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Harvard candidates backed by Bill Ackman and Mark Zuckerberg fail to get on the ballot for board election

<i>Stephanie Keith/Getty Images</i><br/>Former Merck CEO Ken Frazier is joining Harvard University’s top board.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Former Merck CEO Ken Frazier is joining Harvard University’s top board.

By Matt Egan, CNN

New York (CNN) — Outsiders vying to reform Harvard University – and backed by billionaires Bill Ackman and Mark Zuckerberg – have failed in their quest to join the school’s Board of Overseers.

Despite the high-profile backing from Ackman and Zuckerberg, the write-in candidates did not gather enough signatures to make it onto the ballot this spring when alumni vote for candidates on the university’s second-most powerful governing board.

That failure prompted some of them to complain that Harvard imposed obstacles that suppressed the vote – a charge the university flatly denies.

Normally, candidates for the 30-member Harvard Board of Overseers are nominated by the university’s alumni association. However, that process was challenged this year by dissident candidates frustrated by the turmoil at Harvard.

Ackman, taking a page out of his Wall Street playbook as an activist investor, backed a slate of four outsider candidates who are all US military veterans between the age of 36 and 38. None of the candidates on the slate, known as Renew Harvard, were able to gather the required 3,238 votes, according to Logan Leslie, one of the candidates.

ZipRecruiter economist Julia Pollak said her campaign received 2,732 nominations in the span of just three-and-a-half weeks.

“We’ll start earlier next time and are confident we’ll succeed with your help.” Pollak said in a post on X.

Leslie, another Ackman-backed candidate, said his group came “exceptionally close in a short amount of time.”

“With another week, and/or without the obstacles that Harvard has in place that suppresses alum voting, we would have undoubtedly pulled it off,” Leslie said in a post on X.

Ackman declined to comment.

Facebook billionaire Zuckerberg held a virtual event late last month supporting Sam Lessin, another write-in candidate aiming to reform Harvard by trying to make it onto the ballot.

Lessin, a venture capitalist and former Facebook executive, told supporters that his campaign fell just 337 votes shy of the required amount and expressed frustration with a “broken process” that prevented “many alumni from voting. Lessin has previously said that hundreds of Harvard alumni who wanted to back him were unable to do so because they were blocked by the university’s online user credential system.

“There is absolutely no question in my mind that with a properly functioning election process we would have secured those extra 337 votes and more,” Lessin said. “This is not okay and I intend to make sure that these issues are addressed.”

Last week, Ackman accused Harvard of “election interference,” a charge echoed by Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, who said the university is “inappropriately interfering” with the election.

It is true that Harvard has made changes to how write-in candidates can get on the ballot. However, those changes pre-dated the recent turmoil at the university.

A Harvard spokesperson told CNN that “nothing about the process for collecting signatures to support petition candidates changed this year.”

For instance, in 2016 the threshold for signatures was increased to 1% of the prior year’s eligible voters and the process was moved online.

Despite that new threshold, in 2020 three write-in candidates were able to get elected to the Board of Overseers. In fact, four of the current members of the Board of Overseers were write-in candidates who met the signature threshold.

New Harvard Corporation members

Meanwhile, Harvard announced fresh faces for the Harvard Corporation, the even more powerful board that calls the shots at the university.

Former Merck CEO Ken Frazier and KKR co-CEO Joseph Bae are joining Harvard University’s top board as the Ivy League school seeks to turn the page on a tumultuous period.

Harvard announced the changes on Sunday evening, saying Frazier will start Wednesday to fill the open seat on the Harvard Corporation, the powerful yet secretive board under fire its handling of the recent controversies. Bae is set to join the board on July 1, replacing Paul Finnegan when his term expires.

The two business leaders will be fresh faces on the Harvard Corporation as the board searches for a new leader to replace former President Claudine Gay, who stepped down under pressure last month amid scrutiny of her academic writings and her testimony before Congress about antisemitism.

“Our work is sure to benefit from their leadership qualities, their wide-ranging expertise and experience and their devotion to Harvard and higher education,” said Alan Garber, Harvard’s interim president, and Penny Pritzker, who leads the Corporation. “We know that they share a commitment to academic freedom, inclusion and the pursuit of excellence in Harvard’s mission of teaching and research.”

Harvard said that after a “deliberative process” led by members of the university’s top two boards, Frazier and Bae were elected on Sunday by the Corporation, which is led by Pritzker, a billionaire megadonor to the Democratic Party who has faced calls to step down following the resignation of Gay.

Frazier, who graduated Harvard Law School in 1978, served as CEO of Merck and sat on the board of ExxonMobil, is widely respected in the business community.

In 2017, Frazier quit former President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council in response to Trump’s initial failure to condemn white supremacists. In 2021, he was named CEO of the year by Chief Executive magazine. Today, he works for venture capital firm General Catalyst.

In a message to the Harvard community, Garber described Frazier as an “acclaimed leader, lawyer and advocate for opportunity” and noted that in 2020 he won the Anti-Defamation League’s Courage Against Hate Award.

Bae graduated from Harvard in 1994 and today he’s one of the most powerful private equity executives in the world. He became co-CEO of KKR in 2021 and has helped lead the firm’s push into Asia.

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