Contested Harvard Overseer Election Begins

Campaigning gets under way, as ballots are mailed and candidates are endorsed.

With the ferocious U.S. presidential primaries in temporary abeyance, Harvard’s own 2016 campaign begins: ballots are scheduled to be in the mail April 1 for the annual election of members of the Board of Overseers and directors of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA)—see the full slates here.

As previously reported, the election of five new Overseers is contested this year: in addition to the eight candidates put forth by the HAA nominating committee, five petition candidates qualified for the ballot. Their “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” platform, challenging admissions and tuition practices, has in turn been vigorously opposed by a group of alumni, organized as the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, who defend the University’s policy of considering race and ethnicity as one factor in evaluating applicants for admission, in pursuit of a diverse student body.

As alumni voters begin considering their choices and voting (ballots must be returned to the University by May 20), they may wish to inform themselves of several recent developments, reported below: candidate statements in response to a questionnaire; endorsements and reactions; and a written statement on the issues by past presidents of the Board of Overseers.

The Coalition’s Questionnaire

In keeping with its plan to solicit Overseer candidates’ views on what it defines as the core issues of affirmative action and diversity-promoting admissions policies, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard has published the responses in full here. They make interesting reading, presenting distinct worldviews on issues of importance to Harvard, and suggesting differences among candidates. The responses are often nuanced, and come at the issues from different ways, so voters are well advised to read them in full and consider the arguments in depth; brief excerpts appear here.

At one end of the spectrum, for example, Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92, J.D. ’96, an HAA-nominated candidate, had to make an understandable recusal:

Thank you for posing these insightful and significant questions. As a sitting federal judge who was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2013, I feel duty bound not to express my personal views on matters of significance that have the potential to come before me in Court. As you have indicated, diversity and affirmative action in higher education are among the hotly contested social issues that are currently working their way to, and through, tribunals across the country. Consequently, I must respectfully decline to provide specific answers to your thoughtful inquiries.

Ron Unz ’83, who organized the Free Harvard/Fair Harvard slate, wrote in response to Coalition questions about affirmative action and workplace diversity:

I have always been personally opposed to racial/ethnic affirmative action. However, since the candidates on our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard Overseer slate have a wide variety of different views on the contentious matter, this position is not part of our platform.


I’ve spent very little of my career as part of any large organization and anyway have serious doubts about the value of “diversity” for its own sake.

HAA-nominated candidate Helena Buonanno Foulkes ’86, M.B.A. ’92, president of CVS Pharmacy, wrote:

I believe the intent of affirmative action, as it applies to educational institutions, is to provide equitable access to higher learning for historically under-represented groups. It has enabled institutions like Harvard to make tremendous progress toward that goal, but there is more progress to be made.

Affirmative action remains an important tool for mitigating environmental, cultural and institutional barriers to access and opportunity, and it would be a mistake for Harvard to deprive itself of that tool.

When considering applicants to Harvard, it is not only appropriate but necessary to take race into consideration, along with other forms of diversity that can benefit all students—including ethnic diversity, religious diversity, cultural diversity, and diversity of gender, sexual orientation, talent, socioeconomic backgrounds, and place of origin, among many others.

Petition candidate Lee C. Cheng ’93, chief legal officer of Newegg Inc., wrote:

I believe that race can be considered in college admissions—it is a legitimate aspect of what makes every person different and diverse. However, I oppose racial discrimination—there is nothing affirmative about racial discrimination.  Race-determinative admissions, where individuals, often from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, end up being discriminated against based on race and ethnicity, is morally repugnant to me. It is never justifiable to favor someone rich over someone poor. It is never justifiable to require one applicant to have to work harder, and achieve more, to have the same outcome, because of their skin color. Race can be used, in my opinion, as a thumb on the scale of two equally qualified candidates, but it should not be used to justify different scales altogether.

And petition candidate Ralph Nader, LL.B. ’58, the activist/consumer advocate, wrote:

Student diversity is an indispensable element in education and should be a primary concern at Harvard University. I believe that universities and all institutions should demonstrate respect for people from all walks of life and that universities should work especially hard to eliminate prejudice based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, age, and socio-economic status.

I strongly support affirmative action and reparations for African Americans.

I support race-conscious college admissions with historical wisdom.

