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2020 was a year of record-breaking voter turnout. Two-thirds of registered voters in the U.S. cast ballots for president – the highest percentage in 120 years. And over the summer, 43,531 Harvard alumni voted in Harvard University’s Board of Overseers election — the highest total in recent memory — after robust get-out-the-vote efforts by the grassroots Harvard Forward campaign. But even in the best of years, turnout in Harvard’s elections is pitifully low: this modern-day “record” represented roughly 15 percent turnout.
Harvard alumni are a highly-educated electorate who know the importance of civic engagement. So why don’t they vote in Harvard’s elections? Because they’re convinced these elections don’t matter.
We’ve heard alumni say they receive the ballot every year and throw it away because they know nothing meaningful about the Board of Overseers or the candidates. Unlike public elections, Harvard elections are devoid of debates and town halls, and it’s a challenge for alumni to learn about the candidates’ visions for the University. Furthermore, once elected, the Overseers have little interaction with the general alumni population — there’s little transparency, no clear channels of communication, and virtually no engagement with the broader Harvard community. And since most years every Overseer is hand-picked by the Harvard Alumni Association, alumni think it doesn’t matter who ultimately wins election to the Board.
Overseers hold real influence over the direction of the University. In addition to providing academic oversight and general strategic guidance, the Overseers have the power to accept or reject new appointments to the Harvard Corporation, which in turn handles the endowment and many executive functions of the University. The fights for racial justice and climate action cut across every facet of the University, from curricula, to research priorities, to financial investments, all of which the Board of Overseers has the ability to shape. Beyond its charter-granted powers, the board and its members have direct access to the University president and the rest of the administration. The ability to be in the right room at the right time can change the outcome of discussions for the better.
The past year has shown that we’re facing unprecedented, intersecting challenges that require moral leadership and bold action from Harvard if we hope to maintain our claim to being a leading global institution. New challenges require a new type of leadership. Backgrounds in global public health, higher education, climate policy, and racial justice will prove crucial to the Board as Harvard navigates the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century. Furthermore, Board seats should not be seen as a goal in itself, but rather as an opportunity to chart a better future for the University. Being stewards of the University is not a passive role. It requires proactive, visionary leadership, not just upholding the status quo. Inclusive, bold leadership from members of the Board of Overseers today will make Harvard a better place for decades to come. That’s why it matters who wins the elections to sit on the Board.
Alumni should care about electing people who are passionate about holding the University to its highest ideals, and this election is the only way for most alumni — aside from major donors — to influence the University’s direction. In Harvard’s governance structure, only overseers are truly democratically elected; the University president and members of the Corporation are all appointed by a handful of executives.
However, these elected overseers are almost always chosen by the Harvard Alumni Association. In the past, HAA-selected candidates have been discouraged from discussing their stances on issues. Elections focus on their past accomplishments, not their vision for the future, and rarely center around a commitment to advance pressing matters voiced by the Harvard community. But other alumni prepared to bring diverse perspectives and new leadership can make it on the ballot if they collect enough signatures — 2,987 this year.
The high barrier to entry means that petition candidates must care enough about Harvard to work hard to make it on the ballot. They must have a compelling reason that resonates with thousands of alumni, and they must connect with the Harvard community to gather support. We believe this process makes petition candidates particularly strong contenders, and the three of us are proud to be running by petition.
It’s time to elect overseers who are passionate about advocating for issues of climate action, racial justice, inclusive governance, and socially-responsible investing — exactly the work we do in our day-to-day professional lives. We’re running for the Board of Overseers because we envision a Harvard where our elected leaders reflect our community’s values and advocate for change when it matters. Those who agree with us can support our candidacies by submitting their nominations before Feb. 3.
Yvette O. Efevbera is a graduate of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Megan H. Red Shirt-Shaw is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Natalie Unterstell is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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