By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
(Reuters) -Billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who led a campaign criticizing Harvard University as it has been rocked by turmoil over practices related to antisemitism, plagiarism and financial management, on Friday failed in a bid to get four candidates on the ballot for a governing board of the Ivy League school.
One other candidate backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also failed to win a place on the ballot for Harvard’s board of overseers.
The two men, who acted independently, threw support behind the candidates after Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned last month amid criticism of her handling of antisemitism on campus in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and claims of plagiarism in her earlier academic career.
Gay and Harvard have denied the allegations. Gay, who was Harvard’s first Black president, said in a statement at the time that stepping down was in the best interest of the Ivy League school given the controversy.
The board of overseers is the school’s second-highest governing body, with the power to approve or reject the hiring of Harvard’s president. Each year, five seats on the 30-member board are up for election, and only Harvard alumni are eligible to vote.
Some of the candidates said that Harvard informed them late on Friday that they did not meet the required threshold to get on the ballot. Zoe Bedell, one of four candidates backed by Ackman, said she, Alec Williams, Logan Leslie and Julia Pollak received between 2,300 and 2,700 votes each. Sam Lessin, the candidate backed by Zuckerberg, said Harvard told him he received 2,901 votes. Securing a spot on the ballot required 3,238 votes.
The vote for the board occurs later this year.
The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ballot results.
Ackman also did not respond to a request for comment.
Ackman, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and for business school and has donated about $50 million to the university, has been among the most vocal critics of Gay and her management on campus. He told Reuters earlier this year that Harvard needs change and the slate he backed would bring fresh blood to the board.
The Harvard Alumni Association interviews and puts forward candidates to a vote, and those who want to get on the ballot without the association’s blessing — as the candidates supported by Zuckerberg and Ackman attempted — face long odds.
In 2016, Harvard increased the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot when not endorsed by the association from 200 to 1% of those who were entitled to vote in the previous election.
Harvard has argued that keeping nominations wide open lets special interests hijack the process, akin to political campaigns.
A MESSAGE THAT “RESONATED”
Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president and former U.S. Treasury secretary, earlier this week spoke in favor of dissident candidates. “Everyone who can, should support challenges to Harvard’s traditional leadership from Sam Lessin, Harvey Silverglate, Alec Williams and others,” he wrote on social media platform X.
Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to launch Facebook in 2004 and has committed to give $500 million to study artificial intelligence, threw his weight behind Lessin, an investor and former colleague at the social media giant.
Ackman supported a group of four candidates called Renew Harvard, which called for upholding free speech, protecting students from bullying and harassment, and addressing financial mismanagement at the university.
The group pointed to the university’s $50.7 billion endowment delivering a return of 2.9% in fiscal 2023, deeply underperforming the broader market’s nearly 20% gain. Ackman shared this criticism.
The alumni in the Renew Harvard slate were Bedell, an assistant U.S. attorney; entrepreneur Leslie, who buys and runs small businesses at Northern Rock; former Navy officer and investor Williams; and Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.
“It is clear our message really resonated with the Harvard community given that we were able to get so many votes in just three weeks, so we know these issues are important and will not be abandoning them,” Bedell told Reuters.
The Renew Harvard group plans to try again next year to become write-in candidates on the ballot, Bedell said.
A number of other candidates including historian Todd Fine and attorney Silverglate also mounted campaigns.
The board of overseers is not as powerful as the smaller Harvard Corporation, which has direct oversight over the university’s operations, yet it still exercises influence. The primary tool of the overseers is the so-called visitation process, which lets them ask questions of Harvard’s faculty and departments and carry out assessments.
The last successful challenges came in 2020 and 2021, when Harvard Forward, a coalition of graduates that urged the university’s endowment to divest from fossil fuels, got four candidates elected on the board of overseers.
In 1989, dissident alumni backed a petition to elect Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the board in a push to get Harvard to divest its investment holdings in companies that did business in South Africa during the time of racial apartheid.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-BaylissEditing by Greg Roumeliotis and Leslie Adler)