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‘There Could Be Nothing More Democratic,’ Bacow Says In Defense of Overseers Election Process

University President Lawrence S. Bacow, pictured here in March, defended recent changes to the composition of the Board of Overseers in an interview Friday.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow, pictured here in March, defended recent changes to the composition of the Board of Overseers in an interview Friday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended recent changes to the composition of the Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second-highest governing body — in an interview with The Crimson Friday.

The Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, and the Board of Overseers announced earlier this month that they had approved a recommendation to limit the number of members nominated by petition to six of 30.

The recommendation came out of a report — which Bacow called “very thoughtful” — from a special committee tasked with evaluating the Board of Overseers and its election process.

The committee completed the report in July, a month before Harvard announced that over 40,000 alumni had elected three petition candidates backed by Harvard Forward to the Board of Overseers.

In response to criticism that the change indicates a lack of trust in alumni judgement, Bacow said the report “speaks for itself.”

“I think the report indicated that it was necessary for the Overseers to have subject matter expertise in different areas, and that the nominations process ensures that, that the nominations process as conducted by the Alumni Association was open to suggestions from the alumni, and that it was a rigorous process,” he said.

Bacow also touted the report’s finding that the “process for selecting overseers is among the most democratic of all governing boards in the United States.”

“The entire Board of Overseers is directly elected by the alumni,” he added. “There could be nothing more democratic than that.”

For years, activists have urged Harvard to divest from fossil fuels and the companies tied to the prison industry. Harvard Forward — a group pushing for divestment and student representation on the school’s governance boards — ran a slate of five candidates for the Board this past election cycle, and three were ultimately elected in August.

Activists celebrated Harvard Forward’s win as a victory for their cause, illustrating advocacy for change and a directive through the elected Overseers from the voting Harvard alumni body to divest.

But with that avenue of activism curtailed by the policy changes, Bacow maintained that the University has “multiple processes to solicit input and reaction from members of our community.”

“I think what is sometimes less visible to activists is the broader range of opinion that's expressed by alumni from across the institution,” Bacow said. “I certainly read all of my emails. So, I'm aware of the fact that Harvard does not speak with one voice and the alumni don't speak with one voice so it's important for us to be open to different points of view, and I think we are.”

Bacow said Harvard’s reputation as one of the best universities in the world was proof of its effective governance.

“We did not get here, arrive at this point, in spite of our governance processes,” he said. “Rather, Harvard has prospered in part because of those processes.”

Still, he acknowledged that the election processes for the governance boards should not be “static”and referenced “ongoing processes” of review and reform dating back to 2010, when the Corporation roughly doubled its membership and imposed term limits on its members.

“We will continue to look at ways to improve the governance of the University,” he said. “But I don't think our governance is fundamentally flawed given the quality of the institution that it has produced over almost four centuries.”

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

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

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