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With Harvard’s governance under intense scrutiny amid the University’s ongoing leadership crisis, billionaire donors have thrown their support behind outsider candidates seeking election to the Board of Overseers.
Meta founder and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Samuel W. Lessin ’05, a former Facebook executive who announced his campaign for the Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body — days after former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s disastrous congressional testimony.
Hedge fund manager Bill A. Ackman ’88, one of Harvard’s fiercest critics since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, separately endorsed Renew Harvard, a slate of four anti-establishment candidates for the Board of Overseers.
Renew Harvard, a group established shortly after Gay’s resignation earlier this month, says it is focused on upholding academic free speech on campus.
A. Zoe Bedell, Harvard Law School graduate and assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, is running for the board alongside Logan Leslie ’15, Alec D. Williams, and Julia I. Pollak ’09 as part of the Renew Harvard coalition.
“We all share the same values — the same fundamental values — about this commitment to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas,” Bedell said. “We’d like to right the ship and restore that focus on academic freedom, and the free exchange of ideas that I think makes Harvard specifically — and universities generally — great places for learning.”
Lessin, the candidate endorsed by Zuckerberg, hopes to increase transparency within the Board of Overseers and use the board to provide a check on the power and decision-making of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body.
The Board of Overseers is composed of 30 alumni who help advise Harvard’s most senior administrators. The Overseers also have the power to approve senior personnel appointments made by the Corporation, though their approval is mostly considered a formality.
This year, candidates are vying to fill the five annual vacancies on the board. Overseers are elected to six-year terms and all Harvard alumni — except current faculty, administrators, or members of the Corporation — are eligible to elect candidates.
The Harvard Alumni Association’s nominating committee tapped eight candidates to appear on this year’s ballot, a process some have criticized as exclusionary and limiting the election to deciding between five of eight candidates pre-approved by the HAA. Outsider candidates seeking to appear on the ballot must do so by petition, a process which requires 3,238 alumni nominations — 1 percent of the number of eligible voters in the previous election — by Jan. 31.
Ackman wrote in a Sunday post on X that the candidates on the Renew Harvard slate had only received 1,500 signatures, less than half of the number required to appear on the ballot.
As Pollak and Bedell work to gather alumni nominations for their campaigns, Bedell said that she feels the experience shows that “Harvard is resistant to change.” She specifically cited the high threshold of alumni nominations.
Harvard spokesperson Cameron Wolfsen did not comment on criticisms of the Board of Overseers’ petition process.
The threshold, which was established in 2016, is even higher when considered in the context of how many alumni participate in Board of Overseers elections, which are consistently plagued by low voter turnout.
While 323,755 degree holders were eligible to vote in last year’s election for the Board of Overseers, just 32,440 ballots were cast. The petition threshold represents almost 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in 2023.
“One question that has come to my mind repeatedly here is, ‘What is Harvard afraid of?’” Bedell said. “They’ve really implemented a lot of obstacles to having anything even remotely resembling an outside voice.”
“And even if we all get onto the ballot, and even if we all get elected, they’re only going to seat two people,” she added, referring to a 2020 change limiting the number of petition candidates.
After three petition candidates backed by Harvard Forward, a group that advocated for Harvard’s endowment to divest from fossil fuels, were elected to the Board of Overseers in 2020, the University announced it would limit the number of petition candidates that could sit on the board at any given time to six.
A fourth Harvard Forward candidate won election to the board in 2021, leaving just two petition candidate spots left on the board.
“They’re really determined to not hear what we have to say or limit our ability to actually serve and support the school,” Bedell added.
Lessin also called the number of petition nominations required “ridiculously high.”
“It’s three times the number that you need to get on most congressional ballots,” he said. “So it’s not meant to be inclusive — it’s meant to be as hard as possible to keep people out from doing this.”
Correction: January 29, 2024
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that more than 400,000 Harvard degree holders were eligibile to vote in last year's Board of Overseers election. In fact, 323,755 degree holders were eligible to vote in the election.
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