Bill Ackman backs outsider candidates for Harvard board

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Bill Ackman, the US hedge fund billionaire who led a successful campaign for the resignation of Harvard’s president Claudine Gay, is stepping up his shareholder activist tactics against his alma mater by backing four external candidates for its governing body.

The Renew Harvard group, which is seeking election to Harvard’s 30-person board of overseers this spring, says it wants to “restore leadership excellence at Harvard”, uphold free speech and academic standards, protect students and “remedy operational and endowment mismanagement”.

In an interview with Reuters, which first reported his backing of the campaign, Ackman said: “Harvard needs to change. Bringing fresh young blood on to the board of overseers can help with that . . . their candidacy will serve as a wake-up call for Harvard.”

The action comes at a time of intensifying scrutiny of elite universities sparked by campus demonstrations around the Israel-Hamas conflict, discussions over freedom of speech and wider debates on their governance and diversity in the build-up to the US presidential election this year.

Hundreds of Harvard academics have criticised external interference as political and a threat to freedom of speech on campus.

Ackman has been vocal through messages to his 1.1mn followers on X in calling for the resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, both of whom have since quit, as well as the head of MIT, following their widely panned appearances at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus.

He has also called for Penny Pritzker, the chair of the 12-person Harvard Corporation, to step down. The corporation, the more powerful governance body, exercises fiduciary responsibility and oversees “long-range strategy, policy, and planning as well as transactional matters of unusual consequence”.

After Gay’s resignation earlier this month, the corporation named Alan Garber as interim head and said the process of selecting a full-time replacement would “include broad engagement and consultation with the Harvard community in the time ahead”.

Marc Rowan, the head of Apollo Global Management, separately led a campaign against the University of Pennsylvania, which sparked the resignation of Scott Bok, chair of the board of trustees.

The four Renew candidates hope to win backing from Harvard alumni to gain seats on the board of overseers. The board works alongside the Harvard Corporation in the oversight of the Ivy League institution, including “the power of consent to certain actions such as the election of Corporation members”.

They say in their joint platform that “Harvard’s new leadership must be qualified, prepared, and committed to upholding Harvard’s policies and values for all students and faculty. A selection process that repeats the flaws of the last process will not yield change . . . We share a commitment to bringing outside voices to challenge the status quo and restore Harvard’s focus on its key values and mission.”

The Harvard alumni association typically nominates a slate, so the four Renew candidates standing independently will each need 3,238 alumni signatures by the end of January in order to be placed on the ballot.

The four are Zoe Bedell, an assistant US attorney; Logan Leslie, founder of Northern Rock, a company that “buys, operates, and grows small businesses”; Alec Williams, an investor; and Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.

Leslie told the FT that Ackman, an acquaintance of his fellow candidate Williams, had “been a sounding board” and was helping fund the campaign.

“The whole governance at Harvard is very untransparent. We are coming from a position of younger outside voices not picked by an opaque process,” he said, adding he was waiting for the university to respond to his request to see the bylaws governing its operations.

Last year more than 32,000 Harvard alumni, out of more than 400,000, voted in the election of five new overseers, who hold office for six years.

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