After six years on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, President Kenji Yoshino ’91 steps down this year. Yoshino, a Rhodes Scholar and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University Law School, sat down with the Gazette recently and looked back as well as ahead, reflecting on everything from the board’s work to his years as a College student.  

GAZETTE: Your term on the Board of Overseers and as board president is ending in a few months. Any advice for your successor?

YOSHINO: I have an inkling of who that successor might be. And I have no advice for that individual because that individual is spectacular and will do a terrific job.

I will say, however, that when I assumed the role of president of the board last year, the most helpful thing I did was to engage in a listening tour of my Overseer colleagues. I took suggestions for the kinds of plenary sessions that we would have this year, meaning that our agenda arose out of consensus.

Our first meeting in the fall was about The Harvard Campaign and how we can make the most of its final two years. The second was about inclusion and belonging, which provided us with an opportunity to engage with the leaders of President [Drew] Faust’s task force. The third was about the mentorship of tenure-track faculty. We have sessions coming up on Allston and on digital learning.

One procedural change, which also arose out of that listening tour, has been a constant. We’ve tried to create more of a conversation with the individuals who generously come to present at our plenaries, whether it’s a group of faculty members or a dean or members of task forces. We’ve been saying to all of our presenters: “Let’s just try an experiment in living for a year, in that we’re going to be much more interactive. When you come in here, we want you to talk at the outset for just a tiny amount of time. Because what we really want to do is invite you into a conversation. We come from all different walks of life, and hopefully you’ll be able to get the equivalent of 13 ways of looking at a blackbird.”

GAZETTE: So the plenary sessions have become more a conversation than a presentation?

YOSHINO: Exactly. And a continuing dialogue about what’s best for the University also occurs between the sessions. For each of our meetings this year, we’ve had some set of queries sent around before the meeting. For the mentorship meeting, for example, we sent around a questionnaire saying to Overseers: “Can you describe an experience of positive or noteworthy mentorship you had? What made it work? How might it translate to the context of mentoring tenure-track faculty here?”

It got a conversation going, and leveraged the diversity of the board. Of the bodies that have leadership responsibility here, the Board of Overseers may well be the most diverse demographically and professionally. For that reason alone, we can add value as a focus group. The hope is to say: “What don’t we know? What could we understand better? How could we make this University better?”

GAZETTE: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing Harvard in the years to come?

YOSHINO: The biggest challenges are, frankly, endemic to all higher education. But because it is so visible, Harvard will create a cascade effect where it succeeds; conversely, if Harvard stumbles, the world will hear about it.

When I think about those challenges, the first is the affordability of higher education that we’re all struggling with these days.

Another one would be trying to think about an education in noninstrumental terms, which means defending the humanities and a liberal education in a world that seems to relentlessly emphasize education in increasingly vocational terms.

And a third would be how to deal with demographics that are different in kind from anything we’ve experienced before. We’re going to be a nation in 2050 where no ethnicity, for example, is going to be a majority. That’s a place that we’ve never been before as a country. So fortifying ourselves so we’re an institution in which students from diverse backgrounds can not only be admitted to the University but can also all thrive here, I think that’s going to be a major challenge. 

GAZETTE: How would you describe the responsibilities of the board?

YOSHINO: The Board of Overseers has 30 members elected by the alumni. There are some matters we formally decide. But for the most part, we give the University the best advice and counsel we can with regard to its long-term objectives, ideals, and strategies.

As a practical matter, we have these plenary sessions that bring together all of us, and then six different standing committees that meet on the mornings before the plenary. Three of those committees focus on the humanities and arts, the social sciences, and the natural and applied sciences. The other three have to do with the Schools, with finance, administration, and management, and with institutional policy.

We have other committees, together with the Corporation, on honorary degrees, on audit, on alumni affairs and development. And we offer advice through all of those channels.

And then there are our visiting committees, on which we sit and which report in to us. I was correctly told when I came on the Overseers that “visitation” would be one of the most significant parts of our remit, because a visiting committee is a committee that engages intensely with a department or School. These committees exert significant influence in affirming or redirecting the trajectory of a department or School.

