FIRE Co-founder Nominated for Harvard Board of Overseers

By February 17, 2009

It’s official: Harvey Silverglate, FIRE’s co-founder and chairman, has been nominated as a petition candidate for Harvard’s Board of Overseers, a vital governing body of the University. For the past two months, Harvey has been collecting Harvard alumni signatures to qualify as a candidate, attracting coverage from the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, as well as legal and academic blogs, in the process. Now, the campaign begins for a seat on the inside and an opportunity to change the culture to one of freedom, fairness, and true tolerance of dissenting views.

Many thanks are due to those who requested to sign Harvey’s nomination forms. Regular Torch readers, among others, helped Harvey collect 315 signatures, almost 100 more than the minimum of 219 required to qualify. Their feedback also shed light on the importance of this campaign. One alumnus, a self-described conservative, wrote:

I respect his views, though I disagree with many, but agree strongly on the importance of the freedom of speech and the dangers from encroachments on that freedom from many sides. I would be honored to sign a nomination for him because the Board, the University, the alums and the students would benefit from having such a principled Board member dedicated to ensuring the freedom of speech in University life.

Similar messagesdisagreeing with one or another of Harvey’s political positions but recognizing his commitment to important academic valueswere echoed elsewhere.

By all indications, however, the next three months will involve a challenging campaign against Harvard insiders. Each year, five new Overseers are elected to the 30-member governing body to serve six-year terms. Ballots are mailed to all Harvard degree holders in early April; results are announced in June.  

The Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) has nominated eight candidates, and this year there are two petition candidates. The HAA candidates have overwhelmingly fared better than petition candidates who, like Harvey, must first gather signatures to appear on the ballot.

The last successful petition candidate was South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won a seat 20 years ago. Tutu’s election was part of the movement by Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) to encourage divestment of Harvard’s holdings in Apartheid South Africa. In the late 1980s, four petition candidates associated with the HRAAA were elected, much to the chagrin of the Harvard establishment.

After the success of these candidates, Harvard changed the election rules. No longer would candidates be listed in random order; Alumni Association picks would get first billing. Since then, not a single petition candidate has been elected, including Barack Obama, who lost in 1991.

Last year, Robert Freedman, a Philadelphia lawyer and longtime supporter of FIRE, ran as a petition candidate and came within a few hundred votes of winning. This year he has again accepted the challenge, and he plans to work closely with Harvey.

While they differ on some issues, Bob and Harvey share a desire for positive reform at Harvard. Bob is concerned with education issues: teaching methods, curriculum, and high tuition costs. Harvey’s platform focuses on fairness in student disciplinary tribunals, the elimination of student speech codes, and maintaining a student voice in alumni outreach efforts.

Torch readers have been pivotal in getting the campaign off the ground, and now the task involves spreading the word. Only 1015% of approximately 300,000 Harvard alumni return their ballots. Convincing voters that this election mattersthat there are candidates with a level of knowledge and motivation particularly worth voting foris most important.

Post a link on Facebook. Tell your Harvard-educated neighbor. Send an e-mail to your Harvard friends. And if you have a Harvard degree, please vote!

Schools: Harvard University