The Chief of Staff to Harvard University President Larry Bacow on the state of higher education, inclusion, and leadership.
Throughout his inaugural address, Harvard’s new president, Larry Bacow, acknowledged the institution’s legacy of excellence. Not one for false modesty or euphemisms, the straightforward Bacow hopes to leverage Harvard’s outsized influence in the world to lead the university at a challenging time with people who have remarkable experience and perspective.
One of those people is Patricia Bellinger, his Chief of Staff.
Both cerebral and quick-thinking, Bellinger is, in many ways, the kind of professional you’d expect would sit across the hall from the president of Harvard. She is a graduate of the university and has a long career in both private industry and as head of the Harvard Kennedy School’s prestigious Center for Public Leadership.
But as an African-American woman who was a first-generation college student, Bellinger defies the Hollywood version of the Harvard administrator, which may be one of the reasons Bacow persuaded her to take the job.
While recognizing that her role brings with it an enormous amount of influence, Bellinger seems undaunted by it. She views controversies as just part of the job of a higher education standard-bearer. In a candid interview in her office, Bellinger makes the connection between her life’s work in diversity and inclusion, her views on emotional health and wellness, and her own personal story to the task ahead.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
Mary Christie Quarterly: What was your first reaction when President Bacow offered you the job?
Patricia Bellinger: Larry and I were friends. He was my inaugural leader in residence (of the Rita Hauser Leaders-in-Residence program) when I was at the Kennedy School, so he was part of the community for the Center for Public Leadership. When he became president, I joked with him: “Why on earth would you say yes to this? – and by the way, what did your wife say?”
When he asked me to come on as his chief of staff, I immediately said, “You need a much younger person with more energy,” and he said, “No, I need you. You’re the person I think can do this job.” I saw myself at the end of my career. Adding to that, I lost my husband 15 months ago, so I was in a very raw place emotionally. This was definitely not the sort of role I had on my radar.
What I will tell you is the only reason that I was willing to consider this was because of Larry. He is not only one of the most impressive leaders I have ever worked with, he is also one of the kindest, most decent human beings that I know.
When I agreed to take the job I said, “I don’t want to be the chief of staff to the President of Harvard but I’ll be your chief of staff.”
MCQ: What is it about the Bacow agenda that most appeals to you?
PB: Larry’s mission and his own motivation for taking the job are why I’m here. Larry is one of the leading thought leaders and statesmen in higher education today and his leadership comes at a time when higher education is under a dramatic threat. There’s a sense, for the first time in my life, that people are questioning the value of a four-year education. Just take the notion of considering taxation of the higher education system.
Larry often says, “talent is distributed equally but opportunity is not.” I believe that in a place like the United States, higher education is the way for society to remain competitive, but also for greater equality of opportunity and the fair and equitable distribution of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – all of that generally passes through having a good education.
I care about those things. I’ve spent the majority of my career trying to open up opportunities for people through greater diversity and inclusion at an institutional level. This is something that is important in my life and to the history of my family. It is something that Larry and I share.
So we need higher education more than ever and, yet as a country, we’re investing in it less and less. When we think about engines of economic development and progress on virtually any dimension of society, it comes back to not just one’s individual education, but to the role in society of institutions of higher education.
And yet, if you look at public institutions in particular, four out of five children in our country who will receive a college degree will go to a public university, yet funding to these critically important institutions has been dramatically cut.
What has happened is the burden of the cost for higher education has been shifted to families and students though loans. And that burden is dramatic. Our society’s failure to boost investment in education for our people strikes me as terribly short-sighted.
MCQ: What is Harvard’s role in addressing these issues?
PB: There are many ways we think about Harvard’s contribution in this area, starting with the wide range of socio-economic backgrounds of the students who are able to come here. We are in a privileged position to offer need-blind aid. Over 60 percent of the undergraduates at Harvard College are on some form of financial aid.
Another way we are leading in this area is the work that is being done here in terms of income inequality, the opportunity gap, mass incarceration, the public education system.
