The election of Harvard’s Board of Overseers is usually a quiet affair. Five new members, who must be alumni, are chosen annually by paper ballot for six-year terms. The board meets five times annually and has little power beyond helping the school set long-term goals.
But this year, the election is causing a stir on campus, among alumni, and beyond.
Conservative software engineer Ron Unz, who led a successful 2002 ballot initiative that severely limited bilingual education in Massachusetts, has rounded up four other candidates — including Ralph Nader — on a platform of making Harvard tuition free for undergraduates and questioning its use of race in admissions.
The race veered into new territory last week, after opponents of Unz brought to light his funding of some authors and researchers with views critics brand as white supremacist, including several who write for a website that professes “diversity per se is not strength, but a vulnerability.”
Unz, a member of the Harvard class of 1983, defended his donations to VDare.com writers and others, including $600,000 to Gregory Cochran, who posited in an article that a “gay germ” causes homosexuality, and $24,000 to Steven Sailer, who wrote that combining economic populism with “white party” issues would win the presidency.
Unz, who is also running for US Senate in California, said he does not agree with or support the positions taken by all the writers, including Cochran and Sailer, he supports financially but wants to provide an assist to “alternative media.”
“I most certainly do NOT stand behind everything said or written by everyone with whom I’m friendly, whose writings I publish, or even who have been the recipient of my financial support over the years,” Unz said in an e-mail last week.
As part of his Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign, Unz is also pushing for more information about the university admissions process, which prior analyses, he said, found tilted against Asians in favor of less-qualified minorities.
Meanwhile, Harvard is facing a lawsuit from a coalition of Asian-American groups, also claiming it discriminates against Asians in admissions. The groups seek the same information Unz wants, about how Harvard chooses whom to admit.
The university has defended its practices. Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said a free tuition program would become a subsidy for families who can afford to pay the $63,000 cost of attendance, noting that the college has a generous financial aid program already. Families that make less than $65,000 pay nothing.
On admissions, Neal said Harvard’s undergraduate college performs a “whole-person” review of applicants that includes their racial and ethnic background, in order to admit a broadly diverse freshman class.
A group of alumni has coalesced to try to quash Unz’s Board of Overseers slate and to question his claim that he simply wants more information about the admissions process.
“It just seems clear that this is an agenda beyond the slogan, an agenda to end race as a factor that can be considered in the admissions process,” said Jeannie Park, founder of the group, Coalition for a Diverse Harvard.
Park called the revelations about Unz’s funding of the controversial writings “disturbing” at a time when the university is grappling with many issues involving gender and race, including the campus’ historical ties to slavery.
“The fact that Unz sprinkles money around to a range of viewpoints doesn’t make it OK to finance hate speech,” Park said.
The other slate members are Stuart Taylor Jr., a journalist who wrote “Mismatch,” a 2012 book that argues against affirmative action; Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physics professor at Michigan State University, and Lee C. Cheng, chief legal officer at online electronics retailer Newegg and secretary of the Asian American Legal Foundation, which has advocated against race-based affirmative action in an ongoing Supreme Court case.
Taylor said in an e-mail that “while I deplore the views of some of the people and organizations that [Unz] has funded, I don’t see them as very relevant to assessing Ron — let alone the rest of our slate.”
Taylor said he joined the slate because he believes socioeconomic diversity is a more important factor to consider in admissions and he has “grave concerns” about the use of racial preferences and quotas. Taylor also said making Harvard College free would attract a more diverse pool of applicants.
Nader, a five-time presidential candidate, said Thursday that he supports race-based affirmative action and agrees with the other petition candidates only in that Harvard should tap its $37.6 billion endowment to provide free tuition.
The VDare website editor, Peter Brimelow, rejected claims that the site is “white nationalist or white supremacist.” He said it publishes writers of all ideologies “who are united in their belief that America’s post-1965 immigration policies have been a disaster.”
Nader said he knows Unz from their work together on raising the minimum wage, when Unz was able to galvanize conservatives in support.
He distanced himself from the articles Unz has funded.
To appear on the ballot, the petitioners collected 201 signatures. They join eight other candidates nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association.
Ballots are due May 20, and winners will be announced at commencement.
The last time there were this many petition candidates for the 30-member board was 1990, according to Harvard.
Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.