Massachusetts governors Mitt Romney, Deval L. Patrick ’78, Charlie D. Baker ’79, and Maura T. Healey ’92 don’t share a party, vision, or even home state. But the four most recent governors of Massachusetts do have one thing in common: a Harvard diploma.
The prestige of the Harvard name often connects the University’s brand to the highest echelons of American society — a plethora of presidents, top scholars, and leading executives found their start at Harvard.
Yet the space Harvard occupies in the public imagination often overlooks its commanding presence at the Massachusetts state level — even though the University is mentioned in three articles of the Massachusetts Constitution, a testament to its deep historical ties to the Commonwealth.
Of the 72 governors of Massachusetts since the state’s founding, 29 have been Harvard graduates — or about 40 percent.
Previously, the Harvard Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body — included, by state law, the Massachusetts governor, lieutenant governor, State Senate president, and House speaker. Only in 1865 did the Board of Overseers split from the Massachusetts government and become an elected body.
As the historically close relationship between the University and the Commonwealth has survived the centuries, however, it has become less cozy and more fraught. According to elected officials, Harvard operates as both a partner and as an influential stakeholder in policy issues full of competing interests.
As Harvard affiliates continue to interact with and fill the Massachusetts government, it often falls to the University’s own to create policy and settle disagreements that directly affect Harvard.
How does their time at the University influence the way they approach these disputes, and what is the effect of Harvard’s impact on Massachusetts leaders?
Harvard’s Dexter Gate, at the precipice of Harvard Yard, was christened in 1890 with an inscription championing public service from then-University President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1852.
“Enter to grow in wisdom,” the gate proclaims. “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”
Eliot did not have to look far for such a link between Harvard and government. His father, Samuel A. Eliot, Class of 1817, ran the gamut of Massachusetts elected offices, serving as a state representative, mayor of Boston, and state senator before representing Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Samuel Eliot did not have to choose between public service and service to his alma mater — from 1842 to 1853, he was treasurer of Harvard University, amid his terms as a state senator and later a member of Congress.
The University’s pipeline to local, state, and federal government is not a relic of the past — Harvard alumni continue to fill all levels of elected office today.
When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, a third of his cabinet boasted time at Harvard, including four alumni of Harvard College — most prominently, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken ’84, a former Crimson editor, and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland ’74.
This trend is also reflected at the state level. For the last 20 years, four Harvard alumni in a row — Romney, Patrick, Baker, and Healey — have held the governor’s office.
The current city executives of Boston and Cambridge — Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 and Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 — both hail from Harvard, too.
Elected in 2021, Wu has called her education at Harvard “foundational” to her work in city politics. Though Wu is the first Harvard College alum in nearly 100 years to lead Boston, the city has run deep with Crimson ties for centuries.
Before 1900, 14 of 31 total mayors of Boston were Harvard graduates. Malcolm E. Nichols, Class of 1899, the last Harvard College graduate to take Boston’s top office before Wu, was elected to lead the city in 1925.
“Once again a Harvard graduate has reached the top of Boston’s political ladder,” The Crimson declared in a November 1925 article announcing Nichols’ election.
Healey, one of the most recent Harvard alumni to take Massachusetts office, wrote in an emailed statement that she is “grateful for her experience at Harvard,” and that her administration continues to enjoy a collaborative relationship with Harvard University.
Healey – who is the first elected female governor of the state – wrote that she has developed a “strong partnership” with University leadership “to strengthen our education system and make Massachusetts a more affordable, competitive and equitable place for all.”
“We all share the same goals of attracting students, researchers, academics and business to Massachusetts and making sure our state is a place where they choose to stay and build their futures,” she added.
Harvard’s extensive influence across Massachusetts makes it a priority for state legislators — but also a target for accountability.
Despite Massachusetts’ close connections to the University, Juliette N. Kayyem ’91 – lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former Massachusetts homeland security adviser – said that “the institutions are different.”
“Harvard does not reflect the state. No matter how hard it tries, it does not,” Kayyem added.
In an emailed statement, Harvard spokesperson Amy Kamosa wrote that the University works closely with officials on statewide issues.
“Harvard works with our higher education partners to monitor state-level issues and to support government partners across the Commonwealth in their work to address critical policy areas for the state,” Kamosa wrote.
Massachusetts State Rep. David H.A. LeBoeuf ’13, a Harvard College alum, said the school enjoys greater access to state government than other institutions might.
