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Toward Non-Issue Overseers

By Colin F. Boyle

DESPITE this year's election of Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu to the Harvard Board of Overseers from a pro-divestment slate of candidates, several newly adopted changes in the Board's election process will now allow the University administration to stifle the voices of alumni who disagree with Harvard's policies.

In its Commencement week meeting, the Board, which serves as one of the University's two governing bodies, voted to implement several changes recommended by the controversial Young Report. Some of the report's most appalling recommendations rightly were rejected by the Board, but the changes that were adopted will allow the administration to control Overseer elections more easily and stifle dissenting voices.

Although the Young Report was justified by University officials as an attempt to improve the caliber of its Overseers candidates, the changes will make the process ridiculously undemocratic. One change is that the "official" candidates--those nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association--will be listed separately (meaning first) on the ballot from candidates who are nominated by petition--as Tutu was. Another change allows the Alumni Association to mail an endorsement of its candidates to alumni along with the ballot.

Other changes will give administration officials greater say over who the Alumni Association nominates, despite the fact that the Board is supposed to evaluate the performance of all administration officials.

The result is that the Alumni Association will nominate only those alumni who fully support the University's policies. And those nominees, benefitting from a glowing Alumni Association endorsement and a prime spot on the ballot, will be able to get more votes than "unofficial" candidates, no matter how qualified either might be.

THESE changes were largely targeted at defeating the group that nominated Tutu. Since 1986, alumni dissatisfied with Harvard's continuing attachments to the apartheid regime in South Africa have sought to elect candidates from the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) slate to the 30-member Board, which is elected by all University alumni.

Although the Board traditionally has acted as a formal rubber-stamp for the Corporation--the body that takes care of Harvard's day-to-day operation--HRAAA has hoped to elect enough overseers to force a Board vote on the University's South Africa-related investment policy. With Tutu, there are now four HRAAA overseers, as well as several Alumni Association overseers who have said they favor divestment.

Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate, will be a powerful moral voice on the Board and lends a lot of credibility to the pro-divestment forces. He has repeatedly urged Harvard and President Derek C. Bok to divest, threatening to return his honorary degree should the University not do so.

Despite the defeat of the four other HRAAA candidates for the Board this year, HRAAA officials have predicted that Tutu's presence will give the Board a definitive pro-divestment slant. Some even predicted that the University would divest its $163.8 million in South Africa-related investments within the year.

But many others are not so sure. In fact, the newly elected Board President, former State Department official John C. Whitehead, has said that he does not expect divestment to come up on the Board agenda at all this year. And Whitehead, who has served on the Board for the past four years, probably has as good an understanding of how the Board works as anyone.

The last time the Overseers directly opposed a Corporation decision was in 1948, when several conservative overseers opposed a tenure offer extended to Walburg Professor of Economics Emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith.

The Board's jurisdiction over investment policy is unclear, and many Board members may have difficulty becoming accustomed to an adversarial relationship with the Corporation. Immediate divestment seems doubtful, although it would not be surprising if the administration gradually removed its attachments to apartheid over the next few years.

EVEN if the University divests from South Africa, however, the need for dissenting views on the Board will not disappear. No institution in our society--with the possible exception of the judiciary--has a greater responsibility than a university to guarantee the free expression of ideas. As one of the pre-eminent centers of education in the nation and the world, Harvard has the responsibility not only to allow those who agree with its policies to voice their concerns, but also those who disagree.

The Board of Overseers was initially intended to provide "enlightened" Harvard alumni with a chance to check up on the policies of the University. If the Board is to fulfill properly its role as the voice of Harvard alumni, then it must be open to all alumni, including those who do not approve of the Corporation's decisions.

Unfortunately, the changes approved by the Board will have the effect of stifling dissenting alumni and making it much harder for "unofficial" candidates--meaning those who do not support the administration's party line--to be elected.

DURING the campaign, Alumni Association officials attacked the HRAAA effort for its attempts to produce "single-issue" candidates. A single-issue overseer would be a bad overseer, it is true, but it is silly to think that HRAAA overseers have limited their interests solely to divestment when so many other important issues are raised by Harvard's policies.

The only thing worse than a single-issue overseer would be a non-issue overseer, which is precisely what the Young Report's changes will produce. Instead of a valuable forum for discussing the performance of the University and its proper role in society, the Board will become nothing more than a place to honor alumni who are famous enough to win a popularity contest.

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