The Quiet Campaign

Harvard’s Board of Overseers election

The contested election for Harvard’s Board of Overseers seems anomalous in this noisy U.S. presidential election year. There are no airport rallies, no televised attack commercials or Super PACs, no polls. The voters—Harvard degree-holders—are dispersed worldwide, and the voting itself extends from the mailing of ballots by April 1, until noon on May 20, with results announced at the Harvard Alumni Association’s (HAA) annual meeting on the afternoon of Commencement day.

So no one knows at this point who among the 13 candidates (eight HAA nominees and five petitioners) is leading in the competition for five new Overseers. On average, only about 11 percent of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in the annual elections; one imponderable is whether—as in the presidential polling—a contested Overseer election elicits more robust participation, or if ballots mostly find their way into recycling bins.

Herewith, a summary of campaign developments at the midpoint of the election calendar.

A Campus Conversation

Ron Unz ’83, who organized and acts as spokesman for the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” petitioner slate, came to campus April 10 hoping to debate representatives from the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, who are backing a slate of HAA-nominated Overseer candidates. Coalition representatives declined the bait, so the forum became a panel discussion among Unz, Daniel Solomon ’16, and Luran He ’18, moderated by 1L Pete Davis ’12, online editor of the Harvard Law Record.

The discussion focused first on the petitioners’ proposal to make Harvard College tuition-free. Calling Harvard “one of the world’s largest hedge funds with a small college attached,” Unz argued that if Harvard dropped tuition, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford would immediately follow its lead. He later elaborated this point: parents of students at those schools would demand the change, and eventually, he hoped, the mere presence of tuition-less private schools would generate sufficient pressure to force state schools to lower or eliminate their own tuition charges. He suggested state-school tuition has risen astronomically because colleges have had to add amenities like Olympic pools and better cafeteria food to compete with the private schools, and above all, because they’ve added large numbers of high-paid administrators who do nothing while poorly paid adjuncts do most of the teaching.

Briefly mentioning Fair Harvard (a multipart plank alleging that “powerful statistical evidence” exists of an “Asian quota” for undergraduate admissions, and insisting on “far greater transparency in the admissions process”), he asserted that the population of Asian Americans of college age has risen 60 percent, while the percentage enrolled at Harvard has stayed steady or even declined a bit. Later he summed up: Harvard says its goals are meritocracy and diversity (which, he pointed out, “may sometimes be in opposition”). In fact, they are corruption and nepotism.

Solomon, in response, stressed that eliminating tuition would be a giveaway to the wealthy, and rebutted Unz’s claim that eliminating tuition would no different than the wealthy benefiting from public programs like Social Security. The latter, Solomon said, is a public benefit that builds necessary social cohesion; the former, a giveaway by a private college with a much wealthier-than-average student body. He also suggested a Harvard change wouldn’t necessarily affect other schools, pointing to the University’s effort to end early decision, which had limited impact.

Luran He asked about Unz’s position on room and board. The “Free Harvard” plan refers only to tuition; room and board fees total about $20,000 next year, and are covered fully in financial-aid packages for students with family incomes below $65,000. (The tuition focus of the petitioners’ plank has been interpreted in some quarters to mean that current aid packages would become less generous to students with significant need.) Unz said the slate is dealing only with tuition, but he thinks the charge for room and board is too high and one could make a case for abolishing it as well.

Unz then argued that dropping tuition would be the best way to attract the low-income applicants the College says it wants to attract, because the news coverage would resonate worldwide, having far more impact than institutions’ communications about financial aid—and suggested such a move would make wealthy families unhappy with Harvard because their own children would face more competition.

(In a sort of debate from afar, Daniel Lobo ’14, of the First Generation Harvard Alumni shared interest group, wrote in a Harvard Crimson op-ed published April 20 that the barriers to applying to the College are cultural, not—given existing aid packages—financial. As he put it, “[F]or the family I met in New York, as for so many others like them, it’s not about being hindered by the price tag. Rather, it’s about feeling as though one does not possess the pedigree and social capital required to even knock on the door of the Ivies—an externality of the exclusive legacy that Harvard and its peers spent centuries constructing.” Lobo argued that suggestions like Unz’s—that the admissions process should more narrowly focus on test scores and grades—discourage students like him from applying to selective institutions.)

Unz argued that Harvard’s online financial-aid calculator prevents comparison shopping against other colleges, and is so opaque it likely discourages applicants from completing it. He also criticized the financial-aid system for failing to account for local costs of living. He raised a favorite example of two New York City public-school teachers with about 20 years’ service, putting their salaries at about $90,000 to $95,000 each, and said it would cost them about $150,000 to send their child to Harvard.

In response, Solomon identified himself as the son of two public servants from Queens, New York, who has two siblings in college—and yet is at Harvard.

On admissions generally, Unz confirmed that he has always opposed affirmative action, and thus Harvard’s admissions policies (detailed here)—but, he noted, other members of the petitioner slate do not share that view, and so the “Fair Harvard” plank aims at “transparency” about admissions criteria, such as the role of race, ethnicity, athletics, legacies, and gift-giving in the evaluation of candidates. Ending affirmative action, he said, is not a goal of the petitioners’ campaign.

(In his answer to the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard’s candidate questionnaire, for example, petitioner Ralph Nader, LL.B. ’58, responded, “I strongly support affirmative action and reparations for African Americans” and “I support race-conscious college admissions with historical wisdom.” Beyond those differences, of course, any candidate, if elected, can advance whatever views she or he wishes on the Board of Overseers. Proponents of Harvard’s admissions practices, which incorporate race and ethnicity, have therefore opposed Unz as a likely opponent of affirmative-action policies.)

