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Effort to make Harvard University tuition-free fails

Ron Unz had led a slate of candidates that sought to shake up the membership of Harvard University’s Board of Overseers.Jim Wilson/New York Times/File 2016

A conservative software developer’s campaign to shake up the membership of Harvard’s Board of Overseers — and push to make tuition free for undergraduates — has failed, university officials said Monday.

A slate of petition candidates led by Ron Unz, known in Massachusetts for leading a 2002 ballot initiative that severely limited bilingual education, had vied for election to the largely powerless body. Unz had rounded up four other candidates, including Ralph Nader, on a platform that also questioned Harvard’s use of race in admissions.

Instead, alumni elected five other alumni to the board in a mailed-ballot election that took place over the past few months and was tallied this week.


Elected were Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a professor at Northwestern University; Helena Buonanno Foulkes, president of CVS/pharmacy; Ketanji Brown Jackson, a US District Court judge in Washington, D.C.; Alejandro Ramírez Magaña, chief executive officer of Cinépolis in Mexico City; and Kent Walker, senior give president and general counsel at Google Inc., the university said. Harvard would not disclose the vote tally.

The election, usually a sleepy affair, had veered into new territory earlier this year when opponents of Unz brought to light his funding of some authors and researchers with views that critics brand as white supremacist, including several who write for a website that professes “diversity per se is not strength, but a vulnerability.”

Unz, in a brief phone interview Monday, said he was disappointed by the results, but added that he believes the campaign started a conversation about how wealthy universities spend their endowment income.

Federal lawmakers have recently asked the nation’s richest colleges and universities for details about their multibillion-dollar endowments, which have continued to grow even as tuitions increase, and the schools’ benefit from tax breaks because of their “charitable and educational” missions.


“I think we were able to get much more scrutiny on the massively disproportionate size of Harvard’s investment income compared to its net tuition revenue,” Unz said.

Overseers are elected for six-year terms to a board that helps set the university’s longterm goals. The Harvard Corporation is the university’s primary governing body.

The cost of college is a hot topic nationally. Harvard’s financial aid policy is generally considered generous, with all costs paid for students whose family income is less than $65,000. The university also awards a high percentage of scholarships.

During the election, a group of alumni coalesced to try to stop Unz’s slate. The group, Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, raised concerns about another part of Unz’s platform, which questioned Harvard’s use of race in admissions decisions.

“Our issue all along has been about supporting diversity at Harvard,” said group co-founder Jeannie Park. “From our point of view, it’s a good day.”

Laura Krantz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.