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Harvard Forward Candidates Say Digital Campaign Plays to Their Strengths

Harvard Forward supporters walking near the Yard in March.
Harvard Forward supporters walking near the Yard in March. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Ellen M. Burstein and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

Board of Overseers slate Harvard Forward began this year planning to host campaign events around the world, but with a public health crisis at hand, they have shifted to an online campaign format fit for a young group of candidates.

The group, an alumni campaign lobbying for climate change reforms and recent alumni representation on Harvard’s governance boards, announced March 17 that they would move their operations entirely online until social distancing was no longer necessary. But by April 1, Harvard announced it would delay its annual election from early April to early July as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.

As the University’s second-highest governing body, the Overseers advise top Harvard officials, provide guidance for University decisions, and approve certain actions from the Harvard Corporation.

Harvard Forward candidates said the shift from in-person events to Zoom calls has not hindered their campaign. John E. Beatty ’11, Lisa Bi Huang, Margaret “Midge” Purce ’17, Dorothy “Thea” Sebastian ’08, and Jayson U. Toweh are working to secure enough votes by August 18 to earn a seat on the Board.

Purce said the shift online was beneficial to their group because they are “younger candidates.” All of Harvard Forward’s candidates graduated from one of the University’s schools within the past 10 years.

“Naturally, the people we know and the people we're engaged with, they are more online,” Purce said.

Now that the election has officially kicked off, Beatty noted that most of his Facebook feed consists of Harvard Forward-related posts.

“I think that is, for me, one of the most fun and engaging parts of this, which is to reach out and connect with folks who maybe I hadn't talked to in a couple of years or had never met before,” Beatty said.

Beatty added that he believes working online presents an an opportunity to inform a wider swath of the voting population about the Board of Overseers election itself, which historically maintains low turnout. Last year, roughly 10 percent of Harvard’s more than 371,000 living alumni voted in the election.

“I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from LinkedIn, from Facebook — from friends and strangers and other Harvard alumnus — saying ‘Oh, I’m really excited for your platform and we’ll vote for you,’” Huang said. “It feels great to be connected with other people, even with strangers because we all belong to the same Harvard community.”

Similarly to Huang and Beatty, Toweh said he has utilized social media during this time to promote the election.

The online campaign has allowed the group to plan accessible virtual town halls, Purce said. She added that she believes Harvard Forward’s campaign will be successful if even one of the candidates wins a seat on the Board.

“I would say the goal is to get all of us on the board. That would be an absolutely wonderful thing,” Purce said. “But I think it’s successful if you get even one of us. Either can be a success.”

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

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

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