Harvard alumni backed by billionaires fail to get board votes

Written by Svea Herbst Bayliss

(Reuters) – Billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who led a campaign criticizing Harvard University amid turmoil over anti-Semitism, plagiarism and financial management practices, failed on Friday in a bid to get four candidates on the ballot for the presidency. Ivy League school board.

Another candidate supported by the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg He also failed to win a place on the ballot for Harvard’s Board of Supervisors.

The two men, who acted independently, later threw support behind the candidates President of Harvard University Claudine Jay She resigned last month amid criticism of her handling of anti-Semitism on campus in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, and allegations of plagiarism in her previous academic career.

Jay and Harvard have denied the allegations. Jay, who was Harvard’s first black president, said in a statement at the time that stepping down was in the Ivy League’s best interests given the controversy surrounding it.

The Board of Overseers is the school’s second-highest governing body, and has the power to approve or reject the appointment of Harvard’s president. Each year, five seats are elected on the 30-member Board of Directors, and only Harvard alumni are eligible to vote.

Some candidates said Harvard informed them late Friday that they did not meet the minimum requirements to get on the ballot. Zoe Bedell, one of four candidates supported by Ackman, said she, Alec Williams, Logan Leslie and Julia Pollack received between 2,300 and 2,700 votes each. Sam Lesin, a Zuckerberg-backed candidate, said Harvard told him he received 2,901 votes. Securing a place on the ballot requires 3,238 votes.

A vote to select the board will take place later this year.

The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the poll results.

Ackman also did not respond to a request for comment.

Ackman, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and business school and has donated nearly $50 million to the university, has been among the harshest critics of Gay and her administration on campus. He told Reuters earlier this year that Harvard needed change and that the slate he supported would bring new blood to the board.

The Harvard Alumni Association interviews candidates and puts them out to vote, and those who want to get on the ballot without the association’s blessing — as the candidates backed by Zuckerberg and Ackman have attempted — face long odds.

In 2016, Harvard University increased the number of signatures needed to get a ballot on the ballot when it is not approved by the Assembly from 200 to 1% of those eligible to vote in the previous election.

Harvard has argued that keeping nominations wide open allows special interests to hijack the process, similar to political campaigns.

Message “resonated”

Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former US Treasury secretary, spoke out earlier this week in favor of the opposing candidates. “Everyone who can should support the challenges to traditional leadership at Harvard from Sam Lesin, Harvey Silverglate, Alec Williams and others,” he wrote on the X social media platform.

Zuckerberg, who left Harvard to launch Facebook in 2004 and has committed to giving $500 million to study artificial intelligence, has thrown his weight behind Lesin, an investor and former colleague at the social media giant.

Ackman supported a group of four candidates called Renew Harvard, which called for upholding free speech, protecting students from bullying and harassment, and addressing financial mismanagement at the university.

The university’s $50.7 billion endowment yields a 2.9% return in fiscal year 2023, well below the broader market’s gain of about 20%, the group noted. Ackman shared this criticism.

Alumni on Renew Harvard’s list were Bedell, an assistant U.S. attorney; Entrepreneur Leslie, who buys and operates small businesses in Northern Rock; former Navy officer and investor Williams; and Pollack, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.

“It’s clear that our message really resonated with the Harvard community given that we were able to get so many votes in just three weeks, so we know these issues are important and we’re not going to give up on them,” Biddle told Reuters.

The Renew Harvard group plans to try again next year to become a write-in candidate on the ballot, Bedell said.

A number of other candidates including historian Todd Fine and attorney Silvergate also campaigned.

The Board of Overseers does not have the same power as the smaller Harvard Foundation, which directly oversees the university’s operations, but it still exerts influence. The primary tool for supervisors is the so-called visiting process, which allows them to ask questions of Harvard faculty and departments and make evaluations.

The most recent successful challenges came in 2020 and 2021, when Harvard Forward, a coalition of alumni that urged the university’s endowment to stop investing in fossil fuels, successfully elected four candidates to the Board of Supervisors.

In 1989, dissident alumni supported a petition to elect Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the board in an attempt to get Harvard to divest its investment holdings in companies that had done business in South Africa during the apartheid era.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Baylis, Editing by Greg Roumeliotis and Leslie Adler)

(tags for translation) Harvard University

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