The Cambridge Empire Strikes Back

By Harvey Silverglate With Kyle Smeallie
Harvard University may be losing money like a hard-luck high-roller, but the Vegas tagline (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas) certainly does not apply: what happens at Harvard reaches well beyond the Cambridge confines. For better or for worse, many schools follow in Harvard’s footsteps. What better place, then, to effect change in American higher education than a place where other schools—at least until the recent economic meltdown—have been green with Crimson envy?
Such was the premise behind my insurgent campaign for a seat on the Board of Overseers, one of Harvard’s two governing boards. Dismayed by the lack of principled oversight (a key reason, I suspect, for Harvard’s recent financial woes) and the general illiberal culture of his alma mater, I spent months trying to convince alumni to elect me to the board. In early June, however, Harvard officials informed me that my bid for a six-year term on the 30-member board came up a bit short.
In defeat, I learned the very same lesson that Harvard Law School alum Barack H. Obama (Law School class of 1991) learned when he ran as a petition candidate in the 1991 Overseers election: Input from outsiders—those unwilling to place collegiality over candor—is unwanted.

First, some background: Harvard is ruled principally by a self-perpetuating body known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, consisting of six trustees with lifetime tenure plus the university president. The Overseers, playing a secondary governance role, nonetheless possess considerable power to investigate, advise, and approve (or turn down) major appointments. Each year the official Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) nominates seven to ten candidates to run for five available seats. Alumni not satisfied with the official nominees may add “petition” candidates who are put on the ballot if roughly 200 alumni sign their nomination forms.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, student and alumni activists pushed Harvard to divest endowment holdings in companies doing business with the white-supremacist apartheid regime of South Africa. Alumni against apartheid ran for Overseers positions (through the “petition” route, of course), and, in 1986, the first successful petition candidate in Harvard’s history assumed a seat. By 1989, when South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, garnered a seat, three divestment Overseers had been elected, despite heavy (and questionable) campaigning from Harvard higher-ups. With “outsiders” on the rise, the entrenched Overseers voted to change the election procedures so that the official nominees were listed at the top of the ballot. Petition nominees were noted at the very end. Statistically, it was obvious that busy alumni would check off their choices from the earlier-listed candidates. They did so. Divestment promoter Obama, despite his stellar record at Harvard Law, lost in his 1991 petition bid. (His struggle against well-established authority was perhaps one of the more important-though unintentional-lessons from Obama’s Harvard days, a lesson which he carried through the infamous cronyism of Chicago politics, and eventually to the White House.)
The ballot reorganization ploy worked. Two decades after Tutu’s victory, and not a single petition Overseer has been elected. Nonetheless, I, long a critic of how the university treats its students, decided to follow in the footsteps of these earlier insurgents. My concerns about Harvard were largely in the sphere of liberty: academic freedom had been replaced by speech codes and a politically correct order, rather than a bravely independent marketplace of ideas, the hallmark of a liberal education. The highly-secretive but all-powerful Administrative Board, which possesses the authority to throw a student out of school without the slightest bow to rational, much less fair, procedures, ruthlessly enforces Harvard’s notoriously vague rules. Indeed, a student does not even have the right to appear before the board, much less to have his or her witnesses and other proof go before the board. Rather, the board receives a hear-say summary of evidence from young “resident deans” whose careers depend almost entirely on getting recommendations from university administrators and faculty members. Having represented dozens of students dating back to the Vietnam War, I know the unfairness of the system firsthand—changing this is one of the main reasons I ran. I had seen too many cases where the resident deans’ summaries of evidence bore little resemblance to the actual evidence.
I was joined on the ticket by Robert Freedman, a 1962 graduate of Harvard College who ran last year as a petition candidate and came within a mere 300 votes of gaining a seat. His primary interest was improving the increasingly watered-down undergraduate curriculum.
Our team garnered considerable attention from the Law School’s independent student-edited newspaper, The Harvard Law Record, as well as by the undergraduate daily, The Harvard Crimson. The Boston Globe praised the “shake-things-up campaign” in an April 26 editorial, and the petition candidates appeared by themselves—Harvard, although invited, would not send a representative—on the regional television news program “Greater Boston with Emily Rooney.” Word began to get around.
Then suddenly (although, in retrospect, predictably) the pre-election issue of the university’s main alumni magazine, Harvard Magazine, appeared with a full-page color ad. “VOTE For the HARVARD ALUMNI ASSOCIATION SLATE for Board of Overseers,” it read. A little research discovered that such an advertisement, paid for by former HAA President Charles Egan, ran some $18,360. Further, Roger Ferguson, the outgoing President of the Overseers, sent an email to Harvard alumni, praising the “remarkable mix of candor and collegiality” with which the board functioned.
Ferguson’s message seemed to Freedman and me, as well as our supporters, to be a slightly-veiled admonition that alumni should vote for candidates on the official HAA slate. I sent an email to Ferguson asking that Freedman and I be allowed to send our own message to alumni via the official university-maintained email list. In typical banal bureaucratese, the request was denied.
In the end, some 30,383 alumni voted. I garnered 11,700 votes, falling 1,646 votes short of ganing a seat, while Freedman got 10,174. What the empire may not realize, however, is the effect of watering down its elections. While Harvard’s power brokers insist on keeping the board full of insiders, the electorate—approximately 330,000 degree-holders—have, by and large, tuned out. Crunch the numbers: the turn-out was less than ten percent of eligible voters. And the numbers have stayed consistently flat for at least the past decade.
The prevailing wisdom among most Harvard alums is to toss out the ballot—they perhaps figure it’s another request to cut a check. For those who bother to open the envelope, they are essentially choosing who will rubber stamp the administration’s decisions. Freedman and I explained we would resist such “collegiality” if elected, but it’s a good guess that few people even read their respective 250-word candidacy statements.
As decision-making has gone unquestioned, Harvard’s problems have persisted and even gotten worse. The portfolio suffered an officially reported loss of 22 percent in the last four months of 2008, with further steep losses rumored for the beginning of 2009, along with some questions raised as to the prudence of its investment strategies and tactics. A parallel question naturally arises as to whether the governing bodies exercised their duty to follow and question the university administration.
Harvard’s Administrative Board continued to punish students for arguable non-violations of university rules, or for violations of vague rules, via procedures that would be deemed unfair, even outrageous, by most people outside of the ivy gates. A scandal involving the shooting-death of a local alleged marijuana dealer in one of the undergraduate dorms, and Harvard’s unexplained (to its community and the public, at least) decision to bar two seniors allegedly connected to the event from graduating, raised the question of whether the university treated its accused students fairly or instead worried only about quashing challenges to its own public relations agenda. “In the end,” I told the Boston Globe, “Harvard is interested in protecting itself.”
Harvard’s path, and its insistence on hearing from only pat-on-the-back insiders, is analogous to the Star Wars trilogy. For the first few hundred years, it’s Star Wars, the establishment of greatness. But the institution, perhaps inevitably, begins to decay and give way to institutional corruption, at which time reformers try to step in. But then The Empire Strikes Back. One can only hope that, in the end, we see The Return of the Jedi.
Harvey Silverglate, lawyer and writer, is co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, and is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ( Kyle Smeallie, a former news editor of the Boston College Heights, is Silverglate’s research assistant and served as his campaign manager for the 2009 Harvard Board of Overseers election.


  • Harvey Silverglate

    Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ( He co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *