Outside candidates look to crash Harvard Overseers race
By Evan Lips | May 16, 2016, 13:56 EST
CAMBRIDGE — Three out of five members of the slate of candidates running for seats on the Harvard’s second most powerful governing board on a platform of free tuition and greater transparency in admissions are adding another issue to their platform: freedom of association.
Led by conservative businessman Ron Unz, the slate also includes liberal icon and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader; Stuart Taylor, a scholar at the Brookings Institute and a former legal affairs reporter for the New York Times; Michigan State University physics professor Stephen Hsu; and Lee C. Cheng, chief legal officer at Newegg, a prominent patent watchdog agency.
Running under the moniker “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard,” the candidates, who had to petition in order to appear on the ballot, advocate elimination of undergraduate Harvard tuition and greater transparency and fairness in admissions.
Earlier this month, three of the five — Unz, Taylor and Cheng — issued a statement stating that, if elected, they will also work to oppose Harvard’s plans to impose punishment on students who join all-male and all-female off-campus clubs, fraternities, and sororities beginning with the class entering in 2017.
The statement noted that the coalition’s other two members, Stephen Hsu and Ralph Nader, “were not prepared to join us without more time to consider the issues.”
The role of the Overseers
According to Harvard’s website, overseers “play a significant role in Harvard governance — helping to shape the university’s agenda, assessing and making recommendations about the quality and direction of Harvard’s wide-ranging programs of education and research, and consenting to certain major actions, including the selection of new members of the Harvard corporation.”
Harvard alumni may choose between 13 candidates for five slots, including the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” slate. Eight other candidates were nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association Nominating Committee. The board is comprised of 30 members, each serving six-year terms.
In an interview Wednesday, Unz, a 1983 graduate of Harvard College and the slate’s spokesman, acknowledged that the powers of the board are indeed “vague.”
What matters, Unz pointed out, is precedent. Decades ago, a slate of candidates ran on a platform that included demanding that Harvard divest itself from South African money.
“The Board of Overseers has no connection whatsoever to investment decisions but as soon as the first candidate won, even a single victory, Harvard immediately began divesting from South Africa,” said Unz. “What happened was that the victory of that candidate indicated that in a sense there had been a referendum vote taken by the 320,000 members of the Harvard community.”
He’s hoping that similar phenomenon will take hold and prompt the school to open up its admission books and make the exclusive university tuition-free for undergraduates.
Hedging on tuition
“It’s absurd that Harvard has become one of the world’s largest hedge funds with a small college attached off to one side for tax exemption,” Unz said. “Harvard right now has $38 billion in the bank.
“They receive 25 times more money each year from its stocks, bonds and mortgage derivative securities than they do from tuition.”
Taylor, a 1977 graduate of the Harvard Law School said he believes free tuition will compel more families of wealthy graduates to donate bigger sums and more often.
“They’ll donate,” Taylor said in a recent phone interview. “These colleges lean on people pretty hard to donate, and if you got free tuition, they’re gonna lean harder. Classmates are going to lean harder. The head of annual giving will call up and say, “hey, you got a free ride.” I think it won’t be so free.”
As for whether or not election by one or more members of Unz’s slate could lead to such dramatic change, Unz pointed to outside pressures as being a factor.
“If we end up winning several seats I think the media coverage that it would generate and the pressure that it would exert would be enough that Harvard would very rapidly begin to implement that system,” Unz said. “Once Harvard begins to eliminate undergraduate tuition, I think that schools like Yale, Princeton and Stanford, all of which have enormous endowments, will follow Harvard’s lead.
“That would cause a sort of tidal wave focused on tuition issues to sweep across the country. It would put tremendous pressure on the large number of public colleges and universities to begin cutting their tuition as well.”
“Given the tremendous perceived value in getting into Harvard it really puts in place a system that naturally can produce incorrect processes for admitting students, and even outright corruption,” Unz, said about the school’s cryptic admissions policies. “We’re proposing that Harvard eliminate charging its undergraduates tuition, which would solve half of our problems — the other half is the very corrupt and unfair system of admissions that Harvard currently uses which is an entirely opaque process, where the admissions officers can essentially admit whoever they want for whatever reason.”