I think of it as concentric circles of contribution and good that an institution like this can do, from scholarship and teaching to the development of public leaders.
Fifty-six graduates of Harvard are in Congress today. Our alumni are often recognized as titans of industry but they are also leaders of major non-profit organizations.
MCQ: How important is the role of the president in bringing about societal change?
PB: For better or worse, I think the President of Harvard is a leader in higher education worldwide. With that simple statement, there are places and ways that the President of Harvard can make enormous contributions.
Another example is really trying to go after socioeconomic diversity in our class. Our goal is to identify young people who don’t even know they can get to college because of the challenge of affordability – let alone to a place like Harvard. And they may well have the talent to do so.
One of the most important things Larry hopes to achieve is his goal to ensure that every undergraduate who wants a public service internship will have the opportunity. Our demand today far outstrips our capacity to fund all of the students hoping for a public service experience, so this has become a really important objective we’re working on.
But when the president lifts up public service and makes it a cornerstone of his presidency, that can really help shine a light for students and alums throughout our community.
MCQ: Speaking of standing up, what has President Bacow’s response been to student activism at Harvard?
PB: I think our campuses today are reflecting the mood of the nation and not just our students but also our faculty. What I love to see with Larry is that as challenges arise, he meets them head on.
Literally, he will be going somewhere to give a speech and will see students protesting on a particular issue and he will stop and talk to them. Nobody stops and talks to students and thanks them for their activism. But that doesn’t mean he agrees with them.
He leads with this approach where: “I am here with respect for your issues, to hear your point of view. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get what you’re asking for.”
MCQ: What about other student affairs issues? Do you worry about students’ emotional and behavioral health?
PB: Absolutely. This is a very large community, so this is something we think about and talk about a lot.
From our perspective, I think it starts with making sure the resources and supports are in place.
We have a task force right now that’s examining mental health on campus: What are the factors? What are the available resources? What more should we be doing? How might we contribute to a culture of support and inclusion?
Inclusion and belonging, which was a focus of President Faust, is something Larry cares deeply about and seeks to drive forward. He has carried on a tradition he has had from when he was President of Tufts where he took on an advising role to six freshmen.
In directing them through their first year, he is learning from them – what their struggles are, what they are interested in, and what is difficult for them.
We also think a lot about the special needs of diverse students. Inclusion and belonging are heightened concerns for minority and first-generation students. We have a program, led by upperclassmen first generation students, whereby first-generation freshmen come to campus a week before orientation. They have the opportunity to discover the place through the eyes of those who came before them – students who understand their dilemmas and their challenges.
Larry feels incredibly strongly about free speech, but sometimes the actions of universities can be misinterpreted when it comes to these issues because our society is evolving.
We try to think about safe space and how we define these. What does it feel like to be on a campus as a survivor of sexual assault? There is a good reason to take into account the social emotional health of someone who has experienced trauma.
We are undergoing a societal evolution.
MCQ: Harvard has been in the news quite a bit since President Bacow’s inauguration, from external lawsuits to internal protests. How do you deal with this as a leadership team?
PB: As far as controversies go, I’m not sure we’ve had more than our fair share but we always feel — and I know Larry does – that it’s important to grapple with issues.
Our faculty and our student body are talented, engaged, and active and that means we have to lead with authenticity. We have to think hard about issues.
You don’t have to agree with what’s going on, but we try to engage. Our approach is always to treat peoples’ issues and concerns with respect because that is a sign of a healthy democracy.
MCQ: How does that impact your job? Do you find it distracting?
PB: My role, and for those in the president’s inner circle, is to be a sensor; to get out there and hear what’s going on and not become isolated. I don’t see controversial issues as a distraction. I see them as part of my job. The challenge is to be sufficiently agile while not being defensive.
Every day it’s: “This is what I need to manage right now – let’s think about how to act constructively. Let’s call in a meeting quickly.” You have to swing capacity in your schedule. You can’t just read and think and look at issues in advance, you have to respond with agility. And you have to be comfortable with ambiguity.