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None of the outsider candidates for the Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second-highest governing body — will be on the ballot when alumni vote in the annual election later this spring.
Despite endorsements from high-profile billionaire donors like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill A. Ackman ’88, all seven candidates failed to collect the 3,238 signatures needed for ballot eligibility before Jan 31.
When voting begins April 1, Harvard alumni will have eight Harvard Alumni Association-nominated candidates to pick from for five open seats on the board.
Four veteran alumni endorsed by Ackman — one of the University’s most vocal online critics — staged a public petition campaign under the moniker “Renew Harvard” centered around campus antisemitism and free speech issues. The slate included A. Zoe Bedell, Alec D. Williams, Julia I. Pollak ’09, and Logan Leslie ’15.
Samuel W. Lessin ’05 staged a separate petition bid which attracted attention after he was endorsed by Zuckerberg, the founder of Meta and a Harvard dropout. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, run by Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan ’07, pledged to donate $500 million to Harvard over the next 15 years to support the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence at Harvard.
Harvey A. Silverglate — co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — and Federal Judge Harris Hartz also staged unsuccessful campaigns for the governing board. Silverglate ran for the board in 2009 and 2022, but was unsuccessful both years.
Lessin received 2901 petitions, Pollak received 2732 petitions, Leslie received 2301 petitions, Bedell received 2277 petitions, and Silverglate received 457 petitions.
Hartz declined to comment on the number of petitions he received, and Williams did not respond to a request for comment Friday evening.
The Board of Overseers is composed of 30 members who are elected to six-year terms. The Harvard Alumni Association nominates eight candidates to appear on the ballot for the annual election, but outsider candidates can appear on the ballot if they successfully collected 1 percent of the number of eligible voters in the previous election.
While many of the petition candidates claimed the signature threshold was a new addition, the rule was added nearly a decade ago, in 2016, when the process moved online.
The Jan. 31 nomination deadline was extended for alumni who had begun the voting portal log-in process but had not yet been able to vote. The petition process opened on Nov. 6, 2023. Despite the extension, many of the candidates criticized the threshold as undemocratic and the alumni portal log-in system, Harvard Key, as difficult to navigate for first-time voters.
“We came up against real speed limits in the form of difficulties that people had voting,” Pollak said. “It was difficult to reach this threshold in just three and a half weeks.”
Hartz said he was “surprised” that none of the petition candidates qualified for the ballot and criticized the unaccountability of Harvard’s governing boards.
“It’s just set up that you’re not getting challenged,” Hartz said of the University’s governing board members.
A Harvard spokesperson did not comment for this article.
Bedell said the Renew Harvard slate would campaign for signatures again next year.
“We learned the lessons this year, and we’ll be able to start earlier, and we hope we’ll be able to succeed next time around. because these issues are too important to give up on,” Bedell said.
Lessin, who also plans to run for the board in 2025, wrote in an email to supporters that he will first focus on voter registration ahead of next year’s nomination and election.
“There is absolutely no question in my mind that with a properly functioning election process we would have secured those extra 337 votes and more,” he wrote.
“As soon as the process for voting opens up in the fall, we will hit it hard — and we will win,” he added.
—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.
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