Overseers Survey Shows Range of Views on Affirmative Action

In the midst of an unusual election cycle, this year's candidates for Harvard’s Board of Overseers completed questionnaires about race-based affirmative action, revealing widespread support for more transparency in Harvard’s admissions process.

The questionnaires, distributed by a consortium of 10 alumni organizations, surveyed the candidates on transparency in admissions and the importance of student diversity—topics that have garnered attention in an unusually contentious Overseers election.

In January, a group of five alumni running under the slogan “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” began collecting petition signatures to earn a spot on the ballot for the University’s second highest governing body. Ron K. Unz ’83 has organized and five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader has headlined their twofold agenda to abolish undergraduate tuition and make public more data about Harvard’s admissions practices, which are currently the subject of legal scrutiny. Their group will appear on the ballot, mailed to alumni by April 1, alongside eight candidates nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association.

"Free Harvard, Fair Harvard"
Ron K. Unz '83 arrived in Cambridge earlier in the semester to hand deliver petitions that would enable him and others on the slate to be candidates for the Board of Overseers.

“Our understanding is the [“Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” candidates] didn’t share the same opinions, and it would be incorrect for us to consider them as having a monolithic viewpoint,” Mukesh Prasad ’93, a leader in both the South Asian and Asian American alumni groups who helped distribute the survey, said. “Likewise, it would be wrong of us to assume that all eight of the Harvard Alumni Association candidates did not share any of those same viewpoints as the slate.”

All of the HAA nominees who answered the survey questions expressed support for affirmative action and race-conscious admissions policies.

Karen F. Green ’78, an HAA-nominated candidate, said she supports affirmative action and disagrees with the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” platform.

“I believe Harvard should continue to take race into account just as it takes other factors into account, like ethnic and socioeconomic background and particular talents people bring to the classroom,” Green said.

Four of the eight HAA nominees also voiced support for some degree of more transparency in admissions, a principal tenet of the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign.

“I am a social scientist, and I believe in the transformational power of data, information, and communication. I agree that Harvard could be more transparent about its admissions process,” P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale ’74, an HAA candidate, wrote in her survey response.

But other HAA candidates, including Green, argued that Harvard’s admissions department is already sufficiently transparent.

The outsider candidates, however, unanimously agreed that Harvard should be more transparent in its admissions processes, but diverged in their opinions on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions more generally. In his questionnaire response, Unz wrote that he personally opposed affirmative action and has “serious doubts about the value of ‘diversity’ for its own sake,” while Nader wrote that he “strongly” supports both affirmative action and “reparations for African Americans.”

The “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” group has repeatedly faced pushback, with some critics calling their platform a bait-and-switch attempt to torpedo Harvard’s affirmative action admissions policies.

In an interview, Unz said he believes the questionnaires revealed more agreement than disparity between his slate and what he called the “mainstream” candidates.

“Probably the candidates running with me are less supportive of diversity and affirmative action, but if you look at the statements, it isn’t a huge difference in positions that they’re taking,” he said.

Some of the outside candidates called into question the integrity of the questionnaires, saying that some of the alumni groups who organized the survey seemed to have already made up their mind about the candidates before even reading their answers.

Lee C. Cheng ’93, one of the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” candidates, took issue with the way the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard has characterized his and his group’s views as being against affirmative action. He also said that he questioned the “good faith” nature of the survey when the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, one of the participating alumni groups, had already expressed its disdain for his slate.

Stuart S. Taylor Jr., a Harvard Law School alumnus and another petition candidate, said he appreciated the opportunity to answer the questions in a consolidated format. Outside of collecting the signatures for his candidacy, Taylor said the few hours he spent answering the survey has been the most time intensive part of the campaign.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot for me to do,” Taylor said. “I’m not getting up every morning and thinking what can I do to get elected to the Harvard Overseers. I’m not sure what I would do if that were a high priority for me.”

Kentaji B. Jackson ’92 declined to complete the survey, citing her position as a federal judge who could potentially rule on affirmative action in higher education.

—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at andy.duehren@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at daphne.thompson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho

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