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With Low Expectations, Overseers Candidate Launches Impromptu Senate Bid

By Andrew M. Duehren and Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writers

These days, Ron K. Unz ’83 spends a lot of his time collecting signatures and launching campaigns.

Unz, a controversial outsider candidate for Harvard’s Board of Overseers, is setting his sights on an even more prestigious governing body: the United States Senate.

In what he called a “last-minute decision,” Unz delivered his petitions—bearing the requisite 65 signatures—to run for the seat vacated by retiring California Senator Barbara L. Boxer last Wednesday, the last possible day to file a candidacy. Unz acknowledged his campaign is a “hopeless effort” in the traditionally blue state: A Republican has not represented California in the Senate since 1992.

“My getting into this race in California was just as surprising to me as it was to everybody else,” Unz said. “In the case of the Harvard Overseers campaign, I’d really been thinking about it and planning it for eight or nine months before I launched the effort. In this case, it was probably about a week ago, maybe 10 days ago that I started thinking about it.”

In both his campaigns, Unz appears to be more focused on highlighting niche issues rather than charting a path to victory. In an essay announcing his candidacy, Unz admitted that he is a “tremendous longshot” and “rather likely to lose,” saying said he will only accept donations of $99 or less to fund his endeavors.

Unz grabbed Harvard headlines in January when he declared his candidacy for the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest administrative body. Running on a controversial platform, he wants Harvard to release more data about undergraduate admissions and make tuition free. Joined by four like-minded alumni, including five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Unz obtained the required 201 signatures for his “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” slate to appear on the upcoming ballot and took a red-eye flight from Palo Alto to deliver the petitions in person.

Unz said he will focus his Senate run on preventing bilingual education in California public schools, attacking a ballot initiative to overturn a 1998 proposition mandating that schools teach solely in English. Unz played a role in passing that proposition in the first place, and he plans to use his campaign to defend it. He also wants to critique the cost of tuition in the University of California system: “It’s absurd how much money they spend,” he said.

But Jeannie Park ’83, a founder of an alumni group formed to oppose the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign, assailed Unz’s Senate bid as another gratuitous attack on diversity.

“Ron Unz's Senate run... shows again that he is committed to erecting walls against the kind of global, diverse, multicultural and inclusive society that Harvard is preparing its students to live in and lead,” Park wrote in a text message.

Unz, who made his fortune writing software, will take on establishment Republicans Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro in the June 7 primary, and may face an even steeper battle against the Democratic nominee in the November general election.

“Given that I’ll be saying some things and taking some positions that very few candidates ever do, donors can mentally budget their $99 contributions as providing a bit of ‘ideological entertainment value,’” Unz wrote.

Unz and his “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” compatriots have met rebuke from Harvard administrators, alumni, and other Overseers candidates for their positions, which some have condemned as impractical and antithetical to diversity. Unz, along with three other members of the slate, have publicly opposed affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions.

—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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