Coalition Endorsements

The Coalition announced at its inception that consistent with its stand “in favor of race-conscious and holistic admissions practice that support campus diversity” it would endorse Overseer candidates, based on their responses to the questionnaire. On March 25, it endorsed the following five HAA-nominated candidates:

Lindsay Chase-Lansdale ’74, Evanston, Illinois. Associate provost for faculty and Frances Willard professor of human development and social policy, Northwestern University

Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92, J.D. ’96, Washington, D.C. Judge, United States District Court

John J. Moon ’89, Ph.D. ’94, New York City. Managing director, Morgan Stanley

Alejandro Ramírez Magaña ’94, M.B.A. ’01, Mexico City. CEO, Cinépolis

Damian Woetzel, M.P.A. ’07, Roxbury, Connecticut. Artistic director, Vail International Dance Festival; director, Aspen Institute Arts Program, DEMO (Kennedy Center), and independent projects

In making its selection, the Coalition said on its website, it had chosen the candidates “who we believe will best support campus diversity,” based on evaluation of their responses to the questionnaire, their official ballot statements published by the University, and research conducted by Coalition candidate-review committee members. Their evaluation, the statement noted, “did not alter the Coalition’s opposition to the ‘Free Harvard/Fair Harvard’ slate.”

Members of the review committee are identified as Jane Sujen Bock ’81, Maria Carmona ’85, Margaret M. Chin ’84, Tamara Fish ’88, Kevin Jennings ’85, Robert Lynn ’88, Jeannie Park ’83, Kristin R. Penner ’89, Tab Timothy Stewart ’88, Michael Williams ’81, and Rashid Yasin ’12. (An earlier report on the Overseers’ election incorporated remarks from Jennings and Park, elaborating their views on the petitioners’ admissions and tuition planks.)

The Petitioners’ Response, and Another Campaign

In an e-mail, petition candidate Stuart Taylor Jr., J.D. ’77, an author and journalist, wrote, “I think we will do well among people who have time to read our platform and our individual views, as detailed on the highly informative website that Ron created for us, in our detailed answers to the Coalition’s questions, and in [news] coverage. I also hope that our answers will be circulated broadly among Harvard degree-holders because I suspect that a large majority of those who read them will find them persuasive even if the Coalition does not.”

In a telephone conversation, Ron Unz did not comment on the Coalition endorsements. “I think we have strong ballot statements,” he said. Most eligible voters, he continued, likely will become aware that there is a contested election only when they receive their ballots in the mail. He noted that news coverage of the election has perhaps been overshadowed, compared to his hopes, by the overwhelming media focus on the U.S. presidential primaries. (Unz’s media savvy is considerable. The Free Harvard/Fair Harvard slate announced its effort to secure petition slots on the Overseers’ ballot via a front-page story in The New York Times, and the effort is covered anew in an article on university endowments in the March 26-April 1 edition of The Economist.)

Similarly, he said, just a small percentage of alumni are aware of “how negligible the tuition dollars are relative to the rest” of the University’s revenues.” So he sees the Free Harvard/Fair Harvard effort prompting discussion about those matters (the subject of the article in The Economist)—an effort he would like to advance in a debate with HAA-endorsed candidates at or near Harvard, even if no such forum has been arranged to date. Whether or not the campaign succeeds in electing Overseers, he said, “some of the issues and ideas we’ve raised may reverberate down the road, even if it takes a bit longer than we’d like.”

Meanwhile, alongside his leadership of the petition slate, and publication of a collection of his writings (titled The Myth of American Meritocracy and Other Essays, after his magnum opus on admissions, discussed in some detail here, with critics’ views here), Unz has decided to multitask still further, making himself a candidate for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from California. In an e-mail dated March 21, he wrote:

As some of you may have already heard, a few days ago I made a last-minute decision to enter the U.S. Senate race for the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer in California. I took out my official papers early Monday morning and returned them with the necessary 65 signatures of registered voters on Wednesday afternoon, the last possible day for filing.

