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Current and Former Harvard Alumni Association Leaders Criticize Harvard Forward’s Board of Overseers Campaign

The University's governance boards, including its Board of Overseers, often meet on campus in Loeb House.
The University's governance boards, including its Board of Overseers, often meet on campus in Loeb House. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

A group of alumni volunteers — including past and present members of the Harvard Alumni Association’s Executive Committee — penned a letter to other alumni criticizing tactics employed by the group Harvard Forward in this year’s Board of Overseers’ election.

The letter — which a list of Harvard alumni across schools and class years signed — said Harvard Forward, a campaign lobbying for climate change reform and young alumni representation on the school’s governance boards, misconstrues the Overseers’ role and engages in inappropriate fundraising. Its authors cited what they called the “critical” nature of the election.

“We decided to get together (virtually, of course) and write you this letter because we are very concerned about the future of our University, especially with respect to its governance,” the letter reads. “We are both concerned and disappointed by the tactics that have been employed by the organization campaigning for the five petition candidates for Overseer.”

The Harvard Alumni Association Nominating Committee nominated eight candidates in late January for the Board of Overseers election. In October, Harvard Forward put forward their own candidates and policy proposals, which notably include support for fossil fuel divestment and recent alumni representation on the Board of Overseers.

Harvard Forward has promoted their platform and candidates through town halls held across the world, office hours, and an active social media presence. After a five month campaign to put their candidates on the Overseers ballot, all five of Harvard Forward’s candidates reached their goals in February by collecting over 4,500 alumni signatures for each candidate.

The Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second highest governing body — is tasked with advising Harvard administrators and supervising Harvard’s academic and research programs. Overseers may approve actions taken by the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

“Contrary to the belief of some alumni, Overseers do not have direct influence over the fiduciary, investment, and/or divestment decisions of the University,” the letter reads.

“Rather than pushing their own single-issue or multi-issue agendas, special interests, or political viewpoints, and forcing Harvard to do what they think is best, Overseers are tasked with helping the University arrive at better outcomes by asking powerful, insightful questions and by considering a long-term, strategic vision for Harvard,” it added.

In a public statement responding to the alumni letter, Harvard Forward co-founders Danielle O. Strasburger ’18 and Nathán Goldberg Crenier ’18 wrote that the Board of Overseers can “act as a check on the Harvard Corporation, since Overseers have the power to consent (or not) to the election of new Corporation members.”

Former HAA President Alice E. Hill ’81, who signed the alumni volunteer letter, wrote in an email to The Crimson that her main concerns about the election are “confusion about the governance of Harvard” and a “return to money-based campaigning.”

“The combination has the potential to undermine our collective alumni efforts to keep Harvard a strong and effective leader in education and research and an institution that educates people who make a difference in the world,” she wrote.

Hill compared Harvard Forward to the 2016 “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign, which called for eliminating tuition and affirmative action. She also said she was concerned about the group’s tactics.

“As the election has gone on it has become apparent that the goals of Harvard Forward were not aligned with the role of the Overseers and that HF has the funds to employ full time staff and pay for advertising on a scale that hasn’t happened before,” she wrote.

Hill acknowledged the issue of climate change was “personal” to her but said she is concerned about “obfuscation of the role of the Overseers” and “campaign finances.”

“I am very concerned that Harvard elections might be ‘bought’ and that we might not even know who is buying,” she wrote.

The Harvard Forward representatives wrote in their statement that they run on donations from school affiliates.

“Our average contribution is about $200, and the most popular donation amount is $[20.] That’s not ‘cashed up special interests’ – that’s the voice of the Harvard community,” the statement reads.

Vanessa W. Liu ’96, who serves as first vice president of the HAA Board of Directors, said that while alumni typically do not craft letters responding to Harvard’s annual elections, this year’s process necessitated doing so.

Liu said she is sympathetic towards fighting climate change, but much like Hill, she is concerned about Harvard Forward’s campaign strategies. She cited the landmark Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and special interest groups to spend an unrestricted amount of money in elections.

“This is almost like a Citizens United when it comes to campaigning for Overseer seats,” she said. “If we do not put in precedent that this should not be the case that you can buy Harvard seats, then I shudder to think what could happen down the road.”

The annual Overseers election kicked off July 1 after initially being pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. All Harvard degree holders except members of the Harvard Corporation and those in University instruction and governance positions are eligible to vote in the election, either by traditional paper ballot or online. The election ends August 18.

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

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