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Board of Overseers Campaign Hotly Contested

8.10.20

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As voting in this year’s election for members of the Board of Overseers concludes—the deadline is August 18 at 5:00 p.m.—the campaign has become unusually heated. As reported, the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) committee’s annual slate of nominees is being challenged by a petition slate campaigning on the Harvard Forward (HF) platform of divestment of fossil-fuel assets from the endowment, other actions related to investment policy and academic work on climate change, and an agenda of governance reforms affecting the Board of Overseers itself.

The balloting itself was postponed from spring, at the initial height of the coronavirus pandemic, reflecting difficulties in distributing paper ballots to eligible voters, including international alumni and many whose mailing addresses are at business offices—for now, not readily accessible in many cases.

HF organized itself to campaign through vigorous social-media outreach, and arranged meet-ups at cities around the world to obtain the 2,936 valid nominating signatures each of the slate’s candidates required to secure a place on the ballot (a task it completed successfully by the February 1 deadline). Since then, of course, the social-distancing requirements put in place to combat the pandemic have made a meeting-centric strategy infeasible, so HF has put renewed emphasis on its social-media campaigning, backed up by endorsements from prominent alumni involved in action to combat climate change—through advocacy of divestment or other means (among them, Al Gore ’69, LL.D. ’94, and Bill McKibben ’82).

The HAA officially remains neutral in elections, but is clearly interested in making sure alumni are aware of this contest, particularly at this unusual time of year, and encouraging them to vote (as only a small percentage of eligible members of the community customarily do). In late February, Philip Lovejoy, HAA executive director (and a member of the Harvard Magazine Inc. Board of Directors) and Tracy P. Palandjian ’93, M.B.A. ’97, chair of the HAA Committee to Nominate Overseers and Elected [HAA] Directors, made themselves available to discuss how the committee goes about its work of assembling a slate of nominees, and how it views the duties of elected Overseers. Four months after publication of that article, a similar conversation and account appeared in The Harvard Gazette, which is disseminated to the broad alumni audience through the HAA; a few days earlier, the Gazette had published a piece on “Eight current Overseers share their unique stories,” suggesting the degree of University interest in the election. And Lovejoy devoted a July email (he reaches out to alumni leaders regularly) to the “unprecedented level of campaigning across the Overseer and HAA Elected Director ballots,” referring to both prior articles on the nomination process, among other official resources, and stressing how important it is that alumni casting their ballots “understand what they’re voting for and decide who they want to see guiding the University.”

The Alumni Leaders’ Critique of Harvard Forward

On August 4, Vanessa Liu ’96, J.D. ’03, first vice president of the HAA and a member of the executive committee, forwarded a letter from herself and “numerous Harvard alumni volunteer leaders” (including past HAA presidents Martin J. Grasso Jr. and Alice Hill), dated August 3 and expressing “the concern [we] have with the current Harvard Overseer elections.” The letter pointedly states:

The principal role for Overseers is academic oversight and evaluation (i.e., ensuring the excellence of Harvard’s Schools and departments), not making asset allocation decisions. 

We are both concerned and disappointed by the tactics that have been employed by the organization campaigning for the five petition candidates for Overseer. 

The authors outline Overseers’ responsibilities (“to supervise and evaluate the University’s academic and research programs by serving on a wide array of standing and visiting committees”) and underscore that Overseers, unlike members of the Harvard Corporation, “do not have direct influence over the fiduciary, investment, and/or divestment decisions of the University.” Thus, they continue:

Rather than pushing their own single-issue or multi-issue agendas, special interests, or political viewpoints, and forcing Harvard to do what they think is best, Overseers are tasked with helping the University arrive at better outcomes by asking powerful, insightful questions and by considering a long-term, strategic vision for Harvard. 

The letter then turns to direct criticism of the HF slate. Under a subhead, “Can Harvard be Bought?” the letter says, “All five petition candidates have been placed on the ballot through the efforts and support of a group which is focused on influencing the asset allocation decisions of Harvard’s endowment management team and forcing the University to divest from fossil fuel companies.” Beyond critiquing this platform (“Not only is the group’s main goal outside the mission of the overseers,”), the letters states that “the organization…is leveraging atypical campaigning methods,” which it says include “copious funding,” “a full-time campaign staff, operating costs, and targeted ads”—all in contrast to the HAA committee nominees who “are discouraged from actively campaigning” and “do not, and should not, run on a specific platform.” The letter also says HF lacks transparency “regarding its governance.”

In sum, the alumni correspondents write, “The precedent for effectively ‘buying’ seats on the Board of Overseers threatens to undermine the integrity of the University and its mission,” and urges the electorate to “Keep the University from being manipulated by special interests.”

It is worth noting that in 2016, when affirmative-action opponent Ron Unz ’83 organized a “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” petition slate, challenging a core University value, much of that campaign was conducted online, with organized alumni opposition to the petition slate, but without the degree of intensity and apparent animosity that is cropping up this year.

Harvard Forward Responds

Unable to hold actual meetings, HF has organized virtual ones: a July 28 session on alumni activism through the ages, and a “young elected leaders panel” on August 5.

And now it has responded, at length, to the August 3 alumni leaders’ missive. A letter dated August 10 from HF co-founders Danielle Strasburger ’18 and Nathán Goldberg Crenier ’18 (campaign manager/director, and president/director, respectively, of The Boarding School, a nonprofit formed to elevate young people to serve on boards of organizations) describes their effort this way:

Harvard Forward is a grassroots movement, founded and run by young Harvard alumni, to elect petition candidates to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a platform of climate justice, social responsibility, and inclusive governance. Harvard has refused to take ownership of its failures on these issues, despite the ongoing efforts of students, alumni, and faculty to effect change. Given Harvard’s inertia, we decided to try a different tactic: encourage candidates to run for the Board on a bold platform and let alumni choose what type of leadership they want to see from Harvard. 