I am certainly under no illusions that my candidacy is anything but a tremendous long-shot.…

The primary factor behind this sudden decision on my part was the current effort by the California Democrats and their (totally worthless) Republican allies to repeal my 1998 Prop. 227 “English for the Children” initiative. Although the English immersion system established in the late 1990s was judged an enormous educational triumph by nearly all observers, and the issue has long since been forgotten, a legislative ballot measure up for a vote this November aims to undo all that progress and reestablish the disastrously unsuccessful system of Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education” in California public schools.…

After considering various options, I decided that becoming a statewide candidate myself was the probably the best means of effectively focusing public attention on this repeal effort and defeating it.…

[I]f I were a statewide candidate myself, heavily focusing on that issue, my standing as the original author of Prop. 227 would give me an excellent chance of establishing myself as the main voice behind the anti-repeal campaign. I also discussed the possibility of this race with some of my fellow Harvard Overseer slate-members, and they strongly believed that my candidacy would be far more likely to help rather than hurt our efforts, which…was another major consideration in my decision. Furthermore, running for office provides me with an opportunity to raise all sorts of other policy issues often ignored by most political candidates or elected officials.

This last point is one that I have frequently emphasized to people over the years, that under the right circumstances, the real importance of a major political campaign sometimes has relatively little connection to the actual vote on election day. Instead, if used properly, a campaign can become a powerful focal point for large amounts of media coverage on under-examined issues. And such media coverage may have long-term consequences, win or lose.

Past Overseers’ Presidents Weigh In

Finally, the magazine received a letter to the editor from five past presidents of the Board of Overseers, weighing in on the issues raised in the election to that governing board. It will appear in the printed and online versions of the May-June issue, available to readers in late April, about midway through the balloting. Given that timing, it is excerpted here, with brief identifications of the correspondents and their years of service as president of the Overseers:

This year’s election is particularly important to the future of Harvard because a slate of five alumni has petitioned to join this year’s ballot in support of an ill-advised platform that would elevate ideology over crucial academic interests of the University.…[T]hese five alumni propose “the immediate elimination of all tuition for undergraduates,” including those whose families can afford to pay full tuition. They also suggest that Harvard’s admissions practices are “corrupt” and that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

The proposal to eliminate tuition for all undergraduates is misguided. Harvard’s financial-aid program, among the most generous in the country, already ensures that Harvard is affordable for all students. Roughly 20 percent of Harvard undergraduates—those whose parents earn less than $65,000—already attend free of cost. Students from families earning between $65,000 and $150,000 receive a financial-aid package designed to ensure that no family is asked to pay more than 10 percent of its income. And hundreds of students from families earning more than $150,000 receive financial aid. In total, more than 70 percent of undergraduates receive some form of aid.

Harvard’s focus on affordability also ensures that tuition from those who can afford to pay continues to provide a significant source of funding for Harvard’s extraordinary educational programs. It simply does not make sense to forgo this considerable sum in order to make tuition free for students whose families can afford to pay. Although the candidates propose that free tuition could be funded by Harvard’s endowment, that simplistic premise fails to recognize that the endowment must be maintained in perpetuity and that much of it consists of restricted gifts. Rather than eliminating tuition, Harvard should continue to ensure that the cost of attendance remains affordable, and we have full confidence that the administration is committed to this important goal.

The allegations of corruption and discrimination in admissions are wholly unfounded, and mirror allegations raised in a lawsuit filed against Harvard by activists who seek to dismantle Harvard’s longstanding program to ensure racial and ethnic diversity in undergraduate admissions. In reality, Harvard’s admissions process—which considers each applicant as a whole person—has long been a model for undergraduate admissions at universities around the country. The current admissions policies ensure that Harvard maintains a diverse student body with a range of talents and experiences that enriches the experience of all students on campus. President Faust has recently reaffirmed Harvard’s “commitment to a widely diverse student body,” and has stated that Harvard will pursue a “vigorous defense of [its] procedures and…the kind of educational experience they are intended to create.” We fully endorse her commitment to defending diversity.…

The Harvard Alumni Association has already proposed a slate of eight strong candidates for the Board of Overseers with a wide range of talents and expertise.  We urge you to consider their candidacies carefully and to select the five candidates whom you think will best serve the interests of Harvard in the years to come. The candidates running on the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” slate, while accomplished individuals, are committed to a platform that would disserve the interests of the University about which we all care deeply.

Morgan Chu, J.D. ’76, Partner, Irell &  Manella LLP (2014-15)

Leila Fawaz, Ph.D. ’79, Professor, The Fletcher School, Tufts (2011-12)

Frances Fergusson, Ph.D. ’73, BI ’75 President emerita, Vassar (2007-08)

Richard Meserve, J.D. ’75, President emeritus, Carnegie Institution  for Science (2012-13)

David Oxtoby ’72, President, Pomona (2013-14)

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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