Campus & Community

Sewell Chan is elected Class of 1998’s chief marshal

Leader in the field of nonprofit news, Chan is award-winning editor and longtime mentor

8 min read
Sewell Chan.

Following a tradition that goes back more than 120 years, Sewell Chan was elected by his classmates as chief marshal for the Class of 1998’s 25th reunion.

A distinguished journalist whose work has informed national conversations on issues such as criminal justice reform, equity for communities of color, the future of journalism, and much more, Sewell Chan ’98 will serve as this year’s chief marshal of alumni, the Harvard Alumni Association announced today.

In his decades working in journalism, Chan has written for the nation’s most revered and read publications, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Currently, he is editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, which he describes as part of “a new generation of nonprofit newsrooms,” including ProPublica, The Marshall Project (led by Carroll Bogert ’83 and Susan Chira ’80), and Chalkbeat (founded by Elizabeth Green ’06).

Following a tradition that goes back more than 120 years, Chan was elected by his classmates and will play a number of ceremonial roles in celebration of their 25th reunion. In June, he will lead the alumni parade as part of Harvard Alumni Day and host a special luncheon in Widener Library, where University leadership convene with a small group of alumni leaders and other dignitaries, including the Harvard Medalists and the Alumni Day featured speaker.

Chan said he was “surprised, honored, and humbled” to be chosen and called his classmates also nominated for marshal “kind, inspiring people in important leadership roles who are all fantastic representatives of our class.”

Alumni will be able to reconnect in person for Harvard Alumni Day, reunions, and other alumni programs across the campus. Events will be simultaneously live streamed for those who cannot attend in person. Last year marked the first-ever Harvard Alumni Day.

“Sewell has dedicated his life to educating and informing his readers and to advocating for the power of journalism, noble and necessary work he has pursued with excellence and integrity,” said Allyson Mendenhall ’90, M.L.A ’99, HAA president. “Like the countless Harvard alumni whose impact we see all around us, Sewell has also given back to his profession — as mentor and leader in advancing access of news media to diverse communities. We are proud he joins the illustrious company of the chief marshals before him.”

At The Texas Tribune, Chan leads coverage of government, public policy, politics, and statewide issues that impact the lives of 30 million Texans. The Tribune’s work is free to republish, Chan explained, “so that Texas’ local news outlets can focus on what they do best.”

Chan sees the most pressing debate for his profession as how to “build a civic information ecosystem” at a time when “the digital transformation of journalism continues, and coverage of state and local news has severely diminished.” He notes statistics that show one in five Americans lives in a “news desert,” with almost no high-quality local coverage. “Numerous studies have found that the loss of such news coverage is associated with intensifying polarization, the rise of misinformation, erosion of trust in institutions, lower civic engagement, and even higher taxes — because there are fewer watchdogs to cover public entities and how they spend taxpayer dollars.”

His leadership of The Tribune’s newsroom earned the team a national Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence among large digital newsrooms as well as an award for breaking news, for their coverage of the tragic mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, from the Online News Association.

Prior to his work at The Tribune, Chan was a deputy managing editor and then the editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times, where he oversaw Robert Greene’s columns on criminal justice reform, which were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2021. Chan was the author of the lead editorial in “Our Reckoning with Racism,” the L.A. Times’ 2020 project that took a critical look at the paper’s own record with communities of color and employees of color. The work earned a special citation by the Society of Professional Journalists.

From 2004 to 2018, Chan held diverse roles at The New York Times, including metro reporter, Washington correspondent, deputy op-ed editor, and international news editor. He helped start The Times’ local news blog and launch its award-winning Op-Docs series. Articles he edited for the op-ed section would go on to be developed into books, including “The Great Divide” (2015) by Joseph E. Stiglitz and “The People Vs. Democracy” (2018) by Yascha Mounk, Ph.D. ’15.

Chan got his start as a local reporter at The Washington Post in 2000 and won several regional honors for local reporting in his four years there.

A widely respected editor and writer, Chan has been recognized with numerous fellowships and awards, including the Marshall Memorial Fellowship of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a U.S. nonprofit that promotes trans-Atlantic relations. He has been named an outstanding leader by the Asian American Journalists Association, and has been selected for bilateral “young leader” programs organized by the French-American Foundation (2009), the American Council on Germany (2014), and the U.S.-Japan Foundation (2019).

In addition to his degree in social studies from Harvard, he earned a master’s in political science from Oxford, where he studied on a Marshall Scholarship.Chan, a child of immigrants, explained his connection to Harvard is deeply personal. “As the first college graduate in my family, I was given opportunities that my ancestors never could have imagined. I am thrilled that Harvard today enrolls a substantial number of first-generation and low-income undergraduates.”

At Harvard, he was a student leader, was active in service and campus multicultural life, and wrote for campus media. As co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, a standout experience for him, Chan said he “learned about leadership and community-building.” He worked for Harvard Magazine as a Ledecky undergraduate writing fellow. He was on the student advisory committee for the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, was active in the First-Year Urban Program and served as an ESL tutor in Boston’s Chinatown as part of his work with the Phillips Brooks House Association.

His experience as a reporter and co-executive editor for The Harvard Crimson also left a lasting impression. “I learned how to report accurately and write quickly and covered several events that made national news.”

As an alumnus, he has held volunteer leadership positions for his class reunion campaigns and currently serves on the Harvard Magazine board of directors.

He added: “In a time of great disruption and turmoil, like the one we live in, Harvard stands for pursuit of knowledge and freedom of inquiry and expression. I’m proud to be part of a global, multigenerational community of alumni who believe in these universal values and hope that Harvard can contribute to a more fair and just world.”

Chan serves on the boards of the Pulitzer Prizes and the Livingston Awards for young journalists, as well as the boards of Freedom House (a nonprofit organization advocating for democracy and human rights, led by Michael Abramowitz ’85) and the Columbia Journalism Review.

He is also a member of PEN America and the Council on Foreign Relations, and has served as a volunteer juror for major journalism awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the Knight International Journalism Award, and the National Magazine Awards.

His professional service has focused on a commitment to making his field more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, including mentorship of journalism students and early career journalists and membership in a host of professional organizations like the Asian American Journalists Association; the News Leaders Association; and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists, among others. He has remarked that his “proudest professional achievement is the dozens of journalists I’ve mentored, hired, helped get hired or connected with professional opportunities — many of them people of color, women, LGBTQ+, from rural communities, first-generation college graduates, and military veterans.”

Since 1899, the 25th College Reunion class has been charged with selecting a chief marshal based on criteria that include success in one’s field as well as service to both the University and the broader society. As this year’s chief marshal, Chan joins a list of illustrious alumni who have held the position, including former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith ’94, who was last year’s featured Harvard Alumni Day speaker; astronaut Stephanie Wilson ’88; Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Linda Greenhouse ’68; City Year co-founder Alan Khazei ’83; former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ’86; and former Rhode Island Gov. (now Secretary of Commerce) Gina M. Raimondo ’93.