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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Harvard Alumni’s Bid for Board Seat Fails Amidst Controversy

Billionaire investor Bill Ackman, known for his critique of Harvard University amidst controversies over antisemitism, plagiarism, and financial management, faced a setback as his attempt to place four candidates on the ballot for the university’s board of overseers fell short. The Harvard board, the second-highest governing body, plays a crucial role in approving or rejecting the hiring of the university president.

Discord Over Leadership and Election Challenges

Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation last month, amid accusations of mishandling antisemitism and plagiarism controversies, fueled discontent. Ackman, an influential Harvard alumnus, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg independently endorsed candidates in a bid to bring change to the board.

Disqualification and Election Dynamics

Late on Friday, Harvard informed candidates backed by Ackman and Zuckerberg that they did not meet the required threshold for the ballot. The candidates, including Zoe Bedell, Alec Williams, Logan Leslie, Julia Pollak, and Sam Lessin, fell short of the necessary votes, emphasizing the challenges faced by those not endorsed by the Harvard Alumni Association.

Candidates needed 3,238 votes to secure a spot on the ballot, and some fell just shy of this threshold, with Ackman’s support highlighting the need for fresh perspectives on the board.

Alumni Criticism and Calls for Change

Ackman, a prominent Harvard donor with a history of donating around $50 million to the university, criticized Harvard’s management, advocating for change. The Renew Harvard group, supported by Ackman, focused on upholding free speech, protecting students, and addressing financial mismanagement.

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Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president and U.S. Treasury secretary, voiced support for dissident candidates, adding weight to the calls for change. Zuckerberg, who has committed significant funds to artificial intelligence studies, endorsed candidate Sam Lessin.

Renewed Efforts and Future Plans

Despite the setback, the Renew Harvard group, led by Ackman’s endorsed candidates, plans to continue their efforts. Zoe Bedell stated that their message resonated with the Harvard community, and they intend to become write-in candidates on the ballot next year.

Historical Context and Board Dynamics

The board of overseers, while not as powerful as the Harvard Corporation, holds influence, primarily through the visitation process. Successful challenges to the board occurred in 2020 and 2021 when Harvard Forward, urging divestment from fossil fuels, elected four candidates. Dissident alumni also influenced the board in 1989, pushing for divestment from companies involved in apartheid-era South Africa.

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