Harvard alumni backed by billionaires Ackman, Zuckerberg fail to make board ballot cut

Candidates were put forward by billionaire who led campaign over antisemitism, Facebook founder after university shaken by resignation of president, financial issues

File: People enter and exit Harvard Yard at a gate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 12, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
File: People enter and exit Harvard Yard at a gate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 12, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

Billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who led a campaign criticizing Harvard University as it has been rocked by turmoil over practices related to antisemitism, plagiarism and financial management, on Friday failed in a bid to get four candidates on the ballot for a governing board of the Ivy League school.

One other candidate backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also failed to win a place on the ballot for Harvard’s board of overseers.

The two men, who acted independently, threw support behind the candidates after Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned last month amid criticism of her handling of antisemitism on campus in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 massacre in Israel and claims of plagiarism in her earlier academic career.

Antisemitism on university campuses skyrocketed following the outbreak of war on October 7, when Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 as hostages into Gaza.

Gay and Harvard have denied the allegations. Gay, who was Harvard’s first Black president, said in a statement at the time that stepping down was in the best interest of the Ivy League school given the controversy.

The board of overseers is the school’s second-highest governing body, with the power to approve or reject the hiring of Harvard’s president. Each year, five seats on the 30-member board are up for election, and only Harvard alumni are eligible to vote.

File: Bill Ackman, investor, watches as Emma Raducanu of Great Britain plays against Maria Sakkari of Greece during their Women’s Singles semifinals match on Day Eleven of the 2021 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City, on September 09, 2021. (Elsa/Getty Images/AFP)

Some of the candidates said that Harvard informed them late on Friday that they did not meet the required threshold to get on the ballot.

Zoe Bedell, one of four candidates backed by Ackman, said she, Alec Williams, Logan Leslie and Julia Pollak received between 2,300 and 2,700 votes each.

Sam Lessin, the candidate backed by Zuckerberg, said Harvard told him he received 2,901 votes. Securing a spot on the ballot required 3,238 votes.

The vote for the board occurs later this year.

The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ballot results.

File: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, looks on during the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis” in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Ackman also did not respond to a request for comment.

Ackman, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and for business school and has donated about $50 million to the university, has been among the most vocal critics of Gay and her management on campus.

Earlier this year, Ackman’s wife Neri Oxman apologized for several errors in her 2010 dissertation, after Business Insider alleged it contained a number of instances of plagiarism. Oxman also faced criticism when it was revealed that convicted sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein gifted some $125,000 to her research group.

However, Ackman told Reuters earlier this year that Harvard needs change and the slate he backed would bring fresh blood to the board.

The Harvard Alumni Association interviews and puts forward candidates to a vote, and those who want to get on the ballot without the association’s blessing — as the candidates supported by Zuckerberg and Ackman attempted — face long odds.

In 2016, Harvard increased the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot when not endorsed by the association from 200 to 1 percent of those who were entitled to vote in the previous election.

Harvard has argued that keeping nominations wide open lets special interests hijack the process, akin to political campaigns.

A message that “resonated”

Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president and former US Treasury secretary, earlier this week spoke in favor of dissident candidates.

“Everyone who can, should support challenges to Harvard’s traditional leadership from Sam Lessin, Harvey Silverglate, Alec Williams and others,” he wrote on social media platform X.

Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to launch Facebook in 2004 and has committed to giving $500 million to study artificial intelligence, threw his weight behind Lessin, an investor and former colleague at the social media giant.

Ackman supported a group of four candidates called Renew Harvard, which called for upholding free speech, protecting students from bullying and harassment, and addressing financial mismanagement at the university.

The group pointed to the university’s $50.7 billion endowment delivering a return of 2.9% in fiscal 2023, deeply underperforming the broader market’s nearly 20% gain. Ackman shared this criticism.

The alumni in the Renew Harvard slate were Bedell, an assistant US attorney; entrepreneur Leslie, who buys and runs small businesses at Northern Rock; former Navy officer and investor Williams; and Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.

“It is clear our message really resonated with the Harvard community given that we were able to get so many votes in just three weeks, so we know these issues are important and will not be abandoning them,” Bedell told Reuters.

The Renew Harvard group plans to try again next year to become write-in candidates on the ballot, Bedell said.

A number of other candidates including historian Todd Fine and attorney Silverglate also mounted campaigns.

A truck calling the then-president of Harvard Claudine Gay a disgrace drives around Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 12, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

The board of overseers is not as powerful as the smaller Harvard Corporation, which has direct oversight over the university’s operations, yet it still exercises influence. The primary tool of the overseers is the so-called visitation process, which lets them ask questions of Harvard’s faculty and departments and carry out assessments.

The last successful challenges came in 2020 and 2021, when Harvard Forward, a coalition of graduates that urged the university’s endowment to divest from fossil fuels, got four candidates elected on the board of overseers.

In 1989, dissident alumni backed a petition to elect Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the board in a push to get Harvard to divest its investment holdings in companies that did business in South Africa during the time of racial apartheid.

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