Already, Unz has said he is facing backlash from activist groups alleging he and other candidates are looking to harm minorities by the attacking the university’s affirmative action policies. Unz responded to those allegations on Wednesday by saying they couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Harvard should provide more information as to why individual students are admitted and other individual students are rejected,” he noted. “One of the most egregious examples, documented in Daniel Golden’s ‘The Price for Admission,’ is the case of one student — (Golden) was able to find due to court records — the evidence that this student’s family paid Harvard millions of dollars in hidden payments so that Harvard would admit him.”
“The ironic thing about it is that this particular student was Donald Trump’s future son-in-law.”
Unz said it’s only fair for Harvard to be more transparent regarding its admission policies and also noted the hypocrisy of its defenders.
“You really have to ask yourself — all these people opposing us both within the university system or the activist groups that say they’re opposing us on grounds of egalitarianism and protecting minority rights — in effect, they’re protecting the system in which Donald Trump’s son in law, despite being entirely undeserving academically — his family can buy him a slot at Harvard. I think that’s a very corrupt system,” Unz said.
Unz has also addressed critics who claim that eliminating tuition would in effect give the offspring of some of the world’s wealthiest parents a free ride.
In March, he told Business Insider that the school’s policy of charging tuition “is sort of like if Goldman Sachs bought a community college and declared itself tax-exempt.”
Taylor, who in 2012 coauthored with Richard Sander a work titled “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It,” said affirmative action policies deserve to be looked at more closely.
The trouble is, they stressed, is that the public isn’t allowed to look.
He spoke of theoretical instances in which those who had attended struggling schools leading up to gaining entrance to an institution like Harvard, may actually be hindered by leapfrogging into ultra-rigorous curriculum.
He wrote at-length on the subject in Mismatch. In one chapter dealing with law school admissions patterns, Taylor and Sander explored statistics that showed that blacks graduating from law schools failed their respect bar exams at a rate far outpacing whites.
“Blacks were doing badly on the bar not because of test bias or because of invisible weaknesses they brought to law school or because law schools were somehow unwelcoming,” the authors noted. “They were doing badly, it turns out, because the law schools were killing them with kindness by extending admissions preferences (and often scholarships to boot) that systematically catapulted blacks into schools where they were very likely not only to get bad grades but also actually have trouble learning.”
A lawsuit lurks
Lurking in the background of the race is a lawsuit filed by a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions. The lawsuit, filed last year in federal court, seeks to force Harvard to disclose its admissions practices.
The plaintiffs have alleged that Harvard actively discriminates against qualified Asian American applicants.
Cheng, who founded the Asian American Legal Foundation, is quoted at one point in the lawsuit.
“Many Chinese-American children have internalized their anger and pain, confused about why they are treated differently from their non-Chinese friends,” Cheng stated. “Often they become ashamed of their entire ethnic heritage and concluding that their unfair denial is a form of punishment for doing something wrong.”
A new cause emerges
According to Taylor, Harvard’s recent to punish future members of exclusive social organizations such as Final Clubs and fraternities and sororities by banning them from pursuing student leadership posts has given at least three, if not eventually all, of the five petitioning candidates a new rallying topic.
“We agree with the many Harvard graduates that think what they’ve done is outrageous, and it’s not the first outrageous thing they’ve done,” Taylor said.
“They’re trying to run their own students’ social lives and off-campus, non-Harvard-related institutions. The only way any Harvard graduate can vote against that is to vote for us.”
Asked about last week’s protests in which female students and feminist groups railed against the decision, Taylor chuckled.
“I think they’ve overplayed their hand, and I hope that their fingers will get burned,” Taylor said. “(President) Drew Faust and (Dean) Rakesh Khurana, what they’ve done is more than a little bit outrageous.”
In a statement issued by Cheng, Taylor, and Unz the trio compared the decision to “reviving the blacklist.”
The statement goes on to note that Hsu and Nader “were not prepared to join us without more time to consider the issues.”
As for the election itself, which is ongoing, ballots are due at Harvard by no later than noon on May 20.