The trees are bare in Harvard Yard and the icy winter temperatures of Boston have finally set in, accompanied by yet another fixture of early-Spring semester Harvard: the reappearance of the Harvard Board of Overseers in the news as the body gears up for its elections in April.
The elections themselves seem straightforward. There are two ways alumni can appear on the ballot: They can be nominated by a Harvard Alumni Association committee or they can garner enough petition signatures to appear as outside candidates.
This year, the secretive group has come under fire from Harvard Law School alumn Harvey A. Silverglate ’67, who revealed he likely won’t meet the signature threshold to appear on the ballot for the board’s election — a threshold the body itself sets.
Silverglate’s criticism? In an effort to promote their own candidates, the Board of Overseers has made it more difficult for outsider candidates to see their names on the ballot.
But what makes this mysterious board — whose prior members include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson ‘92 — so special? Why did former President Barack Obama, who would later hold the highest public office in the country, first seek election to this board? More fundamentally, what does the Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second-highest governing body — even do?
It may seem somewhat surprising that most Harvard students probably could not tell you who constitutes this ostensibly powerful group, or what business the Board of Overseers actually oversees. Harvard’s public enumeration of the board’s expectations is a sparse two pages bursting with vague duties such as “helping the president and other senior members of the University,” and “staying informed about Harvard.” At one of the nation’s premier research universities with a towering endowment worth billions, what purpose does the second-highest governing board serve?
Perhaps the obscurity surrounding the Board of Overseers’ operations can be attributed to the Harvard Corporation, the University’s considerably more powerful and only other governing board, which often overshadows its larger but lesser counterpart. Still, we don’t discount the significance of the work being done by the Overseers — and we feel the time is ripe for a conversation among students about what we would like to see from the University’s (second) most elite body.
For one, we desire greater transparency. The Board of Overseers should make itself more known within the Harvard community and transparent about its relationships with the Corporation. Members ought to be clearer about what issues and values they prioritize.
Take Harvard’s decision to divest from fossil fuels in 2021. The announcement came in the wake of sustained student activism, and also after three petition candidates backed by the pro-divestment alumni group Harvard Forward were elected to the Board of Overseers. As undergraduates, we only witnessed the work and impact of student divestment campaigns; the role of the Board of Overseers was less clear. Transparency about the board’s involvement in this cause would be helpful not just to understand the University’s inner workings, but also to allow for future collaboration between student leaders and board members on areas of mutual interest like fossil fuel divestment.
Second, we hope the Board of Overseers maintains its democratic practices in order to truly represent the interests of alumni. Silverglate was right to point out recent changes to the board’s rules that make it more difficult for petition candidates to be elected, such as raising the signature threshold to appear on the ballot and limiting the number of petition candidates who can serve at one time — the second change having been suspiciously (and unjustly, in our opinion) enacted in the wake of Harvard Forward’s successful alumni grassroots campaign to seat three petition candidates on the board in 2020.
We call on the Corporation and the Harvard administration to ensure that future changes to the board’s election practices protect, rather than erode, the ability for alumni to nominate and cast their votes in favor of the candidates they deem most suitable for positions on the Board of Overseers.
Regardless of your feelings about Silverglate’s candidacy — which focused on upholding free speech and downsizing the administration — or his likely failure to secure nomination this spring, his run catalyzes necessary conversations about the role of the Board of Overseers and its representation of alumni. What issues do we want board members to trumpet, and what credentials do we expect them to hold? These are the underlying questions we must consider when talking about the Board and how it runs.
Inevitably, many of us will one day become alumni ourselves, whose votes will elect future Board members. Prior to graduation, we should seek a better understanding of the Board of Overseers both to improve its current function and to protect our future voices and votes.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.