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In Bid to Elect Young Alumni As Overseers, Harvard Forward Enlists Older Grads

Harvard Forward is a group led by students and alumni working to bring attention to climate change and recent alumni representation within Harvard's governance boards.
Harvard Forward is a group led by students and alumni working to bring attention to climate change and recent alumni representation within Harvard's governance boards. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

Over the past several months, the organization Harvard Forward has engaged in an ambitious bid to reshape the Board of Overseers around the issue of climate change. Recently, an unusual group has come to their aid: older alumni.

Harvard Forward recently campaigned for five candidates to sit on the Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body. Their campaign calls on the University to divest from fossil fuel companies and argues that the school should reserve 20 percent of seats on the Board of Overseers for recent graduates, as well as develop more transparent investment guidelines.

Each Harvard Forward candidate received over 4,500 alumni signatures, according to a Harvard Forward press release at the time. About 3,000 signatures from eligible voters were required to put a candidate on the ballot.

Alumni supporting Harvard Forward filled out nomination forms in person during the campaign’s office hours in more than 50 cities around the world, including Berlin, Los Angeles, and Tel Aviv. Nominations were also submitted directly to the University online through Harvard’s election website.

After seeing a tweet about the campaign in November, Robert “Bob” Treitman, who is in his 60s, said he attended a meeting with some of the campaign’s leaders and began his own organizing.

“It was quite energizing to me to see the next generation stepping up and taking care of some things, some issues that need to be taken care of and addressed,” Treitman said.

After a conversation with his father about reaching alumni in continuing care facilities, Treitman said he realized he could connect with Harvard alumni in these facilities and ask for their help in collecting signatures.

Treitman eventually collected signatures from 75 class years from the year 1944 to 2019. He called the issue of climate change “absolutely” multigenerational.

“I think this issue of climate change resonates with those my generation and older,” he said.

Jane Martin ’51 — a resident in a continuing care facility in Lexington, Mass. — said she received an email from Treitman about getting involved in the Harvard Forward campaign while she was working on a book about environmental harm.

“I felt that I was going to be hypocritical if I didn’t say ‘I believe 1000 percent and of course I was going to collect signatures,” she said. “Next thing I knew, I was in charge of doing that for Brookhaven.”

Martin said she collected 62 signatures over a period of three days. Over her facility’s email list, dubbed the “Rebb,” Martin asked residents to sign the petition forms. As the number of signatures grew, she sent out notices.

“I started calling it ‘The Signing,’” she said. “Any time people signed I would put another notice on the Rebb.”

She also used the Rebb to announce that she and a friend would be sitting in a common space from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on a Monday and Tuesday morning to talk with residents as they went to grab a coffee.

“We just sort of grabbed the people and had them sit down and fill out these forms,” she said. “Practically, everyone wanted to do it.”

She said it was “outrageous” to think that older generations don’t care about climate change.

“Of course us old folks believe that this has to be done,” she said. “I mean that’s just outrageous to think that we don’t care.”

Across the country, Anne B. Sobol ’66 collected signatures over coffee and dinner in Sonoma County, Calif.

After being contacted by one of her former roommates at Radcliffe who wanted her to sign the petition, Sobol — a former Crimson editor — said she reached out to Harvard Forward and started contacting nearby alumni. She said she attained 35 signatures by the end of the campaign.

“I set up two times when I would be in coffee shops locally,” Sobol said. “I also offered people the alternative of coming to my house.”

Sobol noted that she thought the online process was “cumbersome,” which she said required a Harvard key login, printing documents, and then rescanning them.

University spokesperson Hennessey wrote that online voting was created in 2016 to increase voter participation.

“Online voting was introduced to provide greater and easier access for more alumni around the world to participate in the process,” Hennessey said.

Sobol said she became involved with the campaign after living for years in Louisiana and in California, where she witnessed numerous hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

“Climate change is very real to me, and I feel like people need to take it more seriously,” she said.

Correction: March 9, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Robert “Bob” Treitman's last name.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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