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Overseer Connects Harvard Fundraising Apparatus to West Coast, Sony Emails Suggest

Emails from Sony Entertainment CEO and Harvard Overseer offer glimpse into donor’s role

When the website WikiLeaks published a database of emails that were hacked last fall from Sony Pictures Entertainment, communications involving Michael M. Lynton ’82, the company’s chief executive officer and a Harvard Overseer, were made public, offering a rare glimpse into his relationship with top administrators at Harvard.

Lynton, according to the emails published in searchable form by WikiLeaks earlier this month, is heavily involved in Harvard business both in his capacity as a member of the University’s second-highest governing body and as a donor and active alumnus.

Sony has condemned the site’s decision to publish the messages, a sentiment that Lynton echoed in an interview last week.

The Crimson decided to report on a select few of the released emails because they detail the inner workings of Harvard’s administration and fundraising apparatus during the University’s $6.5 billion capital campaign.

According to the emails, Lynton helped plan a number of events for Harvard, including a large capital campaign event for affiliates of Harvard Business School and a dinner for University President Drew G. Faust hosted at his home in Los Angeles. Lynton, an alumnus of the College and the Business School, has also donated regularly to Harvard, particularly to arts and humanities initiatives. The emails include direct correspondence with top Harvard officials, such as Faust and University Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Tamara E. Rogers '74.

Although many of the emails detail general Overseers business, such as regular meeting schedules and updates on University events and policy changes, others are more personal. Notably, they acknowledge Lynton’s uniquely powerful position within the arts world and his capacity to form connections between Hollywood and Harvard. In addition to detailing his on-campus responsibilities as a member of Harvard’s second-highest governing body and a donor, the correspondence shows that Harvard has utilized Lynton’s professional connections and interests to help advance its own.

According to one December 2013 message from Associate Vice President for Principal Gifts and Alumni Affairs and Development Roger P. Cheever ’67, “you are rapidly becoming an indispensible [sic] leader on the West Coast.”

OVERSEER BUSINESS

The Board of Overseers, the governing body that among other privileges is tasked with approving the appointment of the University president, meets monthly. Its members include chief executive officers of major corporations, journalists, and judges, among others, many of whom are widely known within their professions and the wider world.

The Board tours campus, participates in discussions about Harvard issues and policies, and according to the emails, sometimes drinks cocktails at Elmwood, Faust’s official residence. When the Board—which is composed of 30 elected alumni from across the University—is not convened, Harvard informs its members of major University business and instructs them how to handle the press.

According to a meeting itinerary detailed in one 2013 message from University Vice President and Board of Overseers Secretary Secretary Marc L. Goodheart ’81, the Overseers had a list of activities scheduled for Dec. 7 and 8, 2013. The group’s weekend visit to Cambridge included a tour of the newly-renovated portion of Quincy House and hours of meetings in Loeb House. Members also attended cocktails, a dinner party, and a lunch session.

But beyond these regular visits, Harvard stays in contact with the Overseers through official email messages informing them of major changes and upcoming announcements. Harvard’s communication with its Overseers often involves University updates, including policy changes and new administrative appointments.

Links to numerous articles in the Harvard Gazette, a publication produced by Harvard communications officials, populated Lynton’s inbox in 2014. When Harvard administrators such as former School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Cherry A. Murray and former University public affairs and communications vice president Christine M. Heenan stepped down, Lynton received emails addressed to the Overseers highlighting the news.

When the University unveiled new policy changes, administrators often sent Lynton and other Overseers emails linking to Harvard public relations materials with instructions on how to respond to press inquiries.

Last July, for instance, when Harvard unveiled its first University-wide sexual harassment policy, Goodheart sent to Overseers a link to a Gazette article on the topic. He advised them to reach out to University General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83—who was copied on the message—if they had any questions and suggested that they could direct media inquires to Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, the University’s public relations and lobbying arm.

Harvard has also informed Lynton of other University changes that have drawn controversy in the last year. Last semester, Harvard came under fire from faculty after it instituted unpopular changes to its health benefits plan for non-union employees. In November, Goodheart sent Overseers a link to an Inside Higher Ed article addressing the issue, as well as an article from the Gazette and the text of a letter that Faust sent to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in response to the controversy.

In the email, sent with the subject line “FYI re health benefits,” Goodheart suggested that the Overseers look to The Crimson and Harvard Magazine for further coverage. Goodheart also requested that they “please” refer media inquiries on the topic to University spokesperson Jeff Neal.

Later in the month, shortly after the University came under scrutiny from a lawsuit charging that the College’s race-based affirmative action policies were discriminatory, Iuliano sent a message to the Overseers with a breakdown of the allegations and the University’s planned action.

“Today’s lawsuit represents a direct challenge to a core educational principle,” Iuliano wrote in the message, which was marked privileged and confidential and was forwarded to the group by Goodheart. “We will vigorously defend the right of Harvard, and other universities, to continue to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions.”

Writing that “[w]e anticipate that the court filing will generate substantial attention,” Iuliano advised Overseers that they could direct media inquires to HPAC’s Paul Andrew, who is now Harvard’s vice president for public affairs and communications. Iuliano added that the Overseers should “remember that communications about this matter other than with counsel are not privileged and may be discoverable in the litigation. For that reason, I would ask for your forbearance.”

The lawsuit has not yet been resolved.

