Harvard Forward Response to Letter from
"Harvard Alumni Volunteer Leaders"
"What side of history do you want to be on?"
You can read their letter here.
August 10, 2020
Dear Harvard Alumni,
We are two graduates from the Harvard College Class of 2018, and we are writing as the co-founders of Harvard Forward. During our Commencement, the late Congressman John Lewis spoke directly to the Harvard community about the need to cause “good trouble” in order to bring about necessary change.
Two years later, we answered his call by launching Harvard Forward.
Harvard Forward is a grassroots movement, founded and run by young Harvard alumni, to elect petition candidates to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a platform of climate justice, social responsibility, and inclusive governance. Harvard has refused to take ownership of its failures on these issues, despite the ongoing efforts of students, alumni, and faculty to effect change. Given Harvard’s inertia, we decided to try a different tactic: encourage candidates to run for the Board on a bold platform and let alumni choose what type of leadership they want to see from Harvard.
The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Five impressive candidates, who hold 12 degrees between them and represent various Harvard schools and experiences, rose to the occasion, and thousands of alumni and students joined our movement to elect them. While the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) nominating committee consists of only 15 people, Harvard Forward collected the signatures of more than 4,500 alumni to place these candidates on the ballot, including signers from every Harvard school and every decade since the 1940s. It doesn’t get much more alumni-driven than our campaign.
Unfortunately, those who benefit from the status quo often resist attempts to democratize systems of power. In the latest example of this, a group of “Harvard Alumni Volunteer Leaders'' is circulating a letter attacking Harvard Forward with false information and accusations. This is the same pattern of opposition that the Harvard & Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid (HRAAA) encountered when they ran petition candidates for the Board of Overseers in the late 1980s on a platform of divestment from apartheid South Africa and broader social justice issues.
Looking back, it is easy to see who was on the right side of the apartheid debate. With this in mind, it is particularly disheartening to see members of the Harvard establishment yet again line up on the wrong side of history. Individuals who claim to recognize the need for climate action are mobilizing against us because they find our tactics too disruptive. Nominating petition candidates, fundraising, and advocating for divestment are all tools that HRAAA utilized in their push for justice. They challenged the existing power structures. That is what social movements do. That is what we are doing. So we ask you, fellow alumni: what side of history do you want to be on?
Unfortunately, none of the signatories who are campaigning against us had the courage to reach out with their questions or concerns before writing their letter, so we will respond to it in detail below. We also invite them to discuss the Overseers election at a virtual town hall on Saturday, August 15th at 18:00 ET – on the condition that it is open and publicized to all members of the Harvard community. We welcome a good-faith conversation about the important issues facing our University before the election closes on August 18th.
While we provide a complete rebuttal to their letter in the next four pages, the three key points are:
Two previous presidents of the HAA who still sit on the HAA Executive Committee are asserting that our campaign is a front for “very wealthy special interests” and “cashed up special interests.” This is false. Harvard Forward is a grassroots movement, supported by thousands of alumni who believe in our cause and powered by hundreds of individual donations. Every single dollar we have spent on the campaign has come from Harvard affiliates. Our average contribution is about $200, and the most popular donation amount is $20.20. That’s not “cashed up special interests” – that’s the voice of the Harvard community.
We are criticized for using “atypical campaigning methods.” Our campaigning methods are actually very typical; what is atypical is applying them to Harvard’s election. But Harvard’s failure to listen to its own community has created the need to organize democratically. And yet, while atypical, our movement abides by the two rules that the Office of the Governing Boards (OGB) provided to us: campaigning truthfully and respectfully.
We are accused of a “lack of transparency regarding [our] governance.” From the first day of our campaign, we’ve maintained a website with information about who we are, what we stand for, and how to contact us with questions or concerns. Meanwhile, we have asked the HAA and the OGB numerous times since 2019 to see the Board’s Bylaws and a written definition of eligible alumni voters. To this day, we have never seen the Bylaws; we have not received a written working definition of alumni eligibility; and we have been continuously stonewalled in our efforts to understand why these materials are not made available. Harvard’s lack of transparency in this respect is just one example of why we are organizing for Overseer candidates who are committed to making Harvard’s governance more inclusive and transparent.
Thea, Jayson, Margaret, John, and Lisa Bi are inspiring candidates who will bring fresh perspectives to the Board and advocate for climate justice, racial justice, and a more inclusive Harvard. The letter instructs alumni to vote against them yet omits any information that would allow readers to evaluate the campaign, platform, and candidates for themselves. Our alumni deserve better than that.
If you would like to join us in our fight to move Harvard forward by electing the Harvard Forward Five, we invite you to please share our campaign with your networks and visit HarvardForward.org to vote for a new vision of what Harvard leadership can look like.
