Clad in a Harvard beanie, worn jeans, and sneakers, Ron K. Unz ’83 did not look like someone seeking to become one of the University’s most esteemed alumni and powerbrokers.
On Sunday morning, Unz, equipped with a series of charts and graphs detailing the annals of Harvard budgeting and admissions data, stood for hours outside the Harvard Coop and the Science Center. He had arrived in Cambridge early that morning by way of Palo Alto with a singular purpose: to formally launch a campaign for Harvard’s Board of Overseers.
Per Unz’s estimate, he had collected almost 300 signatures over a series of weeks—shipping petitions to alumni across the country—to earn a spot on the ballot for Harvard’s second highest governing body. He arrived in the Square to collect a few more signatures; each member of his ticket needs 201 of them by Monday to enter the race.
His tactics are unconventional, but Unz—who took a red-eye flight from Palo Alto—is an unusual candidate. An outspoken conservative, Unz, along with four other Harvard alumni including five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, launched a campaign earlier this month on a dual-pronged ticket. They want to abolish undergraduate tuition and make public more detailed data about Harvard’s admissions process.
While Unz won’t know if his efforts were fruitful until he turns in the petitions, he remains optimistic.
“You can never be sure,” Unz said. “But because we only need 201 valid signatures and we’re going to be turning in close to 300, I think we definitely have a very good chance of getting on the ballot.”
In their campaign materials, the prospective candidates argue that Harvard tuition should be free given the size of the University’s endowment—valued at $37.6 billion, the largest of any educational institution in the world. They say such a move would precipitate widespread publicity for Harvard and inspire students from lower income families to apply.
“If Harvard abolished tuition, I think you would have a much more regionally and socioeconomically diverse student body,” Unz said, standing at his post near the Coop.
The slate—which also includes physicist Stephen D. Hsu, conservative writer Stuart S. Taylor, Jr., and NewEgg’s Chief Legal Officer Lee C. Cheng ’93—also calls for greater transparency in undergraduate admissions. Together, they want more information about how the College chooses its students. They say they are suspicious that Harvard’s race-based affirmative action policies could, in effect, discriminate against Asian American students.
While University spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment for this story, he has previously defended both Harvard’s tuition and admissions practices. In particular, he has pointed to the generosity of Harvard’s existing financial aid program and the educational value of race-based affirmative action.
Still, Unz remains persistent. Skeptical of standard methods of shipping and mailing, he flew to Cambridge with what he said is more than 30 pounds worth of petitions to hand-deliver them to Harvard on Monday—the deadline to qualify for candidacy.
His group’s lofty ideas have drawn widespread media attention, but foot traffic is slow in the Square, Unz lamented.
Around 11 a.m., former bookbinder and Harvard Square regular Robert Marshall walked past, praising Unz’s campaign. Marshall, who claims he attended Harvard for a few semesters decades ago, said he supports Unz’s group.
“Listen: Harvard is Harvard. Harvard will never change. But we hope to make some changes,” Marshall said, taking one of Unz’s purple “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” buttons.
“I want to wear one. I can put it over my city jacket,” Marshall said.
Harvard officials past and present have contested the feasibility of Unz’s goals. Unz himself admits that, even if elected, it is not likely he would be able to make tuition free. But for him, the campaign is just as important as its end goal.
“Sometimes an election campaign is more important than who actually sits on the Board of Overseers,” Unz said.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.
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