Sam Lessin for Harvard Overseers 2024

I am Running for the Harvard Board of Overseers to Help Address Glaring Leadership Failures & Requesting Support From Like Minded Alumni

My Beliefs

Harvard is worth fighting for. Many fellow alums whose voices are not represented at the University are simply walking away or withholding donations. I understand their frustration, but walking away isn’t the answer. Instead, I want to be an active part of the solution, give all alumni a voice, and work collaboratively with the current board. I genuinely love Harvard and want the students, faculty and university to thrive.

Harvard’s insulation is hurting more than it’s helping. Harvard is insulated from the outside world. It is wealthy enough to shrug off donors. Its governing Corporation is self-perpetuating. The professors have tenure etc. This insulation helps protect academic freedom – which is good. However, this insulation has also become a liability. Harvard is structurally not listening to important input from the outside. The only way forward is to find opportunities, like running for the board of Overseers that brings outsiders in.

Harvard must return to its roots as an academic institution vs. continuing down the path towards becoming a political one. Academic institutions seek to understand the world; political institutions seek to change it. Because Harvard looms large as an institution many want to leverage it as a symbol, but Harvard must not be used as a platform for political agendas. As Steve Pinker nicely framed it, “Universities are Forums not Protagonists”.

Harvard must provide a safe and positive environment for learning. Disruptions in classes, libraries, and in the middle of exams are simply not acceptable. It is absolute table stakes that students are given an environment where they can focus on their studies without disruption or political debate.

Harvard needs clear and consistently enforced rules. Double standards are not acceptable. If you embrace free speech fully, then that must be modeled at every level from leadership and consistently applied. If you believe in having a ‘code’ of speech conduct, then it needs to be clearly and plainly stated, and consistently applied. Trying to have it both ways undermines the foundation and future of the University.

Why Try To Get on The Board of Overseers?

It is Accessible (If Not Easily Accessible) When you look at opportunities to get involved as an alum / make a difference beyond donations, there aren’t many opportunities with real impact. The Board of Overseers has a path - if a hard and limited one - where with enough write-in nominations you can get on the ballot without the endorsement of HAA, and you can do it now (even if it were possible to get endorsed by HAA it would be a year + cycle). This has been done successfully before. Several of the current Board of Overseers members ran on similar styles of campaigns, all be it with very different platforms.

It Gives You a Seat at the Table, If Limited Formal Power The Overseers fundamental purview is academic review. That is exciting and important work, but not particularly powerful vs. The Corporation, etc. That said, it is at least a seat at the table with some real limited powers. It is an opportunity to be heard and be in more of the flow of information and decisions.

It is a Way for Alumni who Feel Unheard to Be Heard. Only a small minority of alums are actively engaged with HAA, and many do not feel like they are being heard by the University. They worry that only large donors have any platform with the University at all. Since the Board of Overseers is elected by the alums, I feel like running and representing the voices that aren’t being prioritized by HAA or the University is giving that community a voice in the short term (and a conduit in the future).

It is actually more powerful than most people realize. Most people think the Board of Overseers doesn’t have much power vs. the Corporation. But it is more accurate to say that the Board of Overseers hasn’t historically used much of the power that it does have under the charter of 1650 (that is still in effect). As an Overseer I would try to start to change that.

Why Me?

I care and am willing (and able) to do the work. Running a campaign to make this happen and then serving on the board of overseers is a lot of work. I have the space, bandwidth, and drive to do it.

I represent intellectual diversity for the Board of Overseers. I come from the for-profit world and have been a successful tech executive and investor. The vast majority of the Overseers today are much older, and come from the healthcare, education, or non-profit world. There is only one person on the Overseers Board who is a traditional business professional. In the day-to-day work of the board, and when it comes to opportunities to use the platform for good, I will without a doubt bring a fresh, different, and valuable perspective (especially given the huge rise in students concentrating in applied math, cs, and economics)

I know the issues of large platforms. I was an executive at Facebook when the company was initially wrestling with many of the challenges of becoming an important global platform. While I didn’t always agree with the final decisions the company made, I have seen first-hand the journey and challenges of setting and enforcing consistent rules, the tradeoffs between free speech and policies all before. There aren’t many folks who have such first-hand experience with these challenges around.

I am accessible. I am highly active on social media, I like to engage with people and hear their views. Most of the Overseers are not as engaged publicly as I am with people, and I would hope that my accessibility to alums is a meaningful plus.

I want to push the university on the pressing issues around speech and student safety. I am open to learning more from the inside, but from where I sit today, I do not think the Administration and leadership is making particularly good decisions for Harvard. I worry that even beyond other Universities, Harvard as a particularly wealthy and proud university is going to struggle coming to terms and moving forward from the disasters of this fall. More than most I am in a position as an outsider to respectfully push and challenge the administration on how to do better.

I know how to get things done. My background is in the for-profit world, and I think I could bring diverse and valuable leadership experience. I have founded two companies and sold one to Facebook. I was one of three VPs of product at Facebook through the IPO and reported directly to the CEO. I started a venture fund, Slow Ventures, that manages approximately $1 billion of investors’ money and has returned significant capital to our investors. I have seeded some iconic companies—from Venmo to Solana—as well as Airtable, Teamshares, Openphone, Birchbox, and many more)… if you care about these things, I have been ranked as one of the top 15 seed investors in the country.

I know my way around organizations, big and small. I have a passion for education and learning, loved Harvard, and think it is an important institution. I think that Harvard deserves great leadership and plays a vital role in the United States and in exporting American education and values globally.

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My Beliefs
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