Why I Am Running For Harvard’s Board Of Overseers

By Robert L. Freedman A.B. ’62

I am running as a petition candidate for Harvard’s Board of Overseers to help Harvard College improve itself.

I have been interested in higher education – and in particular in what is taught and how it is taught – since graduating from the College in 1962. I have the time, the interest and the energy to try to make a difference.

There is ferment in the world of higher education. When a former Harvard College Dean publishes a book about Harvard subtitled How a Great University Forgot Education, and when a former Harvard President publishes a book about colleges subtitled A Candid Look At How Much Students Learn And Why They Should Be Learning More, you know it’s time to get involved.

College is when people are most open to learning. Afterwards their intellectual horizons narrow. It is a major loss if part of those key four years is wasted in a class with a poor teacher or in a subject of only ephemeral importance.

Harvard has two governing boards. The Harvard Corporation (officially the President and Fellows of Harvard College) is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation with seven members. Vacancies are filled by the remaining members. So it is a self-perpetuating board – as are most non-profit boards.

The second governing board is the Overseers (officially the Board of Overseers of Harvard College). Despite their official name, their writ covers the entire University. They have been elected by all the alums since 1921. In April of each year Harvard mails ballots to all one-third of a million Harvard degree holders (except faculty members). Five alums are elected every year for 6 year terms, for a total of 30 Overseers.

The alumni association annually solicits names of possible candidates from the alums, and then nominates eight candidates for the five positions. The eight candidates generally are diverse in terms of occupation, geographical location, gender, ethnicity and race.
These elections are usually non-events. Typically ninety percent of the alums do not bother to vote, perhaps because they believe who is elected makes no difference.

But every once in a while something different happens, because any alum can become a petition candidate upon obtaining the signatures of about 250 alums on official Harvard ballots (that is what I did). Nineteen years ago, when divestiture of South African securities from the endowment was a hot issue, Barack Obama ran as a petition candidate. He lost. The handful of petition candidates over the years believed, like Obama, that certain important issues were not being properly addressed by the powers-that-be. In my case those issues are educational: teaching methods, the curriculum, the quality of student life and the high costs of college.

Harvard is aware of these issues and has made some important progress. But the Overseers have not been in the forefront of pushing for changes. I am running as a petition candidate because, as former Harvard President Derek Bok – in a most careful and thoughtful critique of colleges – recently wrote, reform is too difficult to accomplish solely from within. A push from outside is needed. And a push from a friend is much better than waiting until a crisis develops and an unfriendly heavy hand intrudes.

A more active Board of Overseers should make it its business to understand students’ views. As our college experience recedes into the past, most of us lose touch with exactly how we felt and what we thought then. A good sign is that recently, apparently for the first time in living memory, a group of Overseers actually met with a group of students. That modest and long overdue first step could be the beginning of a process to acquaint the Overseers with the college’s “customers”.

There is lots to be done. Change is in the air. As a recent President said, If not now, when? If not us, who? Together we can make a difference. Let’s do so.
Robert L. Freedman is a senior partner of the international law firm, Dechert LLP. He is a 1962 graduate of Harvard College. His campaign site can be found here.

7 thoughts on “Why I Am Running For Harvard’s Board Of Overseers

  1. Look at the author of this article, they are clearly a hard worker and have just been consistent over time and are now enjoying at least what would appear as somewhat of a success. I would encourage everyone to just keep hustling and moving forward.

  2. Just for the record, Barack Obama could not have run for the Harvard Overseers nineteen years ago (1989), because he was not yet a Harvard alumnus. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, so if he ever ran for the Overseers, it must have been in 1992 or later.
    On the other hand, Archbishop Desmond Tutu won election to the Overseers around 1989, after being nominated by petition by alumni supporters of divestment from South Africa.

  3. I would agree that there needs to be a strong support for a student that faces disciplinary action on campus. I was shocked that there was no student advocate system at my local community college. At the 4 year college I attended a student who faced serious discipline actions was assigned a third year law student from a affiliated law school. At a school with as an active student body as Harvard, I would imagine that this service should be provided by the student government, ideally with as little input from non-students as possible.
    However, I am somewhat discouraged by your use of the Duke student controversy. While they have been innocent of criminal crimes it is hard to see them as victims from the academic perspective. They were partying as a team and thus representative’s of the school. There is no inherent right to attend a college and when you join an athletic team you cede a substantial portion of the rights available to students in general. The fact is the Duke students partied with a sex worker, a group is known for drug use and mental problems. It seems they deserved condemnation for poorly representing their school, and for stupidity of not seeking their sexual services from a professional with strong ties to the community that personal vets each worker. I would have no trouble with them being expelled on these facts alone and I am sure many have been.
    As for parents having access to the students rooms–Absolutely not. College students are not children. They are adults who in fact may be freshly back from fighting for their country. While it might save lives, parents can not be given access to the students room without permission or a warrant. In the case where parents are paying for the housing then they would of course have normal rights associated with someone on the lease. But otherwise no.
    We do students no favours at all when we protect them from their adult responsibilities. Especially amongst the well off college may have been associated with extended childhood. But it isn’t at all. Last year my professor asked us what we were doing for spring break. Someone stood up and said working double shifts. The class broke out into applause. Because at our Community College, school isn’t an escape from reality it is part of it.
    Again, it might not be apparent amongst the wealthier of the students, or students with scholarships, but though America has the best colleges in the world the students they are graduating are at a sever disadvantage. While college largely subsidized in the rest of the world it subsidies have largely disappeared since 1980. An American who must start paying ruinous debts six months after school, just can’t compete with students who have no loans as in Europe, or no loans and minimal housing costs as in many other countries.
    Unless we return to subsidies for state universities there are going to have to be an end to luxuries. Firstly students can’t continue to subsidize farm teams for the NFL and NBA, but larger lecture halls, more classes taught by TA’s, on line learning are going to have to be in the cards. And, yes those $150 books are also a luxury that will have to go. Probably we will return to the days were fraternities collect and poorer students sell notes prepared from reading library books and primary sources We lived without text books in the past and it looks like will again.
    join the revolution at

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