Alumni Escalate Fight Against Outside Overseers Contenders

As voting season for Harvard’s Board of Overseers formally begins and alumni around the world begin to find ballot cards tucked in their mailboxes, some prominent alumni are ramping up efforts to put the brakes on a controversial outsider campaign for the University's second-highest governing body.

That campaign, called “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” has garnered national media attention from outlets including the New York Times and the Economist for its two-pronged platform: make undergraduate tuition free and release more data about Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions. Every year, alumni elect five people to serve on the Board of Overseers, and this year the race has been particularly contentious.

Ron K. Unz '83 arrived in Cambridge earlier this semester to deliver petitions enabling him and others on his slate to become candidates for the Board of Overseers. His bid now faces organized opposition from hundreds of other alumni.

The five unconventional petition candidates—headlined by five-time presidential candidate and Law School alumnus Ralph Nader and led by Ron K. Unz ’83—are facing escalating backlash, most notably from a pro-affirmative action group of nearly 700 alumni. The group, called “Coalition for a Diverse Harvard,” announced Monday that it would endorse five Harvard Alumni Association-nominated candidates for Overseers and urged its supporters to use all of their votes against the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” quintet.


Jeannie Park ’83, a founder of the Coalition, said the group’s selection committee took into account each candidate’s response to a diversity-focused questionnaire distributed by the Coalition earlier this month, along with their background, personal statement, and published writings.

“We chose the group that we really feel would best support the goals of diversity that we’ve always stated that we were interested in supporting,” Park said. “After reviewing all of that, it did not change our point of view about the [“Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign], and so we feel very strongly that we do not want the slate to win seats on the Board of Overseers.”

In an email, the Coalition implored its supporters to concentrate their votes against Nader and his confreres by voting for the endorsed candidates: Lindsay Chase-Lansdale ’74, Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92, John J. Moon ’89, Alejandro Ramírez Magaña ’94, and Damian Woetzel, a Kennedy School graduate.

“We understand you may wish to vote for another candidate, but please use your remaining votes on Coalition-endorsed candidates,” the email reads. “It is important that you use all five of your votes against FHFH.”

The Coalition is not alone in its condemnation of the petition candidates. In a letter to Harvard Magazine published Monday, five past presidents of the Board of Overseers denounced the group’s “ill-advised platform that would elevate ideology over crucial academic interests of the University.” The campaign’s proposal to eliminate tuition is “misguided,” the alumni wrote, and its “allegations of corruption and discrimination” in the admissions process are “wholly unfounded.”

One Coalition-endorsed candidate, Moon, said he was “delighted” to receive the group’s backing. He added that, in addition to sharing the Coalition’s views in favor of the use of race in admissions, he also objects to the roster’s proposal to eliminate tuition.

“I don’t know whether FHFH are aware of Harvard’s current financial aid program, but they are proposing free tuition for all but not including room and board,” Moon wrote in an email. “Under that policy FHFH would help the families who can afford to pay full tuition, and they would raise the cost of Harvard for hundreds of lower income families. What’s free or fair about that?”

Unz said he was not surprised by the Coalition For a Diverse Harvard’s strikes on his campaign, and said he hoped he would be able to take his disagreements public in a debate before the election.

“The group opposed to us seems very reluctant to get involved in any public debate,” Unz said. “If their arguments are really as strong as they claim, that seems a very odd position to take.”

Park said she was not interested in debating Unz.

“We don’t have time. We’re too busy working on this election and trying to put forth the Coalition’s interests,” she said.

Overseers ballots will be mailed by April 1 and must be returned by May 20.

—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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