Conversations with Three Harvard University Presidents

Here’s what I recommend to every person about to graduate: Reach out to the professor you’ve always wanted to meet but never had the chance to! Take the opportunity to get to know them before you step out of the school gates — we underestimate how readily accessible professors are while we’re still students. Only when we’ve graduated do we realize how difficult it is now to sustain the same level of intellectual intensity and spontaneity that was once so ubiquitous in the cradle of university life.

In the final weeks leading up to Commencement, my friend and I decided to draw up a bucket list of professors we wanted to chat with. And we decided to go big or go home. So we reached out to three Harvard University Presidents, past and present: Larry Bacow, Drew Faust, and Larry Summers. ✨ To our surprise, they all agreed to meet with us — some even expressed how rare and bold it was for students to reach out to them. Moral of the story: If you really want to meet someone, there’s always no harm in trying (the worst thing that could happen is that they don’t reply)!!! Of all the professors I reached out to before graduation, only one never responded. The odds are in your favor, take heart! ❤️‍🔥

So here’s a bit of what I learned in conversations over meals with each current/ex-President. Insights galore! 💡

Larry Bacow,  Current President of Harvard University

President Bacow met with us in his office and chatted with us for close to an hour. He shared his impressions of meeting world leaders, including his trip to China and encounter with Xi Jinping, his choice of an Uyghur poem. Most interestingly, he shared about his own meandering journey through life. In law school, his friends all worried about him (“What would Larry end up doing?”) and Bacow decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer, pursuing academia instead. Again and again, whenever at crossroads, he always ended up choosing the path that seemed slower (including his relationship over a coveted job) — that led him to more detours, but also made it possible for him to end up in places he never expected.

No one dreams of becoming a University President as a kid, he told us. You should never be perfectly qualified for a job, or even worse be overqualified. Find that sweet spot — a job should stretch you just enough. That’s what the current job of University President is for him.

Wise parting words: Life is not a game (so there’s no winning or losing). It’s also not a race (so there’s no need to be the fastest or the first). President Bacow always chose the slower path but that brought him to where he is today.

Drew Faust, 28th Harvard University President

Professor Faust chatted with us over lunch in the dining hall, over plates of salad and potatoes. So warm and gentle in her demeanor (I really hope I can be like her in my seventies 🥺).

She’s a historian by training, so a lot of the conversation circled around how history has aided in her leadership. What’s interesting also is how much history she herself has created and embodied: Prof. Faust remains the first and only woman to serve as Harvard University President since the school’s founding in 1636. Growing up in the South, she said, most doors were shut for women. Her path was one of constant experimentation, discovery, and lots of firsts. Whenever the opportunity to do something different came up, she would say yes. So her advice is that there isn’t a need to plan too far ahead, nor to force-fit our futures into the narrowness of our present circumstances. Stay open-minded, always say yes, and that keeps you poised for any new opportunity that arises.

Larry Summers, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury and 27th Harvard University President

One of the most interesting dinners I’ve ever had in my life, hands down. 🌟

Professor Summers talked about the many career turns in his life and its ups and downs. At 28, he became one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history. One of his ex-students asked him to serve as an economic advisor in a presidential campaign, and Summers said yes. The campaign failed but he ended up receiving an opportunity to work at the World Bank. Forced to choose between his Harvard tenure and the gig, he left Harvard and gave up his tenure (which his parents thought he was crazy to do). The rest is history: Larry Summers became Chief Economist at the World Bank, later the Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, and director of the National Economic Council under Obama. He’s been at the forefront of American economic policymaking through both the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 Great Recession.

Prof. Summers spoke candidly about his resignation as University President in 2006 and reflected on his own shortcomings (he shared the leadership analogy of mismatched expectations: “I thought being University President was like being the CEO of an organization, but the faculty wanted me to be Michael Jordan’s coach.”) His bluntness was refreshing.

And, of course, we had to pick his brain on everything ranging from inflation to how he makes forecasts to life advice to U.S.-China relations to how the Harvard student body has changed over the past few decades. What impressed me most was how he never wasted a word — so clear was his train of thought. He even shared stories about Sheryl Sandberg (TLDR takeaway: sometimes, choosing a job you’re B+ passionate about in an A+ environment or with an A+ mentor >>> a job you’re A+ passionate about in a B- environment or with a B- mentor — make of this what you will haha).

And dinner was Prof. Summers’ treat!!! : )

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Incredibly grateful to all three professors who took the time to meet with us. Will carry their words of advice and their outlook on life with me as I venture onwards, beyond the gates 🙏🍀

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