Mark Zuckerberg joins struggle over Harvard’s future

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg jumped into the fight over Harvard University’s future on Friday, the latest prominent business leader to do so at a moment of turmoil for the elite university.

Zuckerberg hosted a virtual event in support of Sam Lessin, a Silicon Valley investor and former Harvard classmate of Zuckerberg’s who became an early executive at Facebook. Lessin is running for a slot on the Harvard Board of Overseers, a governing body made up of alumni that, according to Harvard, “provides counsel” to leadership on priorities and has a voice in some decisions such as election of members of the Harvard Corporation.

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Lessin has said his candidacy is about restoring excellence to a university that he believes has lost its way. He has accused the previous administration of failing to respond to rising antisemitism on campus during the Israel-Gaza war.

During Friday’s event, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan stayed away from hot-button topics such as race and the ouster earlier this month of Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president. But their presence at an event backing a candidate who criticized Gay and Harvard’s handling of campus speech issues shows how wealthy donors are increasingly willing to use their clout to shape the school. Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, a Harvard donor who led the charge to oust Gay, has proposed his own slate of candidates for the Board of Overseers.

“Harvard has the unique ability to shape the whole field of higher education, which is obviously important to training whole generations of people,” Zuckerberg said. “Sam is the type of person I would want to be involved in governing Harvard.”

Lessin, Ackman and others are part of a cohort of business leaders who say they’re concerned about the politicization of campus life, diversity initiatives that they say have gone too far, and what they call a double standard around free speech - claiming that antisemitic speech was not condemned strongly enough, especially compared with the school’s response to other events such as the killing of George Floyd. These concerns, along with allegations of plagiarism, led to Gay’s ouster after just a few months in office.

Amid campus tensions that arose amid the Israel-Gaza war, some students, alumni, donors and others - including Lessin - thought her responses were too late and too tepid.

The situation worsened in December when a U.S. House committee grilled Gay, along with the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, over antisemitism on their campuses. In tense exchanges with lawmakers, Gay and the other presidents, repeatedly declined to say that calling for the genocide of Jews on campus would violate the school’s policies.

Gay’s answers were viewed by many as unfeeling and tone-deaf, and although she later apologized, political leaders, major donors and others called for her resignation.

Allegations of plagiarism in her scholarly work surfaced and were amplified by her critics, and in early January, she resigned.

The school’s provost and chief academic officer, Alan M. Garber, was named interim president.

Some alumni, politicians and others also posted scathing remarks on social media about the highly opaque Harvard Corporation - the university’s most powerful governing board, which is formally named the President and Fellows of Harvard College - its selection of Gay and handling of the recent controversies. Some called for the Corporation’s senior fellow, Penny Pritzker, to resign. And some alumni launched campaigns for a seat on another university governing body, the Board of Overseers.

Ackman is also backing his own slate of candidates for the board of overseers.

Lessin is aiming to get 3,300 write-in nominations from Harvard alumni for the 2024 Spring Overseers ballot by Jan. 31.

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