“There are many private institutions that will be lobbying the Commonwealth very significantly,” LeBoeuf said. “Harvard — for the most part, because its storied history — doesn’t have to approach the Commonwealth in that way.”
LeBoeuf, a former Crimson editor, is currently co-sponsoring a bill that takes aim at donor and legacy preferences at colleges like Harvard.
The bill would disincentivize these considerations in higher education admissions processes, levying a fee against institutions prioritizing legacy applicants and those with connections to donors.
LeBoeuf said his time at Harvard did not contribute to his commitment to co-sponsor the bill. Instead, he cited loyalty to his constituents and his district as more important to his ultimate decision.
“I represent a very high-needs, lower-income district,” he said. “When I’m looking at bills, I’m not necessarily thinking about how it’s going to affect one institution — I’m looking at how it’s going to affect this system, the whole state.”
“It wasn’t necessarily about Harvard and my Harvard experience,” LeBoeuf added.
While this legislation provides a challenge to the University’s practices, LeBoeuf said that Harvard generally enjoys an advantaged position in government.
“I think where Harvard has an advantage or has more autonomy is because of the size of its endowment and its global connections,” he said.
Harvard’s unique influence on the Boston area has most recently come to the fore in the University’s contentious expansion into Allston.
In an eight-year anonymous property buy-up starting in 1989, the University purchased 52.6 acres of land in the area for $88 million. Subsequent purchases made in the University’s name brought Harvard’s land holdings in the area to more than 200 acres.
The purchased property has since been a major focus of development by Harvard, becoming home to its Science and Engineering Complex and soon, its Enterprise Research Campus.
All the while, the expansion has been overseen by Harvard alums in Boston city government.
Brian P. Golden ’87 led the Boston Planning and Development Agency — named the Boston Redevelopment Authority when he began his tenure — from 2014 to 2022, coinciding with a crucial period in the University’s push to develop its Enterprise Research Campus in Allston.
The BPDA approved a framework for the expansion — detailing a 36-acre entrepreneurship center including offices, lab space, and a hotel and conference center — in 2018, while Golden was director. In 2016, the then-BRA approved plans for the SEC in Allston, also under Golden.
Since its founding in 1957, five of the agency’s permanent directors have been Harvard alumni, including its inaugural director, Kane Simonian ’33.
Just last summer, Wu negotiated a deal between Harvard and neighborhood representatives to allow Harvard’s construction of the first phase of its Enterprise Research Campus to move forward.
Following her election in November 2021, Wu met with representatives from her alma mater and elected officials from Allston for months to work out a compromise that would satisfy both Harvard’s intentions to develop the land and the specific requests of neighborhood residents associated with any such development, like affordable housing requirements.
Wu’s office did not respond to The Crimson’s request for comment.
Kamosa, the Harvard spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement that the University “routinely engages with elected officials, government agencies, members of the community, and other partners in Boston, Cambridge, and across the Commonwealth.”
“We appreciate these longstanding relationships and opportunities for our continued work together,” she added.
Close coordination between city leaders and private universities is not unique to Harvard’s Allston expansion, however.
Thomas P. Glynn, a former head of the Harvard-Allston Land Company with previous roles in state and national government, described in an interview how common this relationship has become particularly with urban universities, in a comment on Harvard’s position as a landlord in Allston.
“I think most universities in this era — if you’re located in cities — are in the housing business in the same way that Harvard is. People at a point in time wanted the University to invest in the neighborhoods to strengthen them,” he said. “That was certainly true in Penn, that was true in Columbia, was true in NYU.”
Glynn said he believes Harvard’s prominence makes it less likely that elected officials coming from the University would be swayed by their connection to it.
“Harvard is so visible. It’s not a secret that Maura Healey went to Harvard,” he said. “If she did something that seemed tilted towards Harvard, everybody would know.”
Glynn noted that in conflicts involving Harvard, those who have active ties to the University can recuse themselves — an option he took himself after being named board chair of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority last month.
“I sent a letter to the general counsel of the T saying I’m recusing myself from any matters having to do with West Station,” he said, referencing a planned T station in Allston that will be built as part of the Allston Multimodal Project — an initiative Harvard is helping to plan and fund.
“You know, I’m on the Kennedy School payroll,” he noted.
Glynn said that despite an array of competing influences, he believes the government follows the will of the people.
“We have a lot of big institutions, which is great, but we have a lot of neighborhoods,” Glynn said of Boston. “Usually the neighborhoods win, in the end.”
—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sallyedwards04.
—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.