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February 11, 2018

Harvard named Larry Bacow as the next president of the university on Sunday. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University)

After a seven month search, Harvard has named former MIT chancellor and Tufts president Larry Bacow as its 29th president.

Bacow, who was originally part of the committee tasked with finding a new president, agreed to interview for the job late last year, the Harvard Crimson reports. He starts July 1.

Speaking on campus for the first time since being named president on Sunday, Bacow admitted he was having an out-of-body experience.

“Nobody springs from the womb ever expecting to be president of Harvard University," Bacow said.

Bacow takes the helm as higher education as a whole has come under intense scrutiny. He said some criticism of American higher education as unaffordable and out-of-touch is fair.

“We need to do a better job of controlling our costs. We need to do a better job of operating more efficiently," he said. "We need to collaborate with others, with our peer institutions, with the industry and the broader world and we need to be vigilant to ensure that our campuses are always open to new ideas.”

The son of Jewish immigrants, Bacow grew in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1950s, when, he says, a high school degree could lead to a well-paying job.

“You could graduate from Pontiac Central or Pontiac Northern High School on a Friday and go to work in one of those GM plants and be pretty much guaranteed a comfortable middle-class existence with benefits with a pension you'd send your kids to a good school," he said. "Actually, you pay off your mortgage maybe even buy a little place and the lake. That's all gone.”

Bacow will succeed historian Drew Faust, Harvard's first woman president. 

After the announcement, Faust offered some advice. 

"Enjoy the ride," she said.

Faust has been criticized for failing to use her bully pulpit to protect the academy in these polarizing times. She dismissed that idea.

“That’s something I’ve done endlessly as president, defending the humanities, defending funding for science, spending enormous amounts of time in Washington," she said. "Your public persona and public voice is integral to the role.”

Higher education leaders see Bacow as an advocate for breaking down barriers and need-based financial aid.

Terry Hartle, with the American Council on Education, called Bacow an inspired choice.

“He’s one of the most respected and successful figures in American higher education," Hartle said. "He has an extraordinary academic pedigree and a down-to-earth approach to leadership.”

Bacow may be impressive to some, but students on campus were mostly indifferent about the choice.

Brandi Moore, a 21-year-old biology major, was disappointed that another white man was named president.

"Harvard is striving to kind of change its image, and then the president of the university is kind of falling right in line with what you might expect," she said.

Still, she said she wants to see what he does as president before passing judgement on his performance.

Bacow said he's committed to diversity and thinks academic institutions like Harvard need to pay more attention to those the economy has left behind.

"I know of no place on earth with greater potential to help change people's lives for the better," Bacow said. "In a nation divided, these guiding ideals have never been more important."

WGBH's Esteban Bustillos contributed to this report.

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