A group of activist alumni said yesterday it is considering taking legal action against the University to block recommended changes in the Overseers election process.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) is attempting to muster its forces to fight the proposals, which would give Harvard an expanded role in the annual election to the 30-member Board.
The recommendations, authored by the Young Committee, strengthen the University's hand in elections, and raise obstacles to unofficial petition candidates, critics charge. Harvard says the changes are necessary to ensure that the composition of the board is adequately balanced to reflect the needs of the University's academic visiting committees.
HRAAA lawyers say they may attempt to demonstrate that the report "violates the spirit and possibly the letter of Harvard's corporate charter," which was established in the 17th century, said Jamin Raskin '83, one of the legal advisers. He said the attorneys are considering lodging a complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General.
For the past three years, the group has mounted a slate of prodivestment candidates for the Overseers to run against an official slate nominated by the University. The group has consistently accused Harvard of rules violations and electioneering for the official candidates.
The Young Committee recommendations, announced last week after a two-year study, call on the University to take a more active role in the selection process by appointing two administrators to the nominating committee. The report also calls on the University to take a more aggressive role in promoting its slate of candidates.
A letter sent by Overseer President Joan T. Bok '51 two years ago to alumni that criticized "single-issue" candidates sparked a controversy and led to charges that the University was unfairly attempting to influence the outcome of the election.
HRAAA asked the Attorney General to look into the letter, saying it constitued improper electioneering. But the Attorney General never released any finding on the charges.
The 30-member Board is scheduled to discuss the committee's report at its meeting this weekend, though the members only received a copy of the report last Friday. Overseers predicted little opposition to the measures by board members.
But several undergraduate divestment activists said they are trying to contact overseers to convince them not to vote on the report until they have had more time to consider the proposals.
Students have attempted to contact all 30boardmembers, but have reached few so far. JayHodos '89 said that he tried to speak with eightoverseers, but only reached one, who seemedenthusiastic in his approval of the committee'sfindings.
Hodos said that he and the other undergraduateswere disturbed that the report being pushed tooquickly through the system. The executive boardsof both the Board of Overseers and the HarvardAlumni Association have already passed the reporton to their full boards.
"The overseers have to be made to recognizethat this may just be one step, but it is gettingto be ridiculous," Hodos said. "By giving in, theyare playing a role in taking apart whateverHarvard's meager commitment to democracy was. Theyare increasing voter turnout for puppets."
The students have tried to meet with PresidentBok and Boston District Federal Court JudgeWilliam G. Young '62, who chaired the committeethat authored the report. Bok will be out of townthrough today, but his assistant said she wouldaccept any written materials the studentssubmitted. The students said they have not beenable to reach Young.
On Sunday students and alumni plan to hold arally in the morning as overseers arrive for themeeting. "We are deciding on something appropriateto display our outrage on Sunday," Hodos said.
Meanwhile, HRAAA members and legal advisers areinvestigating what they say are discrepanciesbetween the recommendations and the University'scharter. He said the new recommendations wouldlimit who can vote and who can run for overseer,contrary to the intent of the charter. The Youngreport also proposes allowing officers of theUniversity to participate more extensively in theelection process, although the charter prohibitsUniversity officials from voting in the electionor holding places on the board.
"The corporate charter clearly intends toseparate officers of the University from the Boardof Overseers," Raskin said. "Officers are noteligible to serve on or to vote for the Board. Butunder the new recommendations they can be on thecommittee that selects candidates. This isblurring the distinction," he said.
Raskin said that while the Board of Overseersis permitted to change voting rules, the charterprohibits it from diluting any vote or anyone'sability to run. He said that recommendations tothrow out some incomplete ballots and to separateUniversity candidates from unofficial candidateson voter information materials, violate thisprovision.
HRAAA lawyers say they are also disturbed bythe recommendation that the University no longeruse an outside organization to count votes.Ballots are currently counted by the University'saccounting firm, Coopers and Lybrand.
Any complaints would have to be filed with thestate attorney general, who is reponsible foroverseeing public charities chartered under theCommonwealth of Massachusetts, such as Harvard.
"This is an arrogant and egregious display ofcontempt for democratic processes," Raskin said."Harvard should realize that it exists at thepleasure of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. TheCommonwealth of Massachusetts would never acceptthese rules for its own elections and there's noreaosn to believe that they would accept them forHarvard's elections."
"There seems to be a basic failure on theUniversity's part to understand what constitutes afair election," said HRAAA member Damon Silvers'86