Unz stressed that neither pure meritocracy (which puts “terrible pressure” on students to do well) nor pure diversity works as means to pick a College class and offered instead his proposal: 80 percent of a class should be chosen by lottery from among all applicants with sufficient test scores, with the rest of the class filled by the top-scoring scholars. (See the discussion linked above for a comparison to current admissions practices.)

See The Harvard Crimson’s account of the panel here, and a full video of the debate here.

Another Campaign

Unz has made a busy winter and spring for himself. After unveiling the Overseer effort in January, he made a snap decision in mid March to enter California’s Republican U.S. Senate primary. In an e-mail announcing his candidacy, he wrote:

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 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 this 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.

Unz’s senatorial campaign platform proposes “completely dismantling” affirmative action and “forcing universities” to cut their costs and tuition. Immigration restrictions also feature prominently in his platform. “I doubt there are many political figures in California with stronger pro-immigrant credentials than my own,” he writes on his campaign site. But, in this context, he goes on, “immigration is too high, causing our society all sorts of problems. As a U.S. Senator, I would propose cutting legal immigration and drastically reducing illegal immigration.” He points to immigration-driven population growth, resulting in “enormous pressure on our environment and natural resources while reducing our quality of life” and, “[e]ven more serious…the negative economic impact on most of our working population, which is forced to compete for jobs and wages with new immigrants, who are often desperate to take any job at all. 

Teeing Off on Tuition

Echoing the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign, protestors at Harvard Law School (HLS)—undoubtedly proceeding from a different end of the political spectrum—have now called for the abolition of tuition there, under the banner of “Fees Must Fall.” Their argument—tuition is nearly $60,000; students graduate with large debt loads—poses even more severe challenges for HLS than the Overseers’ petitioners’ plank might for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (whose finances are detailed here).

According to the latest University financial report, HLS derived 46 percent of its operating revenue in fiscal year 2015 from “student income” (tuition and fees), the highest proportion of any Harvard school, and twice FAS’s dependence on such revenues.

HLS does offer financial aid, and its Low Income Protection Plan provides loan-repayment assistance for graduates who pursue public-service careers. Its capital campaign seeks to augment resources for these purposes.

And then there is the matter of a significant number of graduates’ economic prospects. As The Harvard Crimson editorialized, citing HLS data, graduates who pursue employment in the top-tier corporate law firms now enjoy starting salaries of $160,000 or so—and median compensation for members of the class of 2015 was at the same level. For them, incurring debt is a wise investment, and providing a tuition-free legal education, in the Crimson’s words, “subsidizes the most privileged and diverts resources from those who most need the financial support and seek to serve the public good for lower compensation.” (The newspaper did not delve into the sources of funding for HLS’s faculty, their research, or other operating costs.)

Friends “All Over the Ideological Spectrum”

Unz has also published a thick volume of his essays this winter, titled The Myth of American Meritocracy and Other Essays, after his long essay on admissions that underlies his campaign for the Board of Overseers (the essay is discussed at length here and here—along with his evolving, and at times opposed, views on the ethnic composition of Harvard’s student body).

On April 14, the Crimson published a report on Unz’s charitable support for what he called a “quasi-white nationalist” group, VDARE. (VDARE’s website says, “We inform the fight to keep America American.”) The report quoted Unz as saying, “I support all these different people and groups because they’re mostly totally broke and they write interesting things. That’s the left, the right, all over the ideological spectrum.” Of this particular contribution, he told the Crimson, “VDARE is probably one of the hardest core anti-immigrant webzines around, and I think it would be fair to characterize them as a quasi-white nationalist perspective.”

Unz responded in an extended essay, “My Stasi File Published in the Harvard Crimson,” posted on the Free Harvard, Fair Harvard website. He wrote, in part:

Over the last dozen years I’ve certainly provided donations to a very wide range of political groups and individuals, including leftwingers, rightwingers, and libertarians. Many of these groups are on the political fringe and espouse controversial views on all sorts of different issues. I might agree with them on some things and disagree with them on others, but frequently find their ideas a useful counterpoint to the conventional wisdom presented in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which I spend hours closely reading every morning.

Much of the Crimson article focused on my financial support to VDare, a rightwing and very hard-core anti-immigrant webzine, with the dollars representing less than 1% of my total donations over the last decade. Since immigration issues have always been one of my main interests, I read VDare quite regularly and am on friendly terms with their staff. But as everyone knows from the hundreds of thousands of words I have published on immigration-related topics, I’ve always been one of America’s leading pro-immigrant voices, hence almost invariably on the exact opposite side from VDare. I find it odd that the Crimson article left out that significant detail, which surely would have made their account of my donation seem even more shocking and newsworthy.…

I reject “guilt by association” and just because I am personally friendly with various people, publish their writings, or even provide them some financial assistance, that does not necessarily mean that I endorse everything they say…

I have a long record of closely associating with people of sharply different views. I am often identified as the former publisher (2006-2013) of The American Conservative (TAC), an opinion magazine that absorbed over 60% of my donations over the last decade. TAC was co-founded by Pat Buchanan and always had a strongly Buchananite stance on immigration, trade, and social issues, positions I did not share. However, I strongly supported their lonely opposition to the disastrous foreign wars of the Bush Administration, afterward continued by the Obama Administration.

All this is a long way from the ordinary concerns of the Board of Overseers, and perhaps an unexpected turn in the issues being raised. As noted above, the campaign, such as it is, is proceeding on websites, less visibly in social media and e-mails, and in the occasional op-ed and forum. Its results will become known to all a month from today.


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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