The annual election for new alumni leaders is one of the most significant ways alumni express their voice at Harvard. But before the first vote is cast, a committee of alumni gather to work toward a common goal — selecting slates of candidates to present for the vote. Starting April 1, all eligible Harvard degree holders will have the chance to vote for new members of the Harvard Board of Overseers, which, along with the Harvard Corporation, is one of the University’s two governing boards. In addition, degree holders vote for elected directors of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), who serve three-year terms to help develop volunteer leadership and increase and deepen alumni engagement.
HAA’s alumni nominating committee — a group of alumni from across the Schools and varying in gender, geography, ethnicity, and other ways — conducts a deep review of a sprawling portfolio of potential candidates, goes through intensive debate, and finally builds consensus around a diverse group they believe will ably and judiciously represent the University.
This year the committee selected nine candidates for six openings on the Board of Overseers and nine candidates for six positions as HAA directors.
The Gazette spoke with a roundtable of three members of the committee — Sid Espinosa, M.P.P. ’00, Roger A. Fairfax Jr. ’94, J.D. ’98, and June Nagao ’96 — along with Philip Lovejoy, the HAA’s executive director, to learn more about the committee’s work, the role alumni play in Harvard elections, and what it means to get involved and vote.
Espinosa, formerly mayor of Palo Alto, California, and senior director of philanthropy at Microsoft, is the current head of social impact at GitHub. Fairfax is the dean of American University Washington College of Law and was previously the Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor and founding director of the Criminal Law & Policy Initiative at George Washington University Law School. Nagao is co-founder of Paulownia Group, an impact investment firm, after two decades in institutional finance and investments, and she is a member of impact circles, including NEXUS Global, Toniic, and The ImPact.
Sid Espinosa, Roger A. Fairfax Jr., June Nagao, and Philip Lovejoy
GAZETTE: Before we dive into the nominating committee’s work this year, let’s start with the committee itself. Who is in this group and how do they come together?
PHILIP LOVEJOY: Maybe the best place to start is who makes up the committee. All of the voting members on the nominating committee are alumni, and that’s very important. These alumni are appointed by the executive committee of the Harvard Alumni Association, which is our volunteer alumni leadership. In addition, the committee includes three current or recent Overseers, who provide essential guidance because, of course, they know just what an Overseer is required to do, what their responsibilities are.
SID ESPINOSA: We seek to identify candidates for the Board of Overseers and for the elected director role for Harvard — two very different roles. This committee meets several times throughout the year to have very deliberate, rigorous, consensus-building conversations in order to create a slate of candidates that all alumni can then vote on. Harvard really is unique in the selection process for the representative bodies that govern the institution, specifically that alumni are selecting the candidates for these boards, that alumni make up the nominating committee, and that alumni then vote [for their fellow alumni]. That may seem to us as a fair and obvious democratic process, but at most private institutions of our size and stature, that is not the case.
GAZETTE: What does the work mean to you and how do you see your responsibility?
ROGER FAIRFAX: Most of my time and energy went into surveying and reviewing the tremendous diversity of backgrounds represented among the possible candidates for overseer and elected directors — and taking the time to really take in that range of diversity, accomplishment, and perspective that is represented among the Harvard alumni community. It was a tremendous amount of work but quite rewarding.
ESPINOSA: Prior to being on this committee, I served as an HAA elected director and before that, I served as a member of the Board of Trustees for Wesleyan University, where I was an undergrad. So, I know and appreciate how important it is to have governing bodies that understand the perspectives of students and alumni, with members who come from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, and who are really thinking about the future of the institution — what it wants to be, if it’s living up to its values and creating an inclusive culture. I think you’ll find a common theme among nominating committee members, that they are people who really care about the institution and want to ensure that its governing bodies are well-run and representative, and so we are honored to be part of a process to do that.
GAZETTE: Tell me a bit more about what motivated you to serve in this way — and what you learned by being on the committee.
