The Harvard Board of Overseers (more formally The Honorable and Reverend the Board of Overseers) is one of Harvard University's two governing boards. Although its function is more consultative and less hands-on than the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Board of Overseers is sometimes referred to as the "senior" governing board because its formation predates the Fellows' 1650 incorporation.


Today, there are 30 overseers, all directly elected by alumni; at one point, the board was self-perpetuating[clarification needed]. Originally the overseers included, ex officio, the public officials and Puritan clergy of Cambridge and the neighboring towns (hence the "honorable and reverend" of the title). Today, the president and the treasurer of Harvard are ex officio members of the board.

Each year, Harvard alumni elect five new overseers to serve six-year terms. Overseer candidates are nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), and those not nominated by the HAA (petition candidates) must gather signatures from Harvard alumni to appear on the ballot.

Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. quipped famously of the election of John F. Kennedy, his son, to the board in 1957: "Now I know his religion won't keep him out of the White House. If an Irish Catholic can get elected as an Overseer at Harvard, he can get elected to anything."[1]


According to the Harvard website, the Board of Overseers complements the work of the President and Fellows of Harvard College:[2]

Drawing on the wide-ranging experience and expertise of its members, the Board exerts broad influence over the University’s strategic directions, provides counsel to the University leadership on priorities and plans, and has the power of consent to certain actions of the Corporation. The Board’s chief functions include superintendence of the visitation process, the principal mechanism for periodic external review of the quality and direction of the University’s schools, departments, and selected other programs and activities. The Board carries out this responsibility largely through the operation of more than fifty visiting committees, whose work is overseen by and reported to the Board.

Current Overseers

As of January 2023, the Overseers were:[3]

Petition candidates

In the late 1980s, a group calling for a withdrawal of Harvard's investments in apartheid South Africa helped nominate petition candidates for overseer elections. Known as the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA), this group supported the first petition candidate to win an overseer's seat.[4] The HRAAA backed South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his successful bid to join the board in 1989,[5][6] and future U.S. president Barack Obama's unsuccessful petition bid in 1991.[7]

In 2020, Harvard Forward, a group calling for increased attention to climate change (including fossil fuel divestment) and representation of younger alumni on the Board, put forward a slate of five petition candidates.[8] Three of the five were elected to the board: environmental scientist Jayson Toweh, civil rights attorney Thea Sebastian, and professional soccer player Margaret Purce.[9] This was despite the efforts of leaders of the Harvard Alumni Association, who circulated a letter calling climate concerns "special interests" and suggesting that it was inappropriate for overseers candidates to state their views on university issues.[10] Following the election of the three Harvard Forward candidates, Harvard changed the election rules in order to make it harder for petition candidates to be elected.[11]


  1. ^ Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye": Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, p. 147, Little Brown and Company, New York, N.Y., 1972, Standard Book Number: 671-78640-7
  2. ^ "Harvard's president and Leadership,", accessed 23 June 2012
  3. ^ "Board of Overseers".
  4. ^ Moses, Jonathan M. (October 6, 1986). "Seidman Takes Overseer Seat". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  5. ^ "Divestment Opposition Persists Despite Tutu's Overseer Election". The Harvard Crimson. September 15, 1989. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  6. ^ Kurilla, Michelle G.; Zhang, Ruoqi (February 7, 2020). "As New Candidates Move Forward, A Look Back at Previous Board of Overseers Campaigns". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  7. ^ "Barack Obama of Harvard Law School—and Beyond". Harvard Magazine. November 5, 2008. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  8. ^ Kurilla, Michelle G.; Zhang, Ruoqi (February 19, 2020). "All Five of Harvard Forward Candidates Listed on Board of Overseers Ballot". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  9. ^ Rosenberg, John S. (August 21, 2020). "Insurgent Election". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved August 21, 2020.
  10. ^ Rosenberg, John S. (2020-08-10). "Board of Overseers Campaign Hotly Contested". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved 2021-04-06.
  11. ^ Rosenberg, John S. (2020-09-15). "Governing Boards Change Composition of Overseers". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved 2021-04-06.