Three weeks ago, leaders of the alumni group Harvard Forward were “thrilled.” After months of petitioning and campaigning, they had elected three candidates to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, its second-highest governing body.
This week dimmed their moods.
On Tuesday, William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation — the highest governing body, and R. Martin Chávez ’85, the president of the Board of Overseers, announced that no more than six candidates who have been nominated by petition may be elected to the Board of Overseers at any given time.
Harvard Forward co-founders Danielle O. Strasburger ’18 and Nathán Goldberg Crenier ’18 wrote in an email that they were “alarmed” by the change, which will limit their ability to elect more than three petition candidates to the Board in the next five years.
The Corporation and Overseers approved the changes as an outgrowth of a report by the Board of Overseers’s Election Working Group. Though the report was completed on July 31, Strasburger and Crenier alleged that the change in policy was “in response” to their victory.
“It is appalling that Harvard would respond to an electoral outcome it dislikes by subverting the democratic process itself,” they wrote.
University spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy emphasized that the change was not in response to the outcome of the election, the results of which Harvard announced on August 21.
In their email, Strasburger and Crenier also accused Harvard of making University governance less democratic.
“By limiting the number of petition candidates allowed on the Board, the Board has decided to actively undermine the democratic nature of its elections,” they wrote. “Instead of using this year’s historic election as an opportunity to take positive action, Harvard’s leadership has instead doubled down on shielding those in power from accountability to the community they are supposed to serve.”
Even with the change, Hennessy wrote that Harvard’s process remains more democratic than any of its peer institutions.
All 30 members of Harvard’s Board of Overseers are elected by alumni, though members of the Harvard Corporation are not. By contrast, just six of 16 trustees of the Yale Corporation — their sole governing body — are elected by alumni.
The Overseers’ committee report cited Harvard’s direct election system as a reason that the majority of candidates should be vetted by the nominating committee. Strasburger and Crenier called that argument “paternalistic.”
“Alumni are fully capable of thoughtfully electing the leaders Harvard needs: when petition candidates ran in 2009 and 2016 on platforms antithetical to Harvard’s values, not a single one was elected,” they wrote. “Paternalistic limitations on petition candidates are unnecessary, and Harvard should have more faith in its alumni community.”
While Harvard Forward is the only petition campaign to successfully elect candidates to the Board of Overseers, it was not the first such effort in recent years.
In 2009, Robert L. Friedman ’62 and Harvey A. Silverglate ’67 ran a campaign based on reforming the College’s disciplinary system and advocating for free speech on campus. In 2016, a slate of candidates known as “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ran on the platform of eliminating tuition and affirmative action.
Despite the limits on petition candidates, Strasburger and Crenier said they were not entirely unhappy with the special committee’s recommendations. The University also committed to including more recent alumni in University governance, a central plank of Harvard Forward’s platform which they hailed as a “very significant victory.”
“As a group, recent graduates are more diverse across virtually every metric than previous generations of Harvard alumni, and they will bring fresh, necessary perspectives into deliberations that will impact the University for decades to come,” Strasburger and Crenier wrote.“But recent alumni involvement is just one element of creating a Harvard that is more just.”
“This past election has already proven that alumni believe Harvard must do more to be a leader on climate action, inclusive governance, and racial justice,” they added. “Changing the election rules does not change that fact, and we look forward to nominating and electing petition candidates again in 2021.”
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.