JUNE NAGAO: My interest actually started [because] I’m on the board of the Harvard Club of Japan, and was a past director for HAA’s Asia-Pacific Alumni Clubs. A group of us former and current directors out here, with the help of Alice Hill [former president, HAA], created an informal group to promote activities across Asia. One of the things that we wanted to do was to increase the number of international alumni who were participating in the [Harvard] elections. But when we got together, we realized very quickly that we actually didn’t really know what the Board of Overseers did, which was incredibly embarrassing for us, since we considered ourselves some of the more-engaged alumni. That really got me started on this journey of learning about how Harvard governance works and what the Board does.
GAZETTE: Roger, you mentioned reviewing the backgrounds of many candidates. How does the committee narrow down the field? Take us inside the process.
FAIRFAX: The advance work we did was crucial. We talked about the criteria that the committee would apply in order to select potential candidates. In applying those criteria, we sort the candidates in different ways; for example, you look at things like depth of demonstrated commitment to the University, engagement with the University, and particular skill sets that would complement the group. You’re thinking about what candidates have to offer individually but also how they would work together as an entering cohort, and how they would work with the existing members of the governing boards.
LOVEJOY: Roger’s point about the kinds of members the Board of Overseers needs in a given year is an important one, and I’ve seen how responsive the nominating committee is to that. For example, there might be a need for candidates coming from a particular discipline, or with experience in public service, or having been an institutional leader. Only a group like this one — dedicated, exceptionally thoughtful and knowledgeable about the needs of the institution, and willing to put in the hard work — could do what the committee does.
ESPINOSA: Harvard alumni have done some amazing things, and there are so many people who would be great to serve on these boards. So, it is very difficult to narrow down that list to a very small slate of candidates. It takes a lot of time, and this is a committee of alumni volunteers, so they are not getting paid for this extensive engagement, but it’s worth it. It’s a great experience. I enjoy the debates, and there’s real commitment and rigor that the nominating committee puts into the process. I think we ended up with great results this year.
GAZETTE: What can you tell us about this year’s slate?
ESPINOSA: This slate represents the great diversity of alumni — represented in different fields of study and different professions, different ties to the University, different geographic areas, and all of the other different ways that we think about diversity amongst Harvard alumni. This is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s so important to have that type of diversity for good decision-making, so the nominating committee takes that very seriously and is always looking for people who want to serve Harvard.
FAIRFAX: I am very proud to have been a part of a process that produces such a diverse and representative and talented and accomplished and dynamic cohort of alumni, alumni who will be able to contribute on Day One. And I really do think that the Harvard alumni community — the voters — can be very excited about this slate of potential overseers.
NAGAO: One of the most exciting parts about serving on the committee was learning more about how many amazing alumni are in our community. There are a number of fascinating people that I want to meet now.
LOVEJOY: It’s extraordinary work, especially these last two years having to meet virtually — the consensus-building and trying to read a room when you’re meeting virtually can be challenging. But the committee’s work resulted in the slate that represents an incredible array of alumni, from artists to scientists, educators to business leaders. Voters should be very excited about this slate.
GAZETTE: Let’s talk a bit more about the nominating committee itself. What can you tell us about the members, and how you all worked together?
LOVEJOY: As someone who has had the pleasure of watching this group work, I can say there are many different perspectives and viewpoints. It’s also worth mentioning that the bylaws of the Alumni Association require that we have one member who’s graduated in the last 10 years and one within the last 15 years as well. And we’re working hard to do even more to engage younger alumni.
GAZETTE: How does that diversity of the committee play out? What does it bring to your work?
FAIRFAX: The range of eras, the range of Schools represented, of alumni volunteer experiences — all of that contributed to a very rich and productive discussion. I learned something from every meeting. I learned more about Harvard, more about the board, and even more about myself. It really was a rewarding experience, all tied together by a common commitment.
