Billionaire Battle: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Ackman Shake Up Harvard's Board Elections

In the hallowed halls of Harvard University, a new twist in the narrative of power and governance is unfolding.

by Faruk Imamovic
Billionaire Battle: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Ackman Shake Up Harvard's Board Elections
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Each January, the Harvard university's alumni are eligible to vie for a seat on the prestigious Board of Overseers, a process typically conducted with little fanfare. However, this year's election is shrouded in a different kind of aura, one marked by the influence of billionaire alumni and a call for substantial reform.

The Billionaires' Influence

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has notably thrown his support behind Sam Lessin, a former Facebook executive and venture capitalist. Lessin, advocating for significant changes at Harvard, has become a focal point in this year's election.

His call for reform includes the resignation of Penny Pritzker, the current leader of the influential Harvard Corporation. Zuckerberg, in a virtual event, endorsed Lessin as the type of leader Harvard needs, reflecting his belief in Lessin's vision for the university.

On a parallel front, Bill Ackman, a well-known hedge fund manager, has intensified his efforts to introduce new voices onto the Board. Ackman, who previously led a campaign against former Harvard president Claudine Gay, has been critical of the university's response to various campus issues, including the handling of an anti-Israel letter from student organizations.

He has highlighted the complexity and, in his view, the obfuscation of the process for alumni to support outsider candidates. Ackman's critique extends to the governance of the university, suggesting a need for profound change.

A Contest for Governance

Typically, the Harvard Board of Overseers, consisting of 30 members, is nominated through the alumni association. In an intriguing turn, Ackman is backing a slate of four outsider candidates, all military veterans, who represent a push for new perspectives within the university's governance structure.

These candidates face the challenge of gathering over 3,200 signatures to appear on the ballot, a threshold recently raised by Harvard, adding to the complexity of the election process. Sam Lessin, while not part of Ackman's slate, shares concerns about the nominating procedure.

He suggests that it may disenfranchise alumni, a claim supported by communications from alumni who have faced difficulties in backing him due to the university's online systems. The support from influential figures like Zuckerberg and other business executives could be pivotal in overcoming these hurdles.

During his endorsement, Zuckerberg highlighted his long-standing relationship with Lessin and his confidence in Lessin's ability to guide Harvard's future. This endorsement, coupled with the ongoing debate around the election process, signals a critical moment in Harvard's history, where the balance of power and influence could shift, shaping the university's path forward.

Mark Zuckerberg