Climate Activists Gain Seats on Harvard Oversight Board

Bucking tradition, a group of climate activists has won three seats in an election to an important governing body at Harvard University, the Board of Overseers, the university announced Friday.

The slate of candidates ran on a platform that included calls for the university to drop fossil fuel investments from its portfolio, part of a divestment movement that has swept college campuses for the better part of a decade.

Harvard, with an endowment of more than $40 billion, has resisted those calls. In April, the university’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said that divestment “paints with too broad a brush” and instead announced that Harvard was setting a course to become greenhouse-gas neutral by 2050, a move that he correctly predicted would not satisfy those seeking total divestment.

Candidates for the six-year terms on the board are customarily nominated through the Harvard Alumni Association. These candidates were elected through a petition campaign, the first to successfully do so since 1989, when a group seeking divestment from South Africa put forward Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Three of the 2020 slate’s five candidates gained seats on the 30-person board: Jayson Toweh, Margaret Purce and Thea Sebastian. While the overseers have no direct control over the endowment, they have influence in setting the university’s priorities.

In a statement, Harvard Forward, the group behind the slate, said that the alumni, faculty members and students they worked with were “thrilled at the victory and hope it will send a clear message to Harvard that it must take more urgent action on these issues.”

The president of the Board of Overseers, R. Martin Chávez, said, “All of us on the Board welcome this year’s new Overseers,” in a statement published by the university. “These are extraordinary times, posing extraordinary challenges, and the Board will do all we can to help Harvard navigate them as thoughtfully as possible, always with an overriding concern for the best interests of the University and how it can best serve the world.”

The election had become tense at times, with the alumni leaders arguing that the insurgents had “copious funding” and were “pushing their own single-issue or multi-issue agendas, special interests, or political viewpoints.”

Gay Seidman, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was the first person who ran by petition to win a Harvard Board of Overseers election, and who campaigned on an anti-apartheid divestment platform in 1986, said she had not expected to win; instead, she said, she saw the candidacy as “a way to start conversations about what’s an acceptable business practice.”

She said she would warn the members of the new slate that “change happens really slowly in institutions that are as complicated as universities,” but that “if you think of the goal as to start conversations, then they have already won.”

And, she added, “they should look forward to many discussions of how much office space the math department really needs.”