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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Campus Campaign

May-June 2016

Harvard’s own 2016 campaign is in full swing, as eligible degree-holders mull their choices in the annual election of members of the Board of Overseers—unusually contested this year—and Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) directors. The full slates—eight HAA-nominated Overseer candidates and the five challengers who successfully petitioned for a place on the ballot, vying for five places on the 30-person Board—appear here. Ballots were mailed by April 1, and must be returned by May 20, in time for the results to be tallied and announced during the HAA’s annual meeting on the afternoon of Commencement day, May 26.

As reported, a group of five candidates organized by Ron Unz ’83 under the “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” (FHFH) banner announced in January that they would petition for places on the Overseers’ ballot. They were successful.

As a convenience to readers, here are sources for information about this year’s election of five new members to the Board of Overseers.

Harvard Magazine reports, including extensive background on members of the slate, the petitioners’ platform and the University policies they challenge, discussion of their arguments, and critiques by opposing alumni—all available at harvardmagazine.com/overseerelection

The University-HAA elections page, with candidate profiles and an FAQ

Free Harvard/Fair Harvard (petition candidates’ website)

Coalition for a Diverse Harvard website (alumni opposing the petitioner slate)

The petitioners’ campaign advances two linked proposals. First, they “demand far greater transparency in the admissions process, which today is opaque and therefore subject to hidden favoritism and abuse.” That message is coupled with language about “powerful statistical evidence” of an “Asian quota” in admissions—leading to their statement, “Racial discrimination against Asian-American students has no place at Harvard University and must end.” Second, they “demand the immediate elimination of all tuition for undergraduates since the revenue generated is negligible compared to the investment income of the endowment.” They link this proposal to the notion that moving from financial aid to a tuition-free model would more readily promote diversity in the student body because, they suggest, “relatively few less affluent families even bother applying because they assume that a Harvard education is reserved only for the rich,” despite the existence of financial aid.

In opposition, a group of alumni organized as the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard have focused particularly on the admissions part of the FHFH platform, and on some of the FHFH candidates’ expressed antipathy toward admissions policies that incorporate consideration of applicants’ racial or ethnic background. As the Coalition’s website notes, the campaign “was launched by Harvard and Radcliffe alumni to take a stand against the FHFH slate—and in favor of race-conscious and holistic admissions practices that support campus diversity.” Coalition members have also supported the current financial-aid program, and criticized the proposal to abolish tuition as a giveaway to the families of upper-income applicants and students. The group collected statements on the issues from all 13 Overseer candidates, published them online, and then, on March 25, endorsed five for election—all from among the eight HAA nominees.

Both petitioner proposals are at odds with University policies and practices. In an interview, President Drew Faust said, “Free tuition is a really bad idea. It would mean we would be subsidizing significantly people who could afford to pay Harvard tuition, and our sense has always been that Harvard’s resources should be devoted to enabling those who otherwise would be unable to come to Harvard….” Citing the University’s financial model, she said, “When we think about the wide range of purposes to which we devote resources, they include more than tuition. They include spaces, faculty salaries, research—and if we were to subsidize those who were not in need of subsidy, we would be taking resources away from those very important purposes at Harvard.”

And she reiterated support for the longstanding admissions policies: “I also have a deep commitment to our admissions process, which looks at students as individuals and considers the wide range of attributes that they possess and would bring to bear on this community, because so much of what this community is about is the interactions between and among students as well as what they learn directly from the faculty members. So who will be a vibrant member of this community, both within the classroom and beyond the classroom, is a very important part of our assessment of student qualifications. And we therefore want to take into account many of these attributes as we consider admissions, and having the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, identities, origins among our student body is a critical part of that. Race as one factor considered among all of those has been an important dimension of how we’ve thought about this diversity.…”

Separately, five past presidents of the Board of Overseers wrote to the magazine, addressing these issues; their letter appears in full here.

Now the matter rests in the hands of alumni. As in the U.S. presidential caucuses and primaries, turnout may matter: in recent elections, an average of 11 percent of the 250,000 or so eligible voters have returned their ballots.

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