Bill Ackman, taking a page from his Wall Street playbook, backs rebel candidates to join Harvard’s board

Bill Ackman, taking a page from his Wall Street playbook, backs rebel candidates to join Harvard’s board

Jan 10,2024
New York CNN  — 

Billionaire Bill Ackman is stepping up his campaign to overhaul Harvard University by throwing his considerable influence behind a slate of four outsider candidates vying to join the university’s board of overseers.

The move by Ackman takes a page out of the playbook that made him successful on Wall Street. Activist investors like Ackman often nominate directors to join the boards of companies they are trying to transform.

Except in this case the Harvard graduate is not trying to juice the earnings-per-share of a corporation but fix what he sees as the shortfalls of a nearly 400-year-old Ivy League school facing enormous challenges. Ackman waged an intense battle against Claudine Gay, who stepped down as Harvard president last week amid a firestorm of controversy around plagiarism and campus antisemitism allegations.

Normally, candidates for the 30-member Harvard Board of Overseers are nominated by the university’s alumni association. However, Ackman is now backing four write-in candidates running under a slate called Renew Harvard, one of those candidates, Logan Leslie, told CNN on Wednesday.

The dissident candidates are all US military veterans between the age of 36 and 38, according to Leslie. They are pledging to “restore leadership excellence to Harvard,” uphold free speech, protect all students and “remedy operational and endowment mismanagement,” according to the group’s website.

“We are called to action because of recent scandal and lack of leadership at the University. We believe that fresh, outside voices are required on the board to reset its course and challenge,” Leslie, who has spent 20 years in the US military, said in a LinkedIn post.

Julia Pollak, another candidate on the slate, said in a post on X that she’s running for the Board of Overseers to “help reverse the decline of civic culture on campus.”

Pollack, a former drilling reservist in the US Navy who currently works as chief economist at ZipRecruiter, said she’s “excited about the prospect of exercising oversight together with other young outsiders eager to renew Harvard.”

“Harvard needs to change. Bringing fresh young blood onto the board of overseers can help with that,” Ackman told Reuters, which first reported news of his support for the four candidates.

The other outsiders getting endorsed by Ackman are Zoe Bedell, an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, and Alec Williams, a Navy Seal who serves as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves.

Neither Ackman nor Harvard responded to requests for comment.

New members are elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers each spring. This board is led by alumni and directs the assessment of Harvard’s schools and departments. It is separate from the Harvard Corporation, the university’s top board responsible for hiring and firing the university president.

Led by billionaire Penny Pritzker, the secretive but powerful Harvard Corporation has come under fire for its handling of the scandal surrounding Gay.

Yale professor and Harvard graduate Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told CNN last week that the Harvard Corporation deserves a failing grade because it has “damaged the brand significantly.”

Former Facebook executive Sam Lessin, another Harvard graduate also running for the Harvard Board of Overseers, has joined called for Pritzker to step down.

A Harvard spokesperson told CNN last week that Pritzker is not resigning.

In an email to supporters on Wednesday, Lessin said the fact that additional Harvard graduates are running for the board “shows real alum engagement” but also expressed concern that the breadth of the pool will make it harder for anyone to succeed.

Write-in candidates must each get 3,238 alumni nominations by January 31st, according to Renew Harvard. Lessin said that, by rule, only two write-in candidates can make it onto the ballot.

“I get Bill Ackman putting forward a ‘slate’ of 4 candidates, but the reality is that given the nature of the election rules, this is likely to hurt everyone’s ability to actually win their way onto the ballot,” Lessin said.

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