Bill Ackman backs four outsider candidates for Harvard board

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By Dan Sears

Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman pressed his campaign to revamp Harvard — after helping to force university president Claudine Gay to resign from his alma mater — by backing four alums in their bid to join its board of overseers.

Ackman — who has been engaged in a bitter public feud with Business Insider over the publication’s report about his wife’s alleged plagiarism — endorsed the four write-in candidates in an echo of his playbook as an activist shareholder, pursuing board seats at companies to push for changes.

“Harvard needs to change. Bringing fresh young blood onto the board of overseers can help with that,” Ackman, who has donated about $50 million to Harvard, said in an interview with Reuters late Tuesday.

The Renew Harvard members are Zoe Bedell, Logan Leslie, Julia Pollak, and Alec Williams, who variously earned undergraduate, law and business degrees from Harvard.

The development represents a new challenge to the board, whose 30 members are typically nominated by the university’s alumni association. 

Hedge fund manager and Harvard alum Bill Ackman is backing four dissident alumni to join his alma mater’s board of overseers. Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

It is the school’s second-highest governing body, behind the embattled Harvard Corporation, with the power to approve or reject the hiring of Harvard’s next president. Each year, five seats on the board are up for election.

Ackman has criticized Harvard for not doing enough to protect its students from antisemitism incidents in the wake of last October’s deadly attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel and subsequent Israeli military operations in Gaza, as well as for the university’s adoption of diversity and inclusion programs he argues stifle meritocracy.

The board candidates Ackman is backing are “talented, accomplished and motivated people, and their candidacy will serve as a wakeup call for Harvard,” he said.

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The four range in age from 36 to 38, and all have served in the US military.

A Harvard spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a position paper reviewed by Reuters, the four candidates said they want the university to protect free speech, protect students from bullying and harassment, and address financial mismanagement, including at the school’s $50.7 billion endowment.

The endowment’s investments delivered returns of 2.9% in fiscal 2023, deeply underperforming the broader market’s nearly 20% gain.

Ackman is throwing his support behind Zoe Bedell to join Harvard’s board of overseers. Bedell is an attorney in the Washington, DC, office of law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. CNAS

Ackman has accused the Cambridge, Mass., institution of mismanaging and wasting some of his gifts. His hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management oversees $18 billion in assets, and returned about 27% last year.

Because the Renew Harvard members are not being nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association, they must gather at least 3,300 signatures from the Ivy League school’s graduates — equivalent to 1% of those entitled to vote — by the end of January to run for election to the board in the spring.

Turnout among Harvard graduates in such votes has been low, with the participation rate last year coming in at less than 8.1%, according to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.

Logan Leslie, another dissident alumni being supported by Ackman, is the CEO and founder of Northern Rock, an infrastructure and construction services company based out of Atlanta. LinkedIn

The last successful board 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.

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.

Fellow Harvard board of overseers candidate Julia Pollack is the chief economist at online employment marketplace ZipRecruiter. Julia Pollak/X
Alec Williams is also being endorsed by Ackman. Because the four alumni are not being nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association, they must gather at least 3,300 signatures from Harvard graduates by the end of January to qualify to run for election to the board. Alec Williams/X

‘OUTSIDERS WITH A MISSION’

Gay, the university’s first black president, stepped down on Jan. 2, just six months into her role, after facing allegations of plagiarism and a backlash over her congressional testimony about antisemitism on campus. Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost and chief academic officer, was named interim president.

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Ackman has claimed that Business Insiders expose on his wife, former MIT professor Neri Oxman, was in retaliation for his crusade to push out Gay.

The board of overseers is not as powerful as the Harvard Corporation, a smaller governing body with direct oversight over the university’s operations, but still exercises influence. REUTERS

Williams said he got to know Ackman when he worked briefly at the investor’s family foundation six years ago, before returning to his home state of Idaho.

Williams also knew Leslie, an entrepreneur in Atlanta, from business school and Bedell, an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, from college. They said in interviews they discussed launching a campaign to join the board of overseers at the end of December, motivated by concerns about the university’s direction. Williams began drafting their position paper on Christmas Eve.

“While we are outsiders, we are outsiders with a mission for renewing the very heart of the university,” Williams, a real estate entrepreneur and former Navy officer, told Reuters.

Pollak, chief economist at online employment marketplace ZipRecruiter, was already running as a write-in candidate and then joined the group.

All four said they are driven by their love for Harvard, which has educated eight US presidents, from John Adams to Barack Obama.

“The institution is not doomed, but it needs some outside voices on the board to demand better leadership in the administration,” Leslie said.

The four candidates have said the endowment’s most recent returns do not cover Harvard’s operating costs, pushing undergraduate tuition to almost $80,000 annually, financially out of reach for most students. They want the endowment to perform at “market standards” and the school to cut administrative costs.

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Claudine Gay resigned as Harvard’s president earlier this month following mounting plagiarism allegations after her disastrous congressional testimony about on-campus antisemitism. Ackman has said that Gay’s resignation from the school is not enough to fix its reputation. David McGlynn

SIX-YEAR TERMS

The board of overseers is not as powerful as the Harvard Corporation, a smaller governing body with direct oversight over the university’s operations, but 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.

Overseers serve terms lasting six years. In 2020, following the victory of the Harvard Forward candidates, the overseers and the Corporation jointly agreed to change the rules to make it harder for candidates to be elected without alumni association backing.

The overseers and Corporation argued that keeping nominations wide open let special interests hijack the process, akin to political campaigns. Only six overseers who got on the ballot through a petition are now allowed to serve on the board at any one time.

Others are also trying to mount write-in campaigns this year, including technology entrepreneur Sam Lessin and attorney Harvey Silverglate.

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