Insurgent Election

Harvard Forward divestment advocates win three Board of Overseers seats—and other results from alumni voting.

Newly elected Overseers. Top, from left: Raphael William Bostic, and Margaret (Midge) Purce; bottom, from left: Tracy K. Smith, Thea Sebastian, and Jayson Toweh

The most serene of American elections—the University’s annual balloting for members of the Board of Overseers and Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) directors—resulted in a robust demonstration of alumni voters’ animal spirits: the outcomes of the polling—postponed by the pandemic from spring until summer this year—announced this morning, reveal that:

The newly elected Overseers, who will serve six-year terms on the 30-member board, are:

  • Raphael William Bostic ’87, Decatur, Georgia. President and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta;
  • Margaret (Midge) Purce ’17, Portland, Ore. Professional soccer player, Sky Blue FC and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team;
  • Thea Sebastian ’08, J.D. ’16, Washington, D.C. Policy counsel, Civil Rights Corps;
  • Tracy K. Smith ’94, Princeton, N.J. Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, Berlind professor of the humanities, Princeton University; twenty-second poet laureate of the United States; and
  • Jayson Toweh, S.M. ’19, Atlanta. Program analyst, Environmental Protection Agency.

Bostic and Smith were put forward by the HAA nominating committee; Purce, Sebastian, and Toweh ran as Harvard Forward petition candidates. Members of the former cohort typically stand for service, offering their experience as Overseers who will be engaged in academic visiting committees and general policy and strategic discussion and guidance. The petitioners, this year, ran on a detailed platform focusing on climate change (advocating divestment of endowment investments in fossil-fuel production, socially responsive investment strategies, and academic investments in climate research and related teaching) and changes in governance (including reserving Overseer positions for younger alumni candidates).

Updated, August 21, 2020, 12:30 p.m.: In a statement released by Harvard Forward campaign manager Danielle Strasburger, the campaign hailed “the first successful petition candidates since 1989.” Thea Sebastian, who works for Civil Rights Corps, cited the alumni who help organize the campaign and mobilize peers to vote, and said in the statement, “[T]his election is only the beginning: now the real work starts to help make Harvard a true leader on climate, responsible investing, racial equity, and disentangling our involvement with the unjust criminal-legal system.” Jayson Toweh said, “This win proves that alumni want Harvard to be a leader in the fight against the climate crisis.”


Several quick observations come to mind.

First, Harvard Forward will, understandably, claim a significant victory. It advanced a slate of young, activist candidates, rather than more established, “name” Overseer prospects, and pursued an energetic, online- and social-media-savvy campaign that coalesced support from alumni voters who feel strongly about issues—particularly climate change. That was apparently a persuasive proposition formula compared to voting for candidates who offer genuine, but generalized, governance experience on the not-well-understood Board of Overseers.

Second, a vigorous, issues-focused campaign, combined with the option of online voting, excited interest, pushing up participation in the voting significantly: about 18.5 percent above 2019 turnout, to 43,531 voters this year (36,735 in 2019). The online balloting also resulted in a very swift tally: voting closed this past Tuesday afternoon, August 18.

Third, the campaign turned very heated toward the end, as reported. A letter circulated in early August by several members of the HAA executive committee, including two past HAA presidents, assailed Harvard Forward’s campaign tactics and alleged that it had covert funding. That prompted a detailed, stinging reply from Harvard Forward’s campaign advisers, with reference to detailed online exhibits about the campaign’s finances. (In retrospect, it is conceivable that the letter criticizing Harvard Forward may have misfired: its focus on tactics may not have effectively highlighted the authors’ differences with the petition slate’s substantive platform. Having survived the critique, and won three Overseers’ slots, the Harvard Forward candidates may feel stung—or may feel they are in a position to be magnanimous. In any event, the HAA nominees, who traditionally refrain from campaigning, had no one speaking about their qualifications for service as Overseers, nor their reasons for agreeing to stand now.)

The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard (“Harvard and Radcliffe alumni, students, staff and faculty fighting for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University and in higher education at large”) may also wish to claim some influence in the election. Three Overseer candidates it endorsed (Bostic, Sebastian, and Smith) were elected. Among the nine candidates for HAA elected director, it endorsed Santiago Creuheras, Kelsey Trey Leonard, Michael D. Lewis, Mallika J. Marshall, Joyce Y. Zhang, and Vanessa Zoltan. Those elected were Creuheras, Leonard, Lewis, Marshall, Zhang (five of the six coalition endorsees), and Benjamin D. Wei. (Updated, August 21, 2020, 12:30 p.m.: Harvard Forward’s statement also said that “All six candidates elected in the concurrent HAA Board elections also support the Harvard Forward platform.”)


It will be interesting to see how the Board of Overseers adapts to its new, agenda-driven, Harvard Forward members; three among 30. The president this year, R. Martin Chávez ’85, S.M. ’85, comes to the position with long, diverse experience at Goldman Sachs—and so, presumably, is used to navigating among people with strong points of view to build consensus. There are ardent faculty, student, and alumni supporters of the divestment agenda—a position equally firmly rejected by the Corporation and the administration. There are plenty of possible areas of agreement (investing in climate-change research and teaching, and so on), but not, in the current circumstances, endless University resources to apply to them in immediately.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Chávez said, “All of us on the Board welcome this year’s new Overseers. These are extraordinary times, posing extraordinary challenges, and the Board will do all we can to help Harvard navigate them as thoughtfully as possible, always with an overriding concern for the best interests of the University and how it can best serve the world.”

It is likely, in the near term, that the result of the Overseer balloting will resonate loudly through the national divestment organizations. And down the road in New Haven, where Yale Forward is now trying to qualify a candidate for election to that university’s governing board, attention will be paid, too.

Read the University announcement here.






Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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