor Bacow recalled.

"Bob invited me back to his office to talk. That led to a suggestion that we do a reading course together. So in the second semester of my sophomore year, I got an hour a week, one on one, with one of the foremost economists in the world. I was 19!

"I wouldn't be here without Bob Solow," the 49-year-old Michigan native said. "At the end of my junior year, I realized I could graduate, but it was too late to get into law school. So I was looking for something to do for a year.

"Bob discouraged me from becoming a lawyer. He tried to get me to stay at MIT in economics. But when I said no, he steered me to the Kennedy School at Harvard" -- the joint program conferring a master's in public policy and a JD degree from Harvard Law School. "Harvard probably accepted me exclusively on the basis of Bob's recommendation," said Professor Bacow.

After getting his PhD from Harvard in 1977, "I thought Adele [his wife] and I were going to go to Washington. It was the beginning of the Carter administration and Adele and I were both planning to go into government."

He talked again to his mentor. "Solow said the government will always be ready and waiting when you're ready. Teach for a few years; you may like it."

Professor Bacow got an offer of a two-year, non-tenure-track appointment at MIT. "We didn't have to move. Urban studies and planning was Adele's department [MCP 1977]. She knew all the faculty. For the first two years, I was known as Adele Fleet's husband.

"Then, I got a call from the MIT Press," where Professor Solow was chairman of the editorial board. They wanted to publish Bacow's thesis. He then got an invitation from the American Economic Association to present a paper to the law and economics section at the annual meeting. Professor Solow was president of the AEA.

"Every time I turned around, Bob was helping me. It took me a long time to figure out how to thank Bob. I finally realized the way to thank him was to carry on the tradition," Professor Bacow said.

"A lot of what I've tried to do is to create more opportunities for faculty and students to get together. It's one of the reasons there are five faculty residences in the new Simmons Hall," the undergraduate residence being built on Vassar Street.

"It's why I've worked with others to raise additional support for freshman advising seminars, for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and for the Stochastic Student-Faculty dinners. It's why I've tried to support the development of community space on campus -- why the Z Center [the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center] is going to be a place where students, faculty and staff will work out and sweat together, and then have a drink at the center's juice bar," he said.

"Metaphorically, Massachusetts Avenue has been a wall that has divided our campus -- faculty and classes east of Mass. Ave. and student life west of Mass. Ave. Part of what I've tried to do is to poke a few holes in that wall. Some students have interpreted that as the faculty invading their space," though Professor Bacow said he sees it as opening more opportunities for students to get to know faculty in new ways.

That's why he agreed this year to become the faculty advisor to the Zeta Psi fraternity at 233 Massachusetts Ave., where his son Jay, a junior in physics, is living. Professor Bacow's own fraternity at MIT was Zeta Beta Tau at 58 Manchester Rd. in Brookline.

FRATERNITIES

"I think fraternities are very important at MIT and I hope they will continue to be for many years to come. My closest friends today are my fraternity brothers. I had a wonderful experience. My son is having a wonderful experience.

"Having said that, I think the fraternity system that existed at MIT was not sustainable without some meaningful change. The world has changed. The demographics of MIT have changed. The fraternity system had to adapt if it were to flourish.

"I regret that so many alumni have interpreted the changes we've made as an attack on the fraternity system," Professor Bacow said. "Actually, we've invested a huge amount of time as well as resources to support the system. We've increased support in the Office of the Dean for Student Life. We've committed financial resources to help in the transition of all freshmen on campus. We've deeply engaged the IFC [InterFraternity Council] in the planning for 2002. We've helped houses to raise resources to preserve their physical infrastructure and supported Chi Phi in their fundraising campaign.

"We want this system to prosper because it provides a wonderful living and learning environment for many of our students. I think personally it can be improved, and the job of the administration is to do what is best to strengthen all of MIT."

ADMINISTRATION

Professor Bacow's career as an administrator began in 1984, when he and Charles H. Spaulding founded the MIT Center for Real Estate, the first such center in the United States. "The real estate capital market accounts for a significant portion of the entire capital stock of this country, but it was little studied, there was no tradition of research, and no place to go to hire people who understood the industry," he said. Since MIT's pioneering step, more than two dozen other universities have established similar centers.

The major change in his career came in his role as chair of the faculty from 1995-97.

"That put me in the thick of things. Most of us as faculty spend our time tunneling down deeply into our respective disciplines. We know our faculty neighbors, both intellectually and geographically. But we really don't get to know other faculty. The wonderful thingabout being chair of the faculty is that I got to know colleagues from throughout the Institute.

"One of the things that is unusual about MIT is that we don't draw sharp distinctions between faculty and administration. The administration understands that 'the faculty are the Institute.'

"There is a lack of pretentiousness at MIT. It is populated by a lot of really nice, decent people who have a wonderful capacity to laugh at themselves," he said.

In 1997, Professor Bacow worked with Professors David H. Marks and Daniel Roos on the $20 million Ford research collaboration and helped create the new Center for Environmental Initiatives and the Consortium on Global Environmental Challenges.

After Provost Joel Moses announced he was stepping down, President Charles M. Vest made the co-equal appointments of Provost Robert A. Brown and Chancellor Bacow in June 1998.

Reflecting on the past three years, Professor Bacow said, "Virtually everything I've done at MIT, I've done with others. I'm proud of the work we have done with the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, the work we've done in reinvigorating athletics at MIT, and the new communications requirement, which I had a small role in getting started as chair of the faculty.

"I'm really proud that we have more than 800 beds of graduate housing under construction as well as the new Simmons Hall for undergraduates. I'm proud of the way we engaged the community in the redesign of our undergraduate housing system. I'm also proud of how we were able to manage the debate about the future of ROTC during my term as faculty chair. What could have fractured this campus instead brought out the best in it.

"We have overhauled the process of moving and allocating space on campus. It is now a far more open process that insures that the decisions we make will reinforce academic priorities.

"I'm proud of what we have done in our research collaborations and partnerships with industry, and with the partnership with Cambridge University.

"This is a hard place to leave," Professor Bacow said. "I have been blessed with truly magnificent colleagues, both faculty and staff. I will miss them all."

Vest praises Bacow as academic leader

"Larry Bacow will be an outstanding university president," said President Charles Vest in a statement last week. He credited Professor Bacow with numerous achievements, including "an enhanced learning environment, design of a new vision for our residential system, new rigor to campus space planning, and major institutional partnerships with universities and industry worldwide.

"He is a talented academic leader and an exceptional colleague. His dedication to the highest values of the academy, combined with his outstanding organizational and diplomatic skills, has been demonstrated in countless ways. He is masterful at energizing people and helping to achieve common vision, and he is a steadfast voice of conscience and reason," Dr. Vest said.

Dr. Vest added that he expects to announce succession plans in the very near future.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 16, 2001.


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