Overseer Elections Call Up Dedicated Alumni to Help Govern Harvard
Some claim election is biased toward University-favored elites
It has an endowment of more than $11 billion, a faculty distinguished the world over, and real estate assets covering large parts of Cambridge and Boston. All in all, no one would dispute that Harvard is a powerful institution.
And the ultimate power over this vast collection of resources rests in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals--the members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers.
While it is the Corporation--comprised of the President, Treasurer and five fellows--who makes fiscal and policy decisions, the Board has great influence, watching over the workings of America's oldest university.
The Board breaks into smaller visiting committees which review departments in all of Harvard's various schools and museums, and produce reports containing policy recommendations which ultimately go before the President.
According to newly elected Board President Charlotte P. Armstrong '49, the overseers are charged with making sure the University "stays true to its charter."
The 30 elected members of the Board serve six-year terms, and every year, five must step down and be replaced.
With the influence the overseers possess, it is not surprising that the annual elections of five overseers are taken very seriously. Any Harvard degree-holder is eligible and can become a candidate with a nomination by another Harvard graduate.
This year, over 300 alumni were nominated for the five open slots and were then investigated by the Nominating Committee of the Alumni Association.
The committee whittled down the field to eight candidates, who are being voted on by the alumni at large. The results will be announced in early June.
A candidate can also bypass the nominating committee by collecting the signatures of 1 percent of the alumni association, a process known as running by petition. This year, there are two such candidates.
The nominating committee tries to balance the Board along these lines, says committee chair Christopher T. Bayley '60.
"We always want to make sure there are people there from academic backgrounds, from the various professions and from technical backgrounds," Bayley says.
This year, candidates come from careers ranging from the financial world to academia. One is a New York Times arts editor, another is a former Time Magazine Man of the Year.
Armstrong says the Committee's mission to ensure diversity on the Board is an enormous undertaking.
"We go through a vast amount of material," she says. "We have to consider the needs of the board in terms of representation of different disciplines."
Another important factor in the candidate process is time commitment, according to Bayley.
"Often someone who looks ideal simply can't do it because of their current career," he says.
Bayley says his committee looks at "dedication to Harvard" in attempting to evaluate a potential candidate's fitness for formal nomination. This, however, does not have to mean levels of donation, he says.
"In our discussions, a person's role as a donor, if it's ever considered, is only seen as minor," Bayley says. "That's evidence of dedication to the University, but that same dedication could be evidenced in other ways, like participation on alumni committees."
"The Powers that Be"
But not everyone is happy with the nominating process.
Stephen B. Hrones '64, who is running by petition this year, says the election process is biased against petition candidates.
Hrones, an attorney based in Boston, notes that petition candidates are listed after the committee-nominated candidates in the ballot pamphlet sent to alumni.
"Nothing prevents them from putting us in with the mix and just saying we're petition candidates," Hrones says. "If I don't win, I intend to take appropriate action, legal action if necessary."
Armstrong, however, defends the policy of listing petition candidates after committee-nominated ones.
"The candidates on the official slate were selected by the nominating process," she says. "These other candidates have not been subjected to the same rigorous procedure because they're self-nominated."
Bayley echoed her words and added that he did not believe the alumni would hold a petition status against a candidate.
Armstrong says that petition candidates receive equal treatment.
"The Overseers as a body feel that the current procedure is fair," she says. "[Petition candidates] have just as much space in the ballot and their pictures are there. They are not slighted in any way--they are just separately identified."
But Hrones says this discriminatory policy is business-as-usual for "the powers that be" at Harvard. It is a sign of the elitist nature of the University administration.
"This is opening up a lot of larger questions about how the University is run," Hrones says. "The Board has abdicated its role as the policy-making body to the Corporation, a bunch of rich men in a smoke-filled room."
According to Hrones, Harvard policymakers--who he defined as the President and the Corporation, as well as the administration and the Harvard Alumni Association--only give "lip-service" to important issues in higher education and seek complacent candidates for the Board of Overseers.
"The powers-that-be put in people who are content to be partied and shown the buildings," Hrones says.
"You have fundraisers controlling the education at Harvard and the crucial decisions of where Harvard is going academically and intellectually," he says.
Hrones also complained of a mailing by the Harvard Business School Alumni Association (HBSAA), containing a letter from Charles F. Milner, the association's president, which urged support for an HBS alumnus candidate.
"I would be delighted if you would join me in supporting our fellow HBS alumni in this election," Milner wrote in the letter.
"It's way out of line," Hrones says. "This is Harvard money used to favor one candidate."
Hrones also notes that the letter was written on HBSAA stationery, implying a University endorsement. Hrones says the HBS alumnus should withdraw from the election.
Armstrong, however, says "we live in a free society" and that an endorsement from HBSAA is not out-of-line.
"If the Business School feels that this is an outstanding candidate, then they have the right to say that," Armstrong says.
James Aisner '68, a spokesperson for HBS, says the letter's primary emphasis was the importance of voting. Aisner says it also "let them know that there was a 'local angle.'"
Though Hrones concedes that former classmates or teammates often endorse their friends, he says the HBSAA letter is different because it is an official Harvard organization.
"This could be a very explosive issue," Hrones says. "They want to perpetuate the system--it's an oligarchy, and the Board of Overseers is basically their jackal."
Ironically, Hrones and those he criticizes share some common ground. Both he and the current overseers stress the need for diversity of background on the Board.
"We strive to achieve geographic balance, as well as to include women and minorities," says Armstrong. "Every year, we run at least three women."
"I think its very important that as the makeup of the alumni body changes that they are representative of the student body," she says, herself the fourth-ever woman president of the historically male-dominated Board.
Bayley adds that the nominating committee "certainly considers [diversity] one of our top concerns."
"All the committee members are interested in having a diverse board, and the nominations reflect that," he says.
Considerations of breadth of background among the Board are also stressed by one of this year's candidates, Deval L. Patrick '78, the former assistant attorney general, charged with running the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"The University has in a variety of ways made clear its institutional interest in the educational value of a diverse university and a diverse school population," he said.
"It's something I certainly seek as a parent, and it contributes strength to that community and to the society as a whole," he added.
Another candidate, Jamie C. Gorelick '72--a "pioneer" in Harvard's co-education story, having lived in Quincy House in its first year of experimental co-ed housing--says the University has done well to integrate women into its most essential decision-making processes.
"Things have changed a lot from when I attended Harvard... I've seen a lot of progress and on every issue--you couldn't play squash at Hemenway [Gym] because you couldn't take a shower. All those things are gone and that's great," Gorelick says.
Calling herself a meritocrat, Gorelick, now a vice chair at Fannie Mae Corporation, notes that "Harvard has changed with the times.
"As women take their places in business, foundations, the educational world, [and] government, they will find their ways onto boards like the Board of Overseers," she says.
Patrick also adds that as a black candidate, diversity has particular importance to him.
"My contributions to the board go beyond my race, and I think that is how I was selected," he says, "But if I can also contribute a diversity of background and view to the board's deliberations than I am anxious to do so."