Citing the more than 4,500 alumni signatures obtained to put the candidates on the ballot, they continue, “It doesn’t get much more alumni-driven than our campaign.”

In response to the alumni leaders, they say:

Unfortunately, those who benefit from the status quo often resist attempts to democratize systems of power. In the latest example of this, a group of “Harvard Alumni Volunteer Leaders'' is circulating a letter attacking Harvard Forward​ ​with false information and accusations.​ ​This is the same pattern of opposition that the Harvard & Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid (HRAAA) encountered when they ran petition candidates for the Board of Overseers in the late 1980s on a platform of divestment from apartheid South Africa and broader social justice issues.

Looking back, it is easy to see who was on the right side of the apartheid debate. With this in mind, it is particularly disheartening to see members of the Harvard establishment yet again line up on the wrong side of history. Individuals who claim to recognize the need for climate action are mobilizing against us because they find our tactics too disruptive. Nominating petition candidates, fundraising, and advocating for divestment are all tools that HRAAA utilized in their push for justice.​ ​They challenged the existing power structures. ​That is what social movements do.​ That is what we are doing.​ ​So we ask you, fellow alumni: what side of history do you want to be on?

Summarizing their own detailed (four-page) rebuttal of the alumni leaders’ letter, they write that Harvard Forward is not a front, funded by outside interests. Rather, “Harvard Forward is a grassroots movement, supported by thousands of alumni who believe in our cause and powered by hundreds of individual donations.​ ​Every single dollar we have spent on the campaign has come from Harvard affiliates.​ Our average contribution is about $200, and the most popular donation amount is $20.20.​” (In the FAQs on the Harvard Forward website, the campaign says it has received “nearly 350 individual donations. The average donation is under $200, and the most popular donation amounts are $20.20 and $16.36.”)

Of the campaign’s techniques, they say, “Our campaigning methods are actually very typical; what is atypical is applying them to Harvard’s election.​ But Harvard’s failure to listen to its own community has created the need to organize democratically. ​And yet,​ ​while atypical, our movement abides by the two rules that the Office of the Governing Boards (OGB) provided to us: campaigning truthfully and respectfully.”

And as for transparency, they write, “From the first day of our campaign, we’ve maintained a website with information about who we are, what we stand for, and how to contact us with questions or concerns. Meanwhile, we have asked the HAA and the OGB numerous times since 2019 to see the Board’s Bylaws and a written definition of eligible alumni voters. ​To this day, we have never seen the Bylaws; we have not received a written working definition of alumni eligibility; and we have been continuously stonewalled in our efforts to understand why these materials are not made available.​ Harvard’s lack of transparency in this respect is just one example of why we are organizing for Overseer candidates who are committed to making Harvard’s governance more inclusive and transparent.” 

In their detailed rebuttal, Strasburger and Crenier note that Overseers do exercise broad influence over the University’s strategic directions and fiduciary decisions, not least because Overseers are asked to consent to the election of new members of the Corporation, the fiduciary board.

As to the implication that HF is trying to “buy” Harvard, they write, “[W]e’re not trying to buy Harvard; we’re trying to democratize it.” The funds raised, they state, have been applied to building “a movement to reach thousands of alumni ourselves, with the requisite costs of a website, email service, and so on. We have also paid for digital advertising to raise awareness of the election among alumni. Finally, we have compensated the labor of a few students and recent graduates who have devoted a significant amount of their time and energy to the campaign because we believe in the importance of ensuring social justice work is accessible and appropriately valued.”

In a note that gets at the underlying intensity and acrimony surrounding the campaign, they state, “former Overseer Kat Taylor ’80 has not donated any money to our campaign. It feels ridiculous to have to discuss an individual in this manner, but we have heard from multiple sources that there is a rumor circulating among HAA leadership that Ms. Taylor is somehow ‘behind’ Harvard Forward. This unfounded accusation is neither true nor fair to her. However, should Ms. Taylor ever decide to contribute to our efforts, we would gladly welcome her support.” Taylor, a former Overseer, resigned her seat one day before the end of her elected term, as a protest over the University’s decision not to divest fossil-fuel endowment investments. She is married to Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, who has spent at least tens of millions of dollars advocating much more aggressive action to combat climate change.

As for claims of lack of transparency, they write, “This claim is made without any additional context. As mentioned, none of the signatories contacted us in the process of writing their letter; if they had, we would have been happy to answer their questions. We also have a very detailed, easy-to-find website with an extensive FAQ and a list of our core organizers. If you take a look, you’ll see that we are what we say we are: a group of concerned recent alumni trying to make a difference. There’s not much more to our ‘governance’ than that.”

 

Although these claims and counterclaims do not rise (or more accurately, fall) to the level of discourse now evident in American national politics, they do suggest that alumni impassioned by a cause (divestment and climate change) and impatient with traditional, indirect forms of representation, have brought a new passion and more intense forms of organization and campaigning to the Overseers’ election now concluding. In a characteristic parting shot, Strasburger and Crenier, who have shown considerable tactical dexterity since launching the HF effort publicly last November, invite the authors of the alumni leaders’ letter to “discuss the Overseers election at a virtual town hall on Saturday, August 15th, at 18:00 ET—on the condition that it is open and publicized to all members of the Harvard community.”

What effect these exchanges will have on the balloting cannot be known. But no matter the outcome, the campaigning this year—and a sister Yale Forward effort now launching for a seat on that University’s governing board, with a platform like HF’s—suggests a more contested, turbulent era for Harvard elections and governance in the years ahead.

 

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