Chagrin in Crimson : Berkeley Anti-Apartheid Slate for Harvard Board Causes Stir

Times Staff Writer

The thought of three anti-apartheid activists from Berkeley campaigning for seats on a board that oversees Harvard University’s policies has some of the Brahmins at Harvard atwitter.

As the May 30 deadline to vote approaches for Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the Berkeley slate, which wants Harvard to sell its $416 million in stocks in companies that do business in South Africa, is charging the Harvard Alumni Assn. and the president of the Board of Overseers with unfair campaign tactics.

In all, 13 candidates are running for five open seats on the 30-member board, which counts as its members a former Cabinet secretary, the current deputy secretary of state, an ambassador, two federal judges and assorted educators, attorneys and corporate executives.

Of the 13 candidates, 10 were nominated by the Harvard Alumni Assn. The Berkeley slate--a deputy state public defender who lives in Berkeley, a UC Berkeley architecture teacher, and a doctoral candidate in sociology--got on the ballot by gathering enough signatures of Harvard graduates on petitions.


While such write-in campaigns have occurred in the past, no one now involved can recall any campaign causing such a stir. The problem arose earlier this month when ballots began arriving at the homes of 160,000 Harvard alumni across the nation.

In the packet of information, the Harvard Alumni Assn. described the 10 candidates it had nominated as “representing a diversity of backgrounds and experience,” and said they were picked for their “intellectual capacity, personal achievement, judgment, broad scope (and) ability to work with others.”

The statement reserved a single sentence for the Berkeley slate, describing the candidates merely as “self-nominated.”

John Plotz, the state deputy public defender, and his co-candidates have leveled an array of criticism at the university’s handling of the election. Plotz was particularly disturbed by a letter sent along with ballots from Joan Bok, president of the Board of Overseers and chairwoman of the New England Electric System.


Charging the Berkeley slate sought to “press a specific issue,” Bok said that if the board “were to become a body made up of members elected primarily to press a particular policy, it would be a very different board than it has been heretofore.”

Plotz, Kenneth Simmons and Gay Seidman responded with a letter Monday to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, accusing Bok of an “unprecedented act of electioneering.”

“Our intention is not to tweak Harvard,” Plotz said, maintaining that his is not a single-issue campaign. “Our intention is to get Harvard to divest. That is a legitimate and reasonable position.”

The Board of Overseers is one of two governing boards at Harvard. The overseers’ primary concern is with broad matters of university policy, particularly concerning academics, while the Board of Governors handles most administrative matters.


A Harvard spokesman said most of the companies in which Harvard holds stock do less than 3% of their business in South Africa. The university already has sold off some of its holdings in companies because of their practices in South Africa.

There undoubtedly were times in the past when Board of Overseers elections took on such tones. The board is, after all, more than 300 years old. But for the most part, they have been “nice little elections,” noted Jonathan Moses, news editor of the Crimson, which is to run an editorial today critical of the alumni association’s handling of the election.

“I’m not at all surprised that it would be California candidates who are raising the issue,” said Roderic B. Park, a Berkeley-based member of the Board of Overseers and a vice chancellor of the University of California. “Let me put it this way, I’m much more accustomed to this sort of thing than some of the people in New England might be.”

“Everywhere I go, it is being discussed,” said U.S. District Judge George N. Leighton, a board member from Chicago, noting that many fellow members are “concerned” while others doubt the Berkeley candidates will win.


“I think they have some mistaken ideas about what the Board of Overseers does. They’ll find out if they are elected.”

The candidacy does trouble some other candidates, among them Theodore B. Lee, chairman of a San Francisco real estate firm.

“I hate to see Harvard and other institutions politicized,” Lee said.