Lawrence S. Bacow is named the 29th President of Harvard University. He is pictured in Loeb House at Harvard University. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard)

Lawrence S. Bacow, a longtime academic leader with expertise in environmental policy and higher education, will be the next president of Harvard University.

He takes on the role, perhaps the most visible symbol of American higher education, at a time when universities are a lightning rod for cultural debate.

“Larry Bacow is one of the most accomplished, admired, insightful and effective leaders in American higher education,” said William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corp. and chair of the presidential search committee. “This is a pivotal moment for higher education — one full of extraordinary possibilities to pursue new knowledge, enhance education and serve society, but also a time when the singular value of higher education and university research has too often been challenged and called into doubt. Such a time calls for skillful leadership, strategic thinking, and disciplined execution. Larry will provide just that.”

Bacow will replace the first woman to hold Harvard’s presidency, Drew Gilpin Faust, a historian who has led the institution since 2007.

The Harvard Crimson, which first reported the story Sunday afternoon, reported that students and alumni had urged the search committee to consider candidates from underrepresented groups. Bacow, a 66-year-old white man, was initially a member of the search committee and in that role had met with a group of Latino students and alumni to listen to their thoughts about leadership at Harvard, according to the Crimson.

Bacow is the Hauser leader-in-residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership, after spending a decade as the president of Tufts University.

As president of Tufts, Bacow oversaw an ambitious fundraising drive, and spoke out about the Dream Act. “I have seen extraordinarily talented young people who did not make a decision to come to this country on their own,’’ he told the Boston Globe in 2010. “And to say no to them, to say we’re not going to give you an opportunity to become citizens, just strikes me not only as morally wrong but wrongheaded.”

His parents were immigrants — his father was a refugee and his mother a survivor of Auschwitz — and he has strong belief in the power of education to elevate people’s lives and opportunities, several people said.

“The Harvard I have known has always stood for at least three things: the pursuit of truth, an unwavering commitment to excellence, and opportunity,” Bacow said after being elected to the role by the Harvard Corp. with the consent of the university’s Board of Overseers. “In a nation divided, these guiding ideals have never been more important.

“We should never shy away from nor be apologetic about affirming our commitment to making the world a better place through our teaching and scholarship and our commitment to truth, excellence, and opportunity for all. And we should always recognize that, for all of our progress toward realizing these ideals over decades and centuries, there is much more we can learn, more we can contribute, more we can do better.”

Bacow grew up in Michigan, attended college at MIT and went on to earn three degrees from Harvard, in law and public policy.

He spent much of his career at MIT, and his research interests include environmental policy, negotiation, economics, and the intersection of law and public policy.

Lee said Bacow “will bring to the task not only wide experience, deep expertise and an intimate familiarity with Harvard’s opportunities and challenges, but also a passionate commitment to helping universities, and everyone within them, serve the larger world. He is ideally positioned to hit the ground running and keep Harvard moving ambitiously forward.”

He will become the 29th president of Harvard on July 1.

Last summer, Faust announced she would step down as president.

L. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, said, “Larry brings to Harvard a significant wealth of knowledge, breadth, experience and vision in higher education. … He has demonstrated throughout his career a deep commitment to the role of higher education as a pathway to opportunity and a better world.”

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said Bacow had worked with her on a three-year project studying the state of public research universities and called him “a terrific choice for Harvard and for higher education in general. … I found him to be a great listener, a thoughtful colleague and smart about higher education.”

Harvard signifies excellence in academia, she said, so his decisions will have resonance.

“It’s a bully pulpit, and  a very important bully pulpit,” Coleman said.