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Overseeing the Overseers: Why Elections to the Board Must be Democratic

By Quinn G. Perini
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

At this point, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when elections go against the powerful, they try to change the elections themselves. But it’s a little shocking to see that happening at our own university.

This month the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers — the University’s highest- and second-highest governing bodies, respectively — approved rules dictating that of 30 available seats, a maximum of six candidates nominated by petition can concurrently serve on the University's Board of Overseers. The new regulation comes conspicuously after Harvard Forward led a successful petition-based campaign, nominating five and electing three to the Board. Harvard Forward notably championed young alumni representation and fossil fuel divestment among other progressive initiatives to which the University has been resistant.

Limiting petition-nominated candidates is both procedurally wrong and substantively harmful. It is unfortunate and saddening that Harvard has decided to, once again, handicap non-endorsed candidates following a successful and, in our opinion, well-run petition — with divestment, unsurprisingly, again playing a central role. In the 1980s, after petition candidates who championed divestment from apartheid South Africa were elected to the Board of Overseers, including Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, Harvard tightened petition procedures.

The current policy in question was originally recommended by the specially-convened Election Working Group. The working group regards its recommendations as safeguards for “sustain[ing] and strengthen[ing] the sound and effective governance of the University.” We, however, don’t buy that good governance is somehow out of line with democratic procedures.

The Board of Overseers, as Harvard’s second-highest governing body, is most notably responsible for reviewing and assessing the University. Given these responsibilities, the working group reasoned that the Overseers must be “active, engaged, and questioning, rather than simply reactive or overly deferential.” The working group also concerningly avers that petition-nominated candidates are “members of issue-driven caucuses, sponsored by advocacy groups” and will fail to understand and consider “the Board’s distinctive responsibilities and needs.”

We do not question the significant role and responsibilities of Overseers, nor the “substantial time and care” invested in endorsing a diverse slate of accomplished and trusted individuals. But why do these factors warrant the nominating committee’s outsized (and now growing) control over the election process?

If the essence of the Board is truly “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 University must be open to different views on how larger society can be served. Students, faculty members, and evidently alumni (given the election) all seem to believe that climate change should be a priority for Harvard. Given its prevalence, shouldn’t that perspective factor into how the Board oversees the University?

If past Board elections have been hotly politicized, we believe it is due to sincere, albeit heated, disagreements on how to best serve Harvard, rather than bitter partisanship or designs of sabotage. Petition candidates actually do the great service of broadening and challenging the way the Board and perhaps the community more broadly thinks about the roles, responsibilities, and operations of the University.

There is a legitimate need for dedicated and capable Overseers. But instead of limiting legitimate petitions, Harvard should regulate the nature of petition campaigns. The working group might consider limits on funding, campaign transparency policies, or professional prerequisites and demonstration of prior commitment from the candidates.

Beyond that, we should trust that Harvard degree holders — quite literally the electorate — are competent enough to vote with prudence and integrity. If we don’t, then what are we doing here anyway? Seriously?

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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