John Harvard's Journal
The Overseers’ Higher Profile
If past is prologue, last summer’s pandemic-delayed election of members of the Board of Overseers represents a significant challenge to the norms of Harvard governance.
• Harvard Forward put forth a slate of five petition candidates for places on the ballot—and by organizing outreach focused on a platform of fossil-fuel divestment, revised endowment investment policies, and changes in the board’s composition and role, it secured the signatures necessary to place their names on the ballot.
• Overseer candidates put forth by the Harvard Alumni Association nominating committee typically stand for election to fulfill the board’s academic-oversight and general advisory functions, but don’t campaign actively, resulting in a rather sedate election. The petition candidates’ platform and campaign apparently resonated with alumni concerned about those issues, increasing turnout among eligible voters significantly.
• When ballots were tallied, Harvard Forward candidates had won three of the five Overseer openings (see harvardmag.com/overseer-results-20).
• And at the governing boards’ first meeting of the new academic year, last September, they adopted new policies, limiting the number of petition candidates who could serve as Overseers at any one time to six (one-fifth of the board); discouraging campaigning; and encouraging the nominating committee to seek younger candidates for potential election (see harvardmag.com/overseer-reform-20).
The opening salvo in the 2021 election came from Harvard Forward. Because its prospective candidates needed to gather enough qualifying signatures by this February 3, it unveiled a new slate of three petitioners last November (given the new limit on the number of such candidates who can serve as Overseers at one time):
Yvette Efevbera, S.D. ’18, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in public health and is an adviser on gender-based violence and child marriage and gender equality at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation;
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, Ed.M. ’17, director of native student services at the University of South Dakota; and
Natalie Unterstell, M.P.A. ’16, of Rio de Janeiro, who works on Brazilian climate policy.
Diverse in background, education, and interests, they are promoting a platform that includes the prior focus on divestment and related climate-change initiatives and changes in governance, plus new plans on racial justice: divesting any holdings in private prisons, creating an ethnic-studies department, and so on. (Harvard Forward announced on February 1 that they had qualified to be on the ballot; see harvardmag.com/hvdforward-onballot-21.)
On January 12, the HAA nominating committee announced eight nominees who will stand for election:
Christiana Goh Bardon, M.D. ’98, M.B.A. ’03, a biotechnology and health-care fund-manager at Burrage Capital (she was co-founder of the firm);
Mark J. Carney ’87, former Governor of the Bank of Canada and of the Bank of England (2013-2020); United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance;
Kimberly Nicole Dowdell, M.P.A. ’15, director of business development for HOK, the international architectural firm, and past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects;
Christopher B. Howard, M.B.A. ’03, president, Robert Morris University;
María Teresa Kumar, M.P.P. ’01, founding president and CEO, Voto Latino;
Raymond J. Lohier Jr. ’88, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit;
Terah Evaleen Lyons ’14, founding executive director, The Partnership on AI; and
Sheryl WuDunn, M.B.A. ’86, an investment banker, writer, and former New York Times reporter; coauthor of Half the Sky and Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.
The official nominees are a broad group, with educations, experiences, and interests spanning several professions; such pressing issues as climate change and diversity and inclusion; multiple parts of the globe; and fields important to current and future research, such as biomedicine and artificial intelligence. For more information on both cohorts of aspirants—voters will elect five new members—see harvardmag.com/overseer-election-21.
As a service to readers, Harvard Magazine asked each prospective Overseer to answer questions about the University’s opportunities and challenges, the Board of Overseers’ role in responding to them, their pertinent experiences, and their reasons for standing for election now. Their answers merit review, both for the respondents’ specific views of Harvard’s priorities now, and for their underlying perspectives on the role the Overseers play in securing its future.
Citing “our society’s mistrust of elites, intellectualism and academic expertise,” for example, Bardon envisions the board playing “an important role…by overseeing the pursuit of diversity in the Harvard Community”—specifically, “demonstrat[ing] that our graduates are neither privileged nor out of touch.” Carney highlights the importance of sustainability, via “new engineering technologies (such as AI), new governance mechanisms to apply those technologies (such as data privacy), new financial technologies (to address the tragedy of the horizon at the heart of the climate crisis) and new political technologies (including social movements and new international governance mechanisms) to forge the consensus and create the urgency for action that is implemented in a timely and just manner”—requiring a university that “doesn’t only pursue excellence in each discipline but that creates breakthroughs by being connected across them.” And Lohier emphasizes the board’s role in upholding the University’s mission in a truth-challenged era: “ensuring and broadcasting the critical importance of facts and the pursuit of truth to democracy here and around the world—in law, medicine, the public health sphere, business and public policy, the humanities and the sciences.”
Among the Harvard Forward candidates, Efevbera writes, “the University has an opportunity to reimagine itself as a higher-education leader, making both morally sound and economically responsible decisions that will set the University up for another 384 years of success. To do so,” she continues, Harvard “must diversify its decision-makers; bring new and fresh voices to the Board…with expertise in areas like global public health, higher education, and climate action; and listen to those with lived experiences in the many communities that are currently being inadequately served.” Of the Overseers’ role, Unterstell writes, “the Board can be a vehicle for democratic change. It is the only governing body that is democratically elected, and as such it is the most direct way for our hundreds of thousands of alumni to weigh in on the priorities of the University.”
Balloting (online or by paper) is scheduled to begin April 1 and to conclude May 18. Voters, time to do your homework.