Petition Candidates Qualify for Overseers’ Ballot

A five-member slate challenges Harvard admissions and tuition policies.

Five petition candidates have qualified for placement on the ballot for this spring’s election of members to the Board of Overseers, the larger but less powerful of the University’s two governing boards (and the only one whose members are selected by alumni votes).

The petitioners, who have joined to promote a program they call “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” advocate tuition-free undergraduate education and what they call “transparency” in admissions procedures—both measures linked to a larger argument about the qualifications and characteristics of applicants that the College can and should be allowed to use in composing an entering class. (The College recently announced that it had received a record 39,044 applications for admission to the class of 2020, entering this fall; a typical undergraduate class enrolls about 1,650 students.)

As reported previously (see here for a detailed discussion of the issues and arguments), the petitioners’ program poses fundamental challenges to the University’s longstanding admissions processes and goals—including the use of race as one factor in assessing applicants. One recent indication of the institution’s position on these matters came at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) first regular meeting of the semester, on February 2, a few weeks after the petitioners’ effort to gain access to the ballot became public. The faculty members present voted unanimously to endorse as a statement of FAS’s values the report of the Committee to Study the Importance of Student Body Diversity brought before it late last semester (it is described in the news account linked above). Among other findings, that report concluded explicitly, “The role played by racial diversity in particular in the development of this capacity for empathy cannot be overstated,” in the context of the learning the institution seeks to make available to its students.

If enacted, the petitioners’ program also would significantly change FAS’s financial model (encompassing the faculty itself, Harvard College, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences); tuition revenue is its largest source of unrestricted funding—and therefore a significant source of the monies used to pay for financial aid.

The debate over tuition comes against a backdrop of renewed interest by some members of the U.S. Congress in exploring private universities’ endowments and spending on financial aid. (Perhaps ironically, the 56 institutions that received the most recent query—from Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Representatives Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Peter Roskam, R-Illinois—include those which lead in need-blind admissions and in initiating fully paid, loan-free scholarships for lower-income students.)

In a conversation with The Harvard Crimson, President Drew Faust criticized the free-tuition proposal on distributional grounds: “The kind of program that is being proposed here funds a lot of students who we don’t think have need, from families who could and should afford to pay for their student’s education. We would be using an enormous amount of institutional resources to subsidize families who could easily afford to support their children in college.” At a time when the University news office has been publishing a long-planned series covering professors’ research on inequality, the petitioners’ proposal would in effect have the institution move away from need-based financial-aid assessments and awards—a sharply progressive structure in which students from the lowest-income families attend the College at no cost, while those from the highest income tier pay a full term bill.

In order to gain what they say would be a highly effective tool for attracting applicants from across the socioeconomic spectrum (the no-tuition proposal), the petitioners place less emphasis on the expense of having the University underwrite the undergraduate education for the children of families from the upper strata of the income distribution. (There would, of course, also be effects on FAS from forgoing the current stream of after-aid tuition income, used to fund the faculty’s research and other operations as well.)

With the petitioners having secured a place on the ballot, it is likely that these issues will be aired more widely during this spring’s election; ballots are mailed to eligible alumni in early April. It will be interesting to see whether more eligible voters exercise their franchise as a result; during the past five elections, according to University data, slightly more than 250,000 ballots have been distributed annually to eligible Harvard degree-holders, and an average of more than 27,000 (about 11 percent) have been returned.

The initial announcement of candidates, in  January, before the petition campaign was announced, appears here. The February 19 announcement—including the petition candidates, now qualified for the ballot, and their affiliations—appears here.

The full Overseer slate, as published by the University, thus includes two groups of candidates, as follows:

•The initial cohort, proposed by the Harvard Alumni Association’s nominating committee

Kent Walker ’83 magna cum laude
Senior vice president and general counsel, Google Inc.
Palo Alto, Calif.

Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92 magna cum laude, J.D. ’96 cum laude
Judge, United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes ’86 magna cum laude, M.B.A. ’92
President, CVS/pharmacy; executive vice president, CVS Health
Providence, R.I.

John J. Moon ’89 magna cum laude, A.M. ’93, Ph.D. ’94
Managing director, Morgan Stanley
New York, N.Y.

Alejandro Ramírez Magaña ’94 cum laude, M.B.A. ’01
Chief executive officer, Cinépolis
Mexico City, Mexico

Damian Woetzel, M.P.A. ’07
Artistic director, Vail International Dance Festival; director, Aspen Institute Arts Program, DEMO at the Kennedy Center, and Independent Projects
Roxbury, Conn.

Karen Falkenstein Green ’78 magna cum laude, J.D. ’81 cum laude
Senior partner, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, LLP

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale ’74 magna cum laude
Associate provost for faculty and Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

•The cohort of nominees by petition

Ralph Nader, LL.B. ’58
Citizen-activist and author; founder, The Center for Responsive Law and Public Citizen
Washington, D.C.

Stephen Hsu
Professor of theoretical physics and vice president for research and graduate studies, Michigan State University
Okemos, Mich.

Ron Unz ’83 magna cum laude
Software developer and chairman,; Publisher, The Unz Review
Palo Alto, Calif.

Stuart Taylor Jr., J.D. ’77 magna cum laude
Author, journalist, lawyer; nonresident senior fellow, Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.

Lee C. Cheng ’93 magna cum laude
Chief legal officer, Newegg, Inc.
Santa Ana, Calif.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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