Overseers Redefine Role

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.

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