Yours in good trouble,
Danielle Strasburger, AB ’18
Nathán Goldberg Crenier, AB ’18
Harvard Forward Co-Founders
Detailed response to the “Harvard Alumni Volunteer Leaders” Letter
Overseers’ Role and Nominating Process
The main responsibility of Overseers is indeed to uphold the academic excellence of the University. While the letter says our campaign is “focused on influencing the asset allocation decisions of Harvard’s endowment,” most of our policy proposals do not concern the endowment. For example, our plan to bolster climate-focused research and education fits under the Overseers’ academic purview.
However, more generally, the Board of Overseers also “exerts broad influence over the University's strategic directions.” Not only do divestment matters fall squarely within the category of the University’s strategic decisions, but, as we lay out in our 10-page policy platform on climate justice and responsible investing, “divestment is the correct decision both morally and financially… [and] a healthy planet and a healthy endowment go hand in hand to positively contribute to students’ educational experiences.”
Furthermore, to say that the Overseers have no influence over fiduciary decisions is misleading. The Board of Overseers has the ability to act as a check on the Harvard Corporation, since Overseers have the power to consent (or not) to the election of new Corporation members. Overseers willing to take a stand for climate and racial justice could choose to not approve new Corporation members who oppose divestment from – or have direct ties to – the fossil fuel industry or the prison-industrial complex. Given that the Corporation is not democratically elected, the only voice alumni have in the selection of Corporation members is through the Board of Overseers election.
You don’t have to take our word for it. We are proud to count several former Overseers as our supporters, including former Vice President Al Gore ’69, former Senator Tim Wirth ’61, and successful HRAAA petition candidate Gay Seidman ’78. Their support gives us confidence that the mission of Harvard Forward is in line with the mandate of the Board of Overseers.
The letter insinuates that the Harvard Forward candidates are attempting to impose their personal agendas on Harvard. This misses a crucial point: the democratic election. Our candidates are running on a platform that has been publicly accessible for months. If they are elected, it will be because alumni have voted in favor of this platform. As such, they would be working to implement not their personal agendas, but rather a shared agenda based on common interests that the Harvard community supports.
Finally, the letter encourages alumni to vote for the HAA-nominated candidates because they were chosen by “fellow alumni.” As previously stated, Harvard Forward candidates collected signatures from more than 4,500 alumni to qualify for the ballot. It’s also worth noting that the nominating committee rarely – if ever – produces recent alumni candidates. The omission of recent graduates deprives a large swath of our alumni population from representation on the Board, and it also means the Board lacks the valuable perspective of recent alumni who know what it’s like to be a student at Harvard in this day and age.
Can Harvard be Bought?
The answer to this question is obvious: yes. From putting a price on the naming rights of the School of Public Health to a preference toward legacy and donor families in its admission process, Harvard has always been a place where money talks, whether we like to admit it or not.
But we’re not trying to buy Harvard; we’re trying to democratize it. The amount of money Harvard Forward has spent on the petition process and the election would not even cover the cost of a full year at Harvard College. This kind of money can’t “buy” a University with an endowment of $40.9 billion. What we’re doing is leveraging democracy, by way of the Board elections, to move Harvard forward.
“Cashed up special interests” and “Copious funding”
We have been attacked as “cashed up special interests” using “copious funding” to run our campaign. The claim that dark money or outside interests are controlling our movement is categorically false. Harvard Forward was developed solely by us and fellow recent alumni, and we did not receive or ask for any donations until Harvard Forward was set for launch.
Our movement has gotten to where it is today through a combination of careful planning, effective organizing, hundreds of alumni and student volunteers, and yes, campaign donations.
Where do these donations come from? We have received hundreds of individual donations from Harvard affiliates who believe in our mission and want Harvard to become a leader in the fight for climate and social justice. Again: every single dollar we have spent on the campaign has come from a Harvard affiliate, our average contribution is about $200, and the most popular donation amount is $20.20.
What has the money been used for? Because Harvard created an online petition process that was absurdly difficult to complete, we raised money to cover the costs of shipping paper nomination forms to alumni around the world. Since we do not have ready access to alumni mailing lists the way that Harvard insiders do, we built a movement to reach thousands of alumni ourselves, with the requisite costs of a website, email service, and so on. We have also paid for digital advertising to raise awareness of the election among alumni. Finally, we have compensated the labor of a few students and recent graduates who have devoted a significant amount of their time and energy to the campaign because we believe in the importance of ensuring social justice work is accessible and appropriately valued.
Neither one of us has been financially compensated at any point for the thousands of hours we’ve spent advocating for a better future for Harvard, and attempts to paint us as “cashed up interests” are designed to discount the work of hundreds of alumni volunteers around the world and across generations.
As a final note on this topic, former Overseer Kat Taylor ’80 has not donated any money to our campaign. It feels ridiculous to have to discuss an individual in this manner, but we have heard from multiple sources that there is a rumor circulating among HAA leadership that Ms. Taylor is somehow “behind” Harvard Forward. This unfounded accusation is neither true nor fair to her. However, should Ms. Taylor ever decide to contribute to our efforts, we would gladly welcome her support.