GAZETTE: Which visiting committees have you sat on, and how did those specific experiences go?

YOSHINO: The College, the English Department, the Law School, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study — all were fantastic experiences.

Just to take an example from the College. I remember the visit right when Dean [Rakesh] Khurana was coming in to his first round of meetings. He was inspiring about what Harvard is doing and how it’s trying to help its students become good citizens and leaders. The second-best part of the visit was his query: “If we were Harvard, what would we do?” The best part of the visit, as is often the case, was meeting the students.

GAZETTE: What made you accept the invitation to run for Overseer?

YOSHINO: It was really President Faust, in candor, and also love of Harvard. Harvard changed not just not my own life, but my family’s life.

My father was a professor at Harvard Business School, so I grew up in Belmont and then in Cambridge. I grew up as a “fac brat.” I went to boarding school, then “came home” for college, given that Mather House was a stone’s throw away from where my parents lived.

I did a couple of years at Oxford, and I went to Yale Law School and taught there for a number of years. But I’d always felt a deep tie to Harvard for what it’s done for my family, and what it did for me when I was an undergraduate here.

It was a completely transformative experience where I really felt I learned — it’s a little mortifying to put it this way — but I learned how to read and write at Harvard as an English major. And I wrote a collection of poems for my senior thesis. I worked with Seamus Heaney and Helen Vendler, and it was just a kind of peerless educational experience. I still, even as a law professor, teach my constitutional law classes as classes on interpretation.

And when President Faust called me six years ago, I thought, “Well, here is a completely inspirational individual.” She told me about the Board of Overseers and her vision of the University: One Harvard, interdisciplinary studies, increasing access to the University, a profound commitment to the humanities at a time when the humanities were beleaguered (as they still are). I felt this would be the perfect way to close the circle and return to Harvard.

GAZETTE: How has your view of Harvard changed through your experience as an Overseer, compared with what it was when you were a student?

YOSHINO: Seismically. As a student, of necessity, you’re only getting one cut of the University. As an Overseer, you’re seeing across the whole.

I have a better understanding of Harvard as a university than I do of Yale as a university or NYU as a university, even though I’ve been a professor in the law schools there. Being on the board gives us such a privileged perspective.

I have described it as being like the red dot or storm that moves over Jupiter. You’re constantly roving over the surface, so you get to understand this vast University much better than you could from any other vantage point.

I knew the College as an undergrad and the Business School because my dad taught there. But that was about it.

Now, as an Overseer, I’ve seen so many different parts of the University, including ones that I’d never set foot in as a student, like the School of Design, the Radcliffe Institute, which didn’t exist as such then, the Divinity School, the Kennedy School, the School of Public Health. The i-lab obviously wasn’t here when I was here, and that’s a really extraordinary space to visit. So it’s a privileged perspective.

We’re sitting here in Loeb House, and Lamont Library right outside still looks exactly the same as it did when I was working late nights there as a student. The Henry Moore sculpture is still out there, right by Lamont. I wrote a fine arts paper on it to satisfy a core requirement. Houghton Library, which you can also see through the curtains there, is where Helen Vendler took us to see the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, which for me as an English major was extraordinary, and also the papers of Sylvia Plath. I took a seminar in Plath, Lowell, and Bishop with her, which, again, was a game-changer for me. It’s just amazing to see the kind of schoolgirlish handwriting Sylvia Plath had. She might have been dotting her i’s with hearts, but the things she was writing were, of course, of a different tenor — the contrast is still extraordinary.

It’s wonderful to think that some things have remained exactly the same. But at the same time there’s immense transformation. Not even leaving the world of architecture, look at the Harvard Art Museums’ renovation, which we can see through the other window. It’s an extraordinary transformation of that space. I try to sneak in there from time to time when I’m here because it’s literally across the street. It’s just been revitalized.

President Faust once said, “Harvard endures because Harvard changes.” And Harvard also endures because what’s incomparable about this University is preserved. I hope that we as Overseers play some small part in thinking about how best to craft that story of change and continuity.