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Report on Board of Overseers Offers New Insights Into Its Role

Harvard's governing boards approved a series of changes to how University Overseers are elected.
Harvard's governing boards approved a series of changes to how University Overseers are elected. By Jenny M. Lu
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

A 20-page report on the election and function of Harvard’s Board of Overseers reveals details about how the second-highest governing body leads the University, in addition to issuing recommendations about future Overseer elections.

Members of a special committee of the Board of Overseers’s Election Working Group submitted the report to the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers on July 31 and released it to the public Tuesday.

The committee was led by Margaret H. Marshall, the former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and composed of past Overseers Susan L. Carney ’73 and Tracy P. Palandjian ’93, current Overseer Paul L. Choi ’86, and past Harvard Alumni Association Presidents Walter H. Morris Jr. ’73 and Margaret M. Wang ’09.

The committee issued several recommendations, approved by the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers, including limiting the number of members of the Board of Overseers who are petition candidates to six of 30, and “monitoring” future elections to the Board.

Amid its formal recommendations, though, it also contains a trove of information about the University's sometimes-opaque governance structure.

The Harvard Corporation — made up by the president, treasurer, and 11 fellows — is responsible for institutional strategy, the annual budget, the endowment, and appointments of top administrators, including the University President.

Like the Corporation, the role of the 30-member Board of Overseers has at times been ambiguous to the public. The new report outlines some of the Board’s most important functions in the University.

The report states that the “chief responsibility” of the Board of Overseers is the “visitation process,” which it calls the “primary means for periodic external review and assessment” of various parts of the University — including academic departments, the College, graduate and professional schools, the Harvard Library, the Harvard Art Museum, athletics, and information technology.

The Board of Overseers is tasked with directing the visitation process through its standing committees and approximately 50 visiting committees that answer to it, the report states.

Each visiting committee meets on campus for two days to “conduct intensive reviews,” before preparing “detailed reports of their observations and recommendations” for the members of the Board of Overseers’ standing committees to consider.

Those Overseers, then, meet with “relevant deans, department chairs, and visiting committee chairs to discuss key opportunities and challenges facing the visited units."

On top of the visitation process, the report notes that the Board of Overseers provides “confidential counsel” to leaders of the University and has the “power of consent” to some actions of the Harvard Corporation.

The report also emphasizes how University officials envision the ideal member of the Board of Overseers.

"The essence of the Overseers’ role, as members of a university-wide governing body, is not to serve the interests of particular constituencies or to act as advocates for specific policy objectives — however worthy those interests or objectives might be — but to focus on ensuring that Harvard as a whole will continue to thrive in pursuing its expansive and multifaceted mission of education and research in service of the larger society,” the report reads.

It lists a number of characteristics of potential Overseers that members of the nominating committee are asked to consider: “experience in an academic or professional domain”; an interest in higher education; an “understanding of complex organizations”; leadership and consensus-building skills; and “a broad concern for Harvard as a whole.”

Part of its recommendation that the University “monitor” future campaigns for the Board of Overseers centers on the concern that candidates will focus on single issues, rather than the overall University.

“Candidates elected with the benefit of financial and other support from organized issue-driven groups may well come to the role of Overseer feeling a responsibility to promote and achieve the stated objectives of such groups, whereas the role of Overseer entails serving the interests of the University as a whole, not of particular constituencies,” the report reads.

The most recent petition campaigns for the Board of Overseers were issue-driven — in 2015, a slate of five candidates who favored eliminating tuition and affirmative action ran as “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” and this year, a slate of five candidates who support divestment the endowment from fossil fuels ran as “Harvard Forward.” Though the former failed to elect any candidates to the Board, the latter succeeded in electing three Overseers earlier this summer.

That sort of special interest proved unappealinf to University officials, per the report.

“We believe the sound governance of the University risks erosion if Overseers elections come to be seen less as a means to consider which individuals would be best suited to perform the Board’s governance role, and more a means for alumni to register their views on contested questions of policy,” the report concludes.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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

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