BUILDING CONNECTIONS

Beyond the general messages he receives detailing Overseers business and campus happenings, however, Lynton works with Harvard officials on a more personal level to advance the University’s interests, according to the emails. As CEO of Sony Entertainment, Lynton communicates with high-profile Hollywood figures on a regular basis, and in some instances he has helped establish connections between these figures and the University. He has also connected Harvard development officials with potential donors from L.A. and the arts world, suggesting that Lynton as an Overseer serves a key connecting role separate from his time in Cambridge.

Notably, Lynton corresponds regularly with Rogers, Harvard’s alumni affairs and development head who oversees much of the University’s fundraising, and has worked with her to organize at least one alumni event. In March 2014, Lynton hosted a dinner party for Faust in his Los Angeles home, according to one exchange.

In an email, Rogers made suggestions for a guest list, and their exchange suggests that officials considered prospective guests’ donation records when deciding whom to invite.

Rogers first suggested that Lynton invite one prospective guest, for example, apparently because he was considering donating. A “very senior L.A. fundraiser” recommended that the individual “be invited as he is considering a large solicitation,” Rogers wrote to Lynton in an email, “but of course that is up to you as host.”

Rogers also indicated that Faust had requested that actors Matt Damon ’92 and John Lithgow ’67 attend.

Writing that she had “looked at [Lynton’s] comments, alumni “capacity” (based on our research), and their giving,” Rogers suggested adding several others to the guest list. She wrote in an email that one prospective guest “has been a decent donor ” and “very much would like to meet Drew”; another, she wrote, “has great capacity.” She described another possible guest as having “been quite generous in the past; could be good to re-engage.”

Harvard officials have also turned to Lynton for help bringing Hollywood figures to campus for speaking events. Last year, he helped coordinate a public discussion between Faust and popular television show “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, which Faust lauded in a personal email exchange with Lynton. Lynton has emailed Faust individually about a variety of topics.

Upon request in January 2014 by then-Harvard Alumni Association executive director John P. “Jack” Reardon ’60, Lynton also extended an invitation on behalf of Harvard for actress Natalie Portman ’03 to speak at the College’s 2014 Class Day. Portman was unable to attend last year, but film producer Aleen Keshishian suggested confirming Portman as 2015’s speaker.

Portman will speak at this year’s College Class Day on May 27, as formally announced last week.

Rogers also emailed Lynton requesting that he verify Damon’s email address when a person who identified himself as Damon wrote to Faust with a recommendation for a student applying to the College’s Class of 2018.

A FRIEND OF THE ARTS

Beyond helping coordinate Harvard and Hollywood figures, Lynton has been an active supporter of the arts at Harvard, and humanities faculty and administrators in Cambridge have turned to him with news about their initiatives.

Emails between photography collector Michael Mattis ’82 and Lynton in 2013 indicate that the Overseer planned to donate about $550,000 of photographs to the Fogg Museum. He also donates annually to the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, according to University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Lynton is a member of the Committee on University Resources, a group for top donors, according to an email he received that was addressed to the group.

Lynton’s commitment to the humanities at Harvard has built him relationships with administrators and faculty in Cambridge. In 2014, Lynton exchanged emails with Harvard Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen.

Additionally, before Harvard unveiled plans for its new undergraduate concentration in Theater, Dance, and Media last October, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith sent Lynton an advance copy of the announcement that administrators planned to release later that day. In his email, Smith specifically noted the amount of endowment support the concentration would require to be sustainable in the long term: $20 million.

“As someone who has been especially supportive of these efforts, I wanted you to be among the first to know,” Smith wrote.

Lynton, in turn, is also familiar with administrators at the College’s admissions office. According to the published emails, he works as an alumni interviewer, and beyond those efforts, Lynton has assisted individual Harvard applicants on their resumes and application materials.

Last fall, Lynton drafted an email to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67  offering his “highest recommendation” for one particular applicant.

A ‘LIST’ OF REQUESTS

Together, the emails suggest that Lynton devotes significant time and energy to helping Harvard, both financially and otherwise. But while Lynton’s messages to Harvard officials convey an eagerness to contribute his time and resources to University initiatives, one message expressed a concern that Harvard may be asking too much.

In an email last July to prominent Harvard donor and Hasty Pudding chairman and “Grand Sphinx” Andrew L. Farkas '82, Lynton detailed a number of requests he had received from Harvard. He listed hosting large events and dinners for Faust so that she could “meet the creative community here” and “[e]ndlessly taking calls from professors who need help with issues in Hollywood,” among other points.

“[T]he list goes on and on and on,” Lynton wrote. “And then all the time for the Overseers. I think they really have to be careful about what they ask of me and what kind of money they are asking.”

He added in his email that he was considering taking a break from Harvard activities, beyond monthly Overseers meetings, and “see if I am up for a big gift in a year's time.”

It is clear that Harvard highly values Lynton’s work. University spokesperson Jeff Neal, for his part, wrote in a statement that Lynton is “deeply involved in various aspects of University life, particularly as a member of the Board of Overseers, an alumni interviewer and an important source of advice and support on the arts.”

“While it is truly unfortunate that his personal emails were stolen, his correspondence with Harvard administrators and faculty only serves to demonstrate the depth of his ongoing commitment to Harvard,” Neal added.

Last May, when Lynton was reelected to the Board of Overseers, Goodheart sent him an email with a personal congratulatory note.

“We’re of course not allowed to root for candidates here – but rest assured that a huge (inaudible) cheer is resounding through Loeb House and Mass Hall,” Goodheart wrote.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at theodore.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.

Editor's Note: Readers should note that online commenting has been disabled for this article.

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