NAGAO: I really appreciated the range of experiences, too. We had several former and current elected directors, including Sid, who were able to bring their personal experiences to the nominating process and help guide us. And it was fantastic to have current overseers on the committee as well; they were able to share their perspectives of what the board is and what the board needs. That direct interaction was extremely educational.
GAZETTE: How are alumni involved in the process throughout?
FAIRFAX: This is a participatory process. The alumni volunteers roll up their sleeves, and they ultimately consider all of the candidates and then select those candidates who are then presented to the broader alumni community for election. So, it is truly a process that is driven by alumni volunteers — and as a result represents the alumni community in a profound way.
What I found during my term on the nominating committee is that nine times out of 10, when committee discussion focused on how a candidate might perform, there was a testimonial offered about the individual. A committee member might know the candidate personally or they may have heard from another Harvard alum who knew first-hand that the candidate performed very well on a committee or really stepped up when there was a task that needed to be completed.
ESPINOSA: As I suggested earlier, the level of engagement by alumni in the process — being able to select who those board members will be, to vote for them — you really don’t see at our peer institutions. While Harvard’s process and procedure has changed since its early days, this isn’t something that’s new. It’s a commitment of the institution, and it’s only gotten better over time. I’m proud that this is part of our history, of our culture, that we have sustained it, and that it continues to lead to really good results.
NAGAO: I believe that we’re also the only University that allows alumni to elect the entire slate of the Board of Overseers. The boards of most universities, including other Ivies, will have much fewer board seats that are directly elected by the alumni body, if they have any at all. We have this incredibly unique opportunity, so it would be great to increase the participation of alumni. I would add that the advent of online voting [in 2018], thanks to the advocacy of alumni, has been fantastic in doing that. That’s been really important for the international community by giving us easier access to voting.
GAZETTE: What advice do you have for alumni who might want to help identify candidates or even be considered as a candidate?
FAIRFAX: Think about your own networks of Harvard alumni, friends, acquaintances, people you’ve encountered since you graduated, even if you didn’t know them when in School. Also, when you’re looking at potential candidates for these boards, look in the mirror as well, right? And if you want to think about this sort of involvement, my advice would be to engage — and it doesn’t have to be formal engagement. You don’t have to be the leader of a Harvard-affiliated entity [like a club or shared-interest-group] at first.
NAGAO: I think some alumni ask, “Why should we vote? We have a list of people who come in the ballot every year, and we’re not really quite sure what we’re voting for.” What I say is that the Board of Overseers provides advice to the president and to each of the various Schools on various issues that are important to the University at that particular time, and the Board runs the visitation process, which regularly assesses the quality of academic programs across Harvard. So, by selecting these Overseers, the alumni really are selecting people who make a direct contribution and difference to the University. It really is important for alumni to take a look at the list of Overseers candidates. If they have time, [they can] search out information online, check out their backgrounds, because everyone is fantastic.
GAZETTE: What do you say to alumni who want to be more engaged in the voting process?
ESPINOSA: We know that democratic processes require the engagement of everyone to make good decisions, and there is a lot of work that is put into identifying candidates for these two very important boards. And unfortunately, we really don’t yet have an alumni base that as actively involved as they could be in making that decision. The good news is that the numbers are increasing with online voting. I think there’s a real commitment from the University to build transparency around this whole process. But at the end of the day, it’s the vote that will tell us whether or not we have been successful, and I implore alumni to get involved in this process and to use your voice through voting.
NAGAO: Some graduate school alumni may feel that the elections may not pertain as much to them, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, because the work of the Overseers and the visiting committees spans the entire University and includes all the Schools, not just the College.
FAIRFAX: I do urge and encourage all of my fellow alumni to consider the slates that we have presented, to vote, and to think about how you yourself can re-engage with Harvard, both at the local level and then also with the Harvard Alumni Association. I have — and I guarantee you will find that it is a truly rewarding experience that will allow you to explore the various ways you can contribute to the next generation of beneficiaries of Harvard’s presence on the educational landscape. And vote!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more on this year’s elections and the candidates.