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The Harvard Alumni Association Keeps Harvard Governance Homogenous

By Harris L Hartz, Contributing Opinion Writer
Harris L. Hartz ’67 is a judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is currently petitioning to be a candidate in this spring’s Board of Overseers election.

Harvard has lost its way.

The Harvard community is blessed with many brilliant, articulate, and well-meaning folks. But it has become intolerant — too lazy to seriously consider contrary views. There is a dominant groupthink that stifles debate, intimidating students and faculty from challenging the common wisdom.

This may be the view of only a minority of those on the Harvard campus, but it is widely shared by outsiders who have observed recent events. I would like to try to explain how this could happen.

One would hope that the governing bodies of Harvard would have energetically fought against this development. After all, it has a long, cherished tradition to invoke in favor of vigorous, informed, and thoughtful debate.

When I studied at Harvard more than 50 years ago, that tradition was in full flower. What could be a better dinner conversation in Dunster House than to hear the political discussions of then-graduate students Barney Frank ’61, Lee W. Huebner, and Sanford V. Levinson — one a future Democratic congressman, another the founder of a Republican think tank, and the third a constitutional law professor.

One would think that it would be essential that the members of the Harvard Board of Overseers — the second most powerful body of university governance on campus, besides the Harvard Corporation — hold diverse views about, and attitudes towards the University.

One would think, too, that the election process would favor people who view the position as a call to duty, not a badge of honor — people willing to sacrifice personal advantage to serve one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the world.

A strong selection process is essential for effective oversight. On nearly any committee or board, there is a strong centripetal force that acts against members raising challenges to the status quo. The more prestigious the board, the greater this force.

When surrounded by some of the most important and influential people in the world, why raise a stink and risk alienating potentially valuable connections? Why make critiques or propose new ideas that no one else has seen fit to advance?

Harvard’s current selection process for the Board of Overseers, which is dominated by the Harvard Alumni Association, is not fit to address these issues.

Alumni associations are valuable. They help classmates keep in touch with one another and recruit members to interview applicants and raise money. Before becoming a federal judge, I was active in my local Harvard alumni organization.

But why is this an appropriate body to exert such control over university governance? Alumni associations are rah-rah — they promote a positive image of the university. This purpose hardly seems conducive to introspection and a willingness to critique the university.

Further, in my impression, the HAA mirrors the University’s strong ideological tilt.

At the college and law school reunions I attended in 2022, there were some wonderful conversations among classmates, but the speakers and some classmate discussion leaders were one-sided.

The law-school reunion could have been aptly described as a “Jamie Raskin for President” rally, with the Democratic congressman serving as an invited speaker twice in three days. Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, a brilliant scholar and one of my best professors, devoted a considerable part of his 90 minutes before the 50th reunion class — billed as “A Conversation with Professor Laurence H. Tribe” with “special guest” congressman Jamie B. Raskin ’83 (D-Md.) — to passionately express his view that Raskin should be the next president of the United States. Is this what we are now to expect at reunions?

This was not a one-off. A few months ago, Harvard Law School alumni were invited to watch several eminent professors discuss the Supreme Court decision that found against Harvard's affirmative action policies. All four professors were insightful. All abhorred the decision. The diversity of their views concerned only how best to minimize the impact on Harvard.

Despite its ideological tilt, the HAA has outsized influence on university governance, mostly controlling the committee that nominates candidates for election by alumni to the Board of Overseers. This committee selects a slate of candidates — slightly larger than the number of openings — to be placed on the ballot.

Outsiders who wish to challenge the HAA slate can be nominated by a petition process, but acquiring these signatures can be a challenging task, with the number of signatures required to get on the ballot increasing from 201 in 2016 to over 3,000 today. After several insurgent challengers found success, the University further limited the number of petition candidates who may serve on the board at one time to just six. Clear signs of open-mindedness.

What Harvard needs, now more than ever, is members of the Board of Overseers who will civilly — and without ad hominem attacks — question the powers that be and the status quo, insisting that Harvard be the premier institution in this country for informed, thoughtful, civil debate.

For now, all that concerned alumni can do is sign petitions in support of dissident candidates for the Board of Overseers by Jan. 31. Regardless of the outcome, there needs to be some hard thinking about how to improve the selection process.

Harris L Hartz ’67 is a judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. He is currently petitioning to be a candidate in this spring’s Board of Overseers election.

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