An interview with the current and future presidents of the alumni board that acts as a ‘Socratic steward of the University’

On a recent afternoon, the Harvard Gazette sat down with Susan Carney ’77, current president of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and Michael Brown ’88, president-elect for 2019-20, to talk about the Overseers’ role, their Harvard experiences, and the new online voting option for the Overseers election, now in progress.

Susan Carney ’73, J.D. ’77, is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She has chaired the board’s standing committee on humanities and arts, and was one of three Overseer members of Harvard’s presidential search committee in 2017-18.

Michael Brown ’83, J.D. ’88, is co-founder and CEO of the public service organization City Year. He chairs the board’s standing committee on social sciences and is co-chair of the Harvard College National Advisory Board for Public Service.


Susan Carney and Michael Brown

GAZETTE [TO CARNEY]: Could you talk about the most memorable aspects of your time as president of the board so far? What advice do you have for Michael Brown, who will take over after Commencement?

CARNEY: It has been a fantastic year. We had Larry Bacow’s inauguration, and his first year has been fun to watch unfold. Taking part in his inauguration was a highlight, and so was the Q&A we did together in his first meeting with the board. There’s a sense of excitement, and it’s been wonderful to participate in these early days of a new presidency.

Michael is wonderfully well-suited to this job. He doesn’t need much advice. But I’ve enjoyed talking with him about how the Overseers can best provide their perspective on topics that matter most to the University.

GAZETTE [TO BROWN]: As you are about to take on this new role, what are you most looking forward to? What have you learned from Susan’s leadership?

BROWN: Susan is a remarkable leader who focuses our work, asks penetrating questions, and guides us to consensus. She has a demeanor that brings people in and encourages people to work together — she’s a role model for all of us.

As Susan said, it’s an exciting time. Harvard has been building momentum, and Larry has hit the ground running. He brings such a tremendous energy and experience to the role, and it has been a seamless handoff. For me, being an Overseer is an opportunity to give back. I was given an extraordinary education and a transformative experience here, and I want to help advance that for others.

GAZETTE [TO CARNEY]: What has been the most unexpected part of your presidency? What has been the main challenge?

CARNEY: Higher education has been getting such critical scrutiny in recent years, and this year in particular. The landscape has been changing rapidly, especially on the outside, and I have wanted to make sure the University as a whole is benefiting from the perspectives the Overseers can provide, not just from an inward-facing vantage but from an outward-facing one. That has been the main challenge.

GAZETTE [TO BROWN]: An Overseer is selected to be president of the board for an academic year. Why did you accept this role?

BROWN: Harvard has had a transformative impact on my life. I could even say I wouldn’t be here if not for Harvard. On Feb. 14, 1954, my father was a student at Harvard Law School and saw a poster that said, “Come to Simmons and meet your Valentine,” which he did, and met my mother. On my own first day at Harvard, my roommate Alan Khazei became my best friend, and we eventually launched City Year together, a lifelong partnership in social change and activism. A couple of years later, at Currier House, I met my wife, Charlotte Mao. Such wonderful gifts.

My Harvard education — both undergraduate and law school — had an enormous impact on how I understand and make meaning of the world we’re in, and especially how I think about issues of social justice.

In terms of why I chose to serve, our highest value at City Year is service to a cause greater than self, and for me that’s what service to Harvard is all about. I want to express gratitude for all Harvard has done for me and to encourage people who come through Harvard to find the spark of public purpose in their lives.

GAZETTE [TO CARNEY]: Why did you want to serve the University as an Overseer?

CARNEY: I’ve been devoted to the University since I walked in in 1969. It’s such a stimulating place. I’ve had such admiration for the faculty, the students, and the community, and I’ve wanted to continue being part of it. As an Overseer, I’ve been surrounded by energized, committed, and talented people of all different backgrounds, who are willing to give their time and provide their expertise and energy. Being an Overseer is a way I could contribute to a university that has given me so much in terms of friends and career — and my husband.

GAZETTE: What is the role of the board? I bet many people ask you what Overseers do.

CARNEY: People have a general idea that Overseers attend meetings and participate in conversations about issues of importance — which we do. But there’s much more. The Overseers bring the benefit of their experience to understanding the issues Harvard is facing, but we also serve as ambassadors for Harvard in our communities. And we participate in visiting committees, visiting various Schools and departments, which is a great opportunity to reflect with them on their priorities and what choices they’re making as they fulfill their missions. We also have lots of opportunities to meet with the president, the provost, and others to relay what we’re hearing and to help ensure that Harvard is making well-informed choices.

BROWN: When people find out that I’m an Overseer at Harvard, they always say the same thing: “That’s wonderful. What do you do as an Overseer?” My response is that we’re a group of alumni who try to serve as Socratic stewards of the University. We bring questions and input, based on our experiences and what we hear from alumni. We’re not in a management role; we’re in a stewardship role. We work together with the president and the Corporation to think together about very large issues facing the University.

Along the way, we learn remarkable things about this remarkable place. I’m thinking of a recent discussion with [William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics] Raj Chetty about the role of big data in addressing inequality. Or a conversation with [Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology] Theda Skocpol about some of the major political divides in the country today. Or a dinner with students who’ve been public service fellows. Or a discussion with [Psychology Department Chair] Mahzarin Banaji about blind spots and implicit biases. We bring our questions and advice and experience to discussions of how people and programs at Harvard can make a positive difference for the world. And even as we serve as Overseers, it often feels like we’re students again.

GAZETTE [TO CARNEY]: Can you talk a bit about how the board operates?

