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HARVARD is one of the few major educational institutions that does not appoint a board of trustees. Instead, alumni annually elect five Overseers, each of whom serves a six-year term on the 30-person board. Recent alumni voting patterns show a sensitivity to the social, educational and political challenges Harvard has had to meet since the late '60s. Educators, scientists and government officials now serve on the board alongside financiers and industrialists; women and blacks share in decisions that were once exclusively the prerogatives of white men.
Now, however, Harvard is allowing economic concerns to dominate other equally important needs. The Associated Harvard Alumni committee that annually selects ten candidates for the board, reportedly will design a slate of "movers and shakers" in the financial world, most or all of whom will be white men. Underscoring the need for a stronger fundraising base, most Overseers themselves tacitly consented to this change in emphasis; Harvard administrators have given even blunter approval of the strategy. In addition, Harvard Magazine, in compliance with officials' requests, last month published an article extolling the Overseers of yore and insinuating that the new breed of Overseers has brought Harvard to the brink of financial disaster.
We recognize the financial pressures that the University faces. We also recognize that the candidate selection procedure is itself not wholly democratic. We also recognize, however, what the University seems to be forgetting--that Overseers are responsible not only for maintaining economic stability but also for overseeing academic programs and institutional focus. According to Harvard's own publications, the board should "bring new ideas and fresh viewpoints to the University, to prevent provincialism, inbreeding and self-satisfaction." Furthermore, Harvard's praiseworthy policy of encouraging alumni participation through elections, which serves to broaden the University's base for self-evaluation and policy making, is unwisely undercut by this year's political maneuvers, which defy that spirit of democracy. By pursuing this new and narrow course, Harvard is acting in exactly the provincial manner that it supposedly deplores.
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