It’s hard to get into Harvard, even if you’ve done it before.
Mark Zuckerberg, head of Meta, and Bill Ackman, head of the Pershing Square hedge fund, discovered as much, in their failed push to get dissident candidates onto the Harvard Board of Overseers, one of the university’s two governing bodies.
The candidates — a slate of four backed by Ackman and one candidate backed by Zuckerberg — said Friday that they had not collected enough petition signatures to get on the April ballot for election to the board.
“We are disappointed but greatly appreciate all the support,” Zoe Bedell, an assistant U.S. attorney, who ran on the Ackman slate, said in a statement Friday. “We look forward to trying again next year.”
Their failure raised the question of how much support existed for Ackman’s persistent campaign against Harvard’s leadership over the past few months.
Ackman touted the candidates’ military experience, and Zuckerberg’s candidate, Sam Lessin, is a venture capitalist and a former employee of Facebook (as Meta was formerly known).
But they could not surmount the first hurdle: collecting the 3,238 signatures from Harvard alumni to get their names on the ballot for the April election.
On Friday evening, Lessin posted on social media that he had received 2,901 write-in nominations, 337 short of the required 3,238.
“As far as I know, no write-in candidate had more,” Lessin wrote in a message to supporters posted Friday night on X, formerly known as Twitter.
He blamed technical difficulties in Harvard’s petitioning process. “I easily have the 337 and many many more in my inbox from alums who tried to submit but were blocked!”
The candidates ran on a platform of protecting free speech, overhauling management, guarding against antisemitism and ensuring academic rigor. These issues had boiled over at Harvard over the last few months, as Claudine Gay resigned as Harvard’s president after battling accusations of plagiarism and tolerating antisemitism.
The 30-member Board of Overseers serves primarily as an advisory group to the more powerful Harvard Corp. But the overseers do have a veto over presidential appointments, a critical power since Harvard will be conducting a search for Gay’s replacement. And their consent is also required for new members of the corporation, which currently has 12 members and one vacancy.
Only Harvard alumni can serve as overseers, and only alumni can vote in annual elections to the board. There are five open seats for six-year terms.
Ackman, while trying to gather signatures, complained bitterly that Harvard had made the process opaque and cumbersome. Alumni had to navigate a somewhat confusing online system, which required them to register at least 24 hours in advance of the deadline to sign a petition. Ackman said that Harvard appeared to have changed the format just days before the signing deadline.
“If this is not election interference, I don’t know what is,” Ackman posted on X before the signatures were counted.
Harvard, Ackman and Zuckerberg declined to comment after the results became known.
Overseer candidates are traditionally nominated through Harvard’s alumni association. But candidates put forward by petition have gotten on the ballot before, notably those who called for divestment from the fossil fuel industry or from apartheid-era South Africa.
There have been notable losers: Barack Obama secured enough petition signatures in 1991, on a platform of divesting from South Africa, but did not win a seat.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are major donors to Harvard, most recently for artificial intelligence research. They took to YouTube to introduce Lessin, whom Zuckerberg met at Harvard. Chan, a Harvard graduate, is eligible to vote in the election, but Zuckerberg, who dropped out, is not.
In their video discussion, Lessin, class of 2005, argued that the overseers could take a more active role. “They have a veto on a lot of really senior, important things,” he said, adding, “They haven’t used it very much recently.”
Ackman’s slate consisted of Bedell, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia; Logan Leslie, founder of Northern Rock, an investment firm; Alec Williams, an investment fund manager in Boise, Idaho; and Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.
Bedell said the slate grew out of a core group of friends with a commitment to service. Ackman had employed one of them — Williams — and they reached out to him for support, she said.
Even if they had succeeded in getting on the ballot, only two of the petition candidates could have won seats. Harvard has decreed a limit of six overseers who were nominated by petition at any one time, and there are already four on the board. Voting in the election is scheduled to begin April 1 and last until mid-May.
Another petition hopeful, Harvey Silverglate, the co-founder of FIRE, a free speech group, received 457 signatures in his third attempt since 2009 to get on the ballot.
Silverglate said that without access to a master list of Harvard alumni, it was difficult to tell people about his candidacy. “This was an insider’s game,” he said. He plans to run again next year.
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