Voter suppression is truly ugly business. From Georgia to Arizona, Republican lawmakers are introducing legislation to ban mail-in voting, restrict ballot dropboxes, even eliminate Sunday voting to make sure that members of Black churches don’t continue the practice of walking to the polls after services. The Democratic answer to this — HR1, the For the People Act, an effort to protect access to the polls — may turn out to be the test on which the Senate filibuster stands or falls. It’s all the stuff of great and ominous drama.
A lower-key version of this tragedy is playing out in Cambridge — less a threat to democracy, but just as ugly in its demonstration that people in power don’t yield it easily. Harvard, of all places, is trying to break the power of voters too.
The nation’s oldest college has a unique system of governance among universities in that one of its two governing bodies, the Board of Overseers, is democratically elected by the 300,000 living alumni of the university. Last year, a group of alumni decided to challenge the officially recruited university candidates, running an insurgent campaign on a bold platform of climate action and inclusive governance that called for divesting the institution’s $41 billion endowment from fossil fuels and welcoming younger voices to the Board so that the university is better prepared to face the 21st century. The group, called Harvard Forward, put forth five recent alumni in an outsider bid for the board.
To even qualify for the ballot, these candidates had to overcome obstacles seemingly designed to make them fail — the system for allowing alumni to endorse the nominations took more than hour to navigate on my laptop. But with strong grass-roots support from the alumni community, the Harvard Forward Five managed to collect nearly 5,000 alumni signatures to qualify for the election. In contrast, Harvard’s official candidates did not have to do much of anything to get on the ballot.
But then the petition candidates did something truly unforgivable: they won a free and fair democratic election. Harvard Forward’s candidates secured three of the five open overseer seats — the first petition candidates elected since Archbishop Desmond Tutu won in 1989 on a platform protesting Harvard’s investments in apartheid South Africa. Their victory also marked the first time ever in Harvard’s 384-year history that petition candidates have won a majority of seats up for election.
Harvard alumni spoke loudly and clearly at the ballot box in favor of climate action and more open, transparent, and accountable governance. And what did Harvard do? Did it decide that the time had come to change policies and match the obvious desire of their various constituencies for change? No. One month after the election, the university announced that it would create new rules to restrict petition campaigns, limiting the number of board members who can be elected via the petition process to six out of 30. No limit on petition overseers existed previously; this means that there is no longer any chance of a majority that reflects the will of voters.
This is not far removed from the concept of undermining elections. But anyone surprised by Harvard’s antidemocratic behavior has not been paying attention.
The reason the 2020 petition candidates were the first to win since 1989 was that Harvard reacted to the last success in much the same way: After Tutu’s win, it changed the rules to make it harder for petition candidates to win. Harvard Forward overcame those barriers through grass-roots organizing, and now, in response, Harvard is limiting petition candidacies — no matter how much organizing alumni groups like Harvard Forward do, they’ll always be limited to a fifth of the seats.
It’s an open question why Harvard is doing this: Though its holdings are complicated and often opaque, refusing to divest from fossil fuel stocks has presumably cost its endowment huge sums of money since those companies have hit the skids. Harvard says it has no coal and oil stocks at the moment, but it refuses to join peers such as Oxford, Cambridge, or the University of California in joining the global fight to rein in fossil fuel. When UC made its divestment announcement in 2019, it said “continuing to invest in fossil fuels poses an unacceptable financial risk to UC’s portfolios and therefore to the students, faculty, staff and retirees of the University of California.” A 2018 study of New York state’s pension fund found that failing to divest had cost it the equivalent of $20,000 per state retiree, which is doubtless one reason that the state comptroller finally signed on for divestment last year.
Three more candidates are running on the Harvard Forward banner this winter — Dr. Yvette Efevbera, Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, and Natalie Unterstell. They can’t form a majority because of Harvard’s new rules. But they can help form a new conscience for the world’s richest university. The 2020 elections, at Harvard and in the United States, have proved the strength of grass-roots organizing and shown what a majority of voters want: climate action and inclusive governance. Attacking elemental democratic principles does not change that fact.
At some level, Harvard recognizes the folly of interfering with elections. The university tossed one of its grads — Representative Elise Stefanik of New York — off a Kennedy School of Government advisory board in January because she refused to recognize the results of November’s election. That was right — in the wake of the attempted coup, we realize how dangerous this kind of prevarication can be. It’s time for Harvard to apply the same logic to its own governance.
Bill McKibben is cofounder of the global climate campaign 350.org and a member of the environmental studies faculty at Middlebury College.