“Atypical campaigning methods”
Beyond fundraising, we are criticized for using “atypical campaigning methods.” We have acknowledged that what we’re doing is not the norm for Harvard elections, but it’s in complete accordance with the rules that the OGB provided us at the beginning of our campaign: no lying and no criticizing other candidates. We have adhered to these conscientiously. Not only that, but the Office of the Governing Boards confirmed to us in person that our campaign follows the rules as they exist.
It seems the signatories would prefer a world with no petition candidates, no platforms, and, frankly, no participation. Turnout in the Harvard elections is abysmal, consistently falling below 15% of eligible voters. Alumni “leaders” are now trying to delegitimize a wave of alumni engagement. The only people who benefit from a disengaged alumni population are those seeking to uphold the status quo.
Since the last successful petition effort by HRAAA in 1989, Harvard has raised the number of signatures required, reduced the number of HAA-nominated candidates it puts forward in order to consolidate votes, and moved petition candidates to a separate section of the ballot, all in an attempt to prevent petition candidates from ever winning another election. As a result, it is impossible for petition candidates to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and enough support to compete with HAA-nominated candidates without a well-organized campaign.
Facing big barriers, we built a big movement. The Crimson Editorial Board has praised our approach: “Harvard Forward is a model of stellar grassroots advocacy for issues that Harvard Alumni are passionate about. We believe that the Overseers election is the perfect forum to advocate for such issues.”
Harvard elections don’t have to be this way. If Harvard provided a way for every candidate to share their vision for Harvard directly with all alumni, we wouldn’t need to campaign like this. But Harvard limits candidates to nothing more than a headshot and a 250-word bio on the ballot, creating no space for meaningful engagement with the voting population. All we’re trying to do is get our candidates and platform in front of as many alumni as possible, so they can make an informed decision when they vote.
“Lack of transparency regarding [our] governance”
This claim is made without any additional context. As mentioned, none of the signatories contacted us in the process of writing their letter; if they had, we would have been happy to answer their questions. We also have a very detailed, easy-to-find website with an extensive FAQ and a list of our core organizers. If you take a look, you’ll see that we are what we say we are: a group of concerned recent alumni trying to make a difference. There’s not much more to our “governance” than that.
Harvard’s own lack of transparency in its elections is a central issue of our campaign. As previously stated, we have asked numerous times to see the Board’s Bylaws and voting eligibility guidelines, to no avail. HAA members concerned with transparency ought to reflect upon their existing process and ask themselves why so many frustrated alumni felt the need to make use of an alternative one.
In fact, according to the Crimson’s Editorial Board, “This petition by Harvard Forward is an embodiment of how we believe the University ought to be governed: openly, transparently, and democratically.”
“Buying seats on the Board”
Finally, we are accused of attempting to buy seats on the Board. Not only is this a gross mischaracterization of Harvard Forward’s campaign and mission, but it is also an insult to all alumni who participate in the election to imply that they can be bought. We believe in a better future for Harvard – a future we have articulated in our platform and communicated to alumni through every means available to us. But it is ultimately up to alumni to decide how they cast their votes, and those are not for sale.
We are proud that Harvard elects its Board through a democratic process that includes the option for alumni to be nominated by petition. It does take time and money to run a petition campaign, but equating this to “buying” a Board seat is an attempt to discredit one of the only avenues alumni have to directly push for change. The petition process is completely legitimate. The fact that any alum can stand for election so long as they have the support of a significant portion of the alumni community makes the entire system more democratic.
There are certainly reasons for concern about the role money plays in determining who holds power at Harvard, but a grassroots campaign of young alumni causing good trouble is not the problem. Multiple individuals who hold or have held positions of alumni leadership have shared their concerns with us about the “pay-to-play” culture they’ve encountered within the alumni community, where it is perceived that financial contributions can help one rise faster through the ranks. For the sake of transparency in governance, we would support a push to publicize how much money the people in alumni leadership positions at Harvard have personally contributed to the University.
What’s at Stake?
The writers of the letter claim the rallying cry of “Harvard belongs to all of us.” Yes, Harvard should belong to all of us. There should not be gatekeepers for democratic elections. Our elected leadership should represent our entire community, including the generations and demographics that will be disproportionately affected by Harvard’s failure to take sufficient action in the fight against climate change. The Harvard Forward Five will bring a new kind of leadership to the table and are committed to making Harvard a more socially responsible, inclusive, and anti-racist institution. So yes, there is a lot at stake in this election.
This year, the thousands of alumni who share our vision have a chance to make their voices heard. This year, we have the opportunity to elect five inspiring candidates to the Board of Overseers who will work to build a better Harvard and leverage the University's power to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable world. This year, Harvard can chart a new path forward. We hope you will join us.
Yours in Veritas,
Danielle Strasburger & Nathán Goldberg Crenier