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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Overseers Redefine Role

By Maggie S. Tucker

When the Corporation picked Charles W. Eliot to be president of Harvard in 1869, the Board of Overseers refused to approve him. Only after months of negotiations and pressure did the overseers finally confirm his nomination--by a vote of 16 to 8.

Contrast that to the end of last year's presidential selection. When the presidential search committee told the Board they had chosen Neil L. Rudenstine, the 30-member board rushed to vote its unanimous approval.

Historically, there has been an "ebb and flow" in relations between the Board of Overseers and the Corporation, according to Charles P. Slichter '45, the Corporation's senior fellow.

"If one looks over the history of Harvard, the bodies have had periods of time when they were not of a mind, and they have had other times when things have gone very well," Slichter says.

At times, the Corporation and overseers have been openly at odds over matters of University policy. Though the Board of Overseers is the older of the two bodies, the nature of its authority over Corporation decisions has always been ambiguous.

During the 19th century, the overseers often questioned, argued with and even condemned the decisions of the Corporation. In this century, however, the Board of Overseers has gradually evolved to become more of an advisory body.

Currently one of its main functions is to sustain a host of visiting committees, whose members examine and write reports on areas of the University such as fine arts or the sciences.

During the last decade, activist overseers have challenged the Corporation's rule, urging the University to divest of its South Africa-related stock. In the mid-1980s, Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) began nominating candidates by petition to run against the University's official slate.

This produced a defensive reaction from Corporation members and University administrators, who began lobbying against what they called "single issue," "second-rate" candidates.

In heated elections over the next several years, HRAAA succeeded in getting four of its candidates--among them South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu--elected to the board.

But as the political climate of the late 1980s changed and the South African government began making some improvements in its treatment of Blacks, pressure for divestment subsided and attention shifted elsewhere. Additionally, HRAAA officials assert that the Young Report, which revised election rules, "tilted the playing field against [them]."

Whatever the case, no petition candidates have been elected in the last two years, and recent overseers' elections have been almost uncannily quiet after a decade of controversy and mud-slinging.

John C. Whitehead, former president of the Board, says he believes the overseers are much more unified today than they were two years ago.

"There has been less division between the petition members and the alumni candidates," Whitehead says. "You can't ever be sure, but at least I think that on the old issues there's much less of a sense of bitterness."

But Robert P. Wolff '54, the former executive director of HRAAA, sees the change somewhat differently. "For a brief moment, there was a threat--from us--that the Board might actually do something, that these people might actually have an independent thought," says Wolff. "So [the administration] took some preemptive action," he says, referring to the Young Report.

The Board has begun working more closely with the Corporation in recent years. The presidential search that produced Neil L. Rudenstine is the foremost example of this kind of collaboration. Three overseers sat on the nine-member search committee, and the committee's chair made frequent progress reports to the Board.

"For the first time, the two boards were working closely together on a matter of great importance," says overseer Mathea Falco. "It's the first time that's happened in Harvard's history, as far as I know."

Some observers have suggested that the Board provided merely a rubber stamp to the Corporation's choice, as overseers were forced to vote quickly and with little discussion. Whitehead says, however, that the approval came quickly at the end because overseers had been in touch with the process all along.

"They had been kept so informed that by the time it came to their function of giving approval, they felt well-prepared to make that decision and to vote," Whitehead says.

But the Boards' combined efforts during the search are only part of a larger recent effort towards bringing the groups closer together. Corporation members now frequently attend luncheons during overseers' meetings, and the two governing bodies have sponsored joint committees on issues such as divestment in recent years.

"There's been a good deal of integration," says Whitehead. "We have operated more and more as one body instead of as two completely separate bodies."

Whitehead says he believes that the overseers now feel more closely involved in the making of decisions, since they have more opportunities to express their views directly to members of the Corporation.

"That way they are more than just a debating society. They are able to feel that their views are being heard at the very top," he says.

But not everyone views the trend toward integration in such a positive light. Those who believe the Board's role includes serving as a check to the Corporation, for example, find the trend disturbing, at best.

"Where does it all stop?" asks one overseer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Do you then have Corporation members attending all the overseers meetings? You are in danger of losing the identity of the Board."

The overseer questions Whitehead's claim that closer contact between the two bodies means more influence for the overseers, saying, "What will happen is not that the Corporation will share power, but that the Corporation will run the University and the Board will go back to being a rubber stamp."

But Slichter insists that the Board is not merely a conciliatory body. "There is a tremendous amount to be gained by having a harmonious relationship," he says.

And Rudenstine says that he is pleased that the two bodies are working so closely together. "You want to have the diversity of views in order to come to wise conclusions," he says. "But in the end if you can't come together as a total institution and decide to march in one direction, with a good spirit, then you're simply not going to go anywhere."

How much of a real influence the Board will exert in upcoming years remains to be seen. In the meantime, alternative slate candidates continue to run for positions on the Board even though the time for divestment seems to have passed. HRAAA's current officers say they have redefined their agenda to include "broader issues of social responsibility."

And Wolff says he believes that even though HRAAA failed to convince Harvard to divest, it has succeeded in its own way.

"We never imagined in our wildest dreams that we would force the governing boards to do anything," he said. "Nobody imagined that we would elect a majority of the board and force a constitutional crisis of some sort."

"We just hoped to elect enough overseers that we would be able to bring the topic up for discussion, and through the mechanism of the elections to bring it to the attention of the community," he says. "And we did."

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