CARNEY: We meet five times a year, usually for the whole weekend. We have a dinner program — this weekend it’s about an initiative to embed the study of ethics in computer science courses. We have several rounds of committee meetings that focus on various aspects of the University — the arts program, for example. On Sundays, we have a longer, plenary session, where we are usually joined by most of the Corporation members. That’s where some more in-depth discussions take place. This weekend, for example, we are hearing from the Kennedy School dean and his colleagues about civic engagement and civil discourse. We’ve also recently had presentations and discussions on the College’s new Gen Ed curriculum with the faculty who are crafting it.

We also appoint visiting committees to look more closely at the work of different Schools and departments. I served on the Medical School visiting committee last year, which meant several interesting days on the Longwood campus. And the work includes staying educated about what’s going on. I get the daily Gazette, and I now subscribe to the Crimson online, to the Globe, to the Chronicle of Higher Education. I try to maintain a steady flow of information so that I can ask good questions.

GAZETTE [TO BROWN]: What committees do you serve on?

BROWN: I serve on the social science committee as chair, and the institutional policy committee. In social science, we discuss visiting committee reports on departments such as Government, Anthropology, and Economics, as well as some of the big questions that the social sciences are grappling with. In institutional policy, it’s a very broad range. For instance, how do we take advantage of technology in learning? How do we address policy issues in Washington? How do we fund research?

The visitation process is worth emphasizing. We have committees that bring together Overseers with external experts in the particular discipline or profession. We talk to a lot of people — faculty, students, others — about the school or department we’re visiting. We look at the programs, the opportunities, what’s going well, and things that can be improved. And we write a report that comments on both strengths and challenges, and tries to provide thoughtful advice to the University’s leadership. I think it’s a terrific way for Harvard to be rigorous, to avoid complacency, to welcome constructive criticism, and to share ideas for renewal.

GAZETTE [TO CARNEY]: I’m told that the Overseers and the Corporation have closer interactions than was once the case. What is the impact of those interactions?

CARNEY: It’s been good for the Corporation to have expanded in size [starting in 2011]. And it’s been good to have many members of the Corporation join the Overseers in our plenary sessions to ensure that we have a running dialogue about shared concerns. Spending time with the Corporation members also helps us understand and focus on University priorities that cut across schools and departments. For instance, the theme of “One Harvard” has become increasingly important, and that theme helps inform how we plan our agendas and how we interact with various schools and programs. We’ve also devoted more and more attention to issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging as core features of Harvard’s excellence. I think the cross-pollination of issues, concerns, thoughts, and reflections has improved the deliberations of both boards. And it’s been a pleasure for all of us to get to know each other better.

GAZETTE: Could you talk about who the other Overseers are? I know you’re all alumni.

CARNEY: It’s a terrific group. We have Overseers from academia, from nonprofits, from government, from the arts. We have people from finance and business and technology. We have doctors and lawyers. It’s an extraordinarily diverse group of people, who are drawn from an array of personal pasts and professional lanes. What binds everyone together is a love of the institution.

BROWN: There’s a breadth of experience among the Overseers that can provide perspectives on almost any question the University is facing. But most of all, there is a tremendous bond you form with the other Overseers. For me the sense of community has been extraordinary.

GAZETTE: How are Overseers selected? Could you describe the new online voting system that is being introduced this year?

BROWN:There’s an alumni association committee that nominates folks. It looks for a diverse set of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds, and asks them if they want to stand for election. Then all our Harvard degree holders are invited to vote. It’s been a paper ballot system for many decades. This spring, for the first time, people have the option to vote online.

CARNEY: We’re excited to add online voting as an option this year. We’ve been working carefully to create a secure online system. It’s designed to make it more convenient for everyone to vote — including people who live abroad and recent graduates, who are used to doing almost everything online. We’re hopeful that the online option will encourage more people to take part in the election.

GAZETTE: How has your view of Harvard changed since your student days? Did you ever imagine yourself being an Overseer?

BROWN: When I was an undergrad, I was most focused on my classes, my friends, my extracurriculars, my future, and some of the issues and causes I cared about beyond Harvard. I never imagined I would be playing a role in Harvard governance. But as an Overseer, you can appreciate the breadth and depth of this institution, which are simply magnificent.  You see, across the board, the level of intellectual engagement, the complexity of the institution, and also the pressure that it’s under. It’s remarkable to see so many people working in concert to make such a great institution thrive every day.

CARNEY: I arrived in the fall of 1969 and lived in the Radcliffe dorms. I had to be in by 10 p.m. I had to ask for permission to stay out later. In January, men moved into my dorm, and two years later, I moved to Adams House. It was a time of enormous change — the Vietnam War, the Cambodia incursion, a time of turmoil — and there were very few women around. Every time I’m on campus, I’m amazed at all the women undergraduates and graduate students, and certainly the faculty looks very different.  We shouldn’t be satisfied, but we have seen enormous changes. Those changes have been paramount in my mind.

In terms of whether I had imagined myself in this role: never in a thousand years. When I left law school, I did hope to be a counsel to a university — but never expected to find myself in the kind of role that Overseers play.

BROWN: We didn’t have the internet. We basically hung out and talked to people. Students today are much more connected and sophisticated in so many ways. They’re so connected to the world, and that’s really good. At the same time, hopefully there are opportunities for students to just connect with each other, because that’s such an important part of the experience of being a student here. So many facilities at Harvard have had a rather breathtaking transformation. The Annenberg Dining Hall, which is right out of Hogwarts; the new art museums, the new buildings at the Law School and the Kennedy School, and the Smith Center. The idea of a central gathering place for students was a dream when we were here 35 years ago, and now it’s a dream come true.

Another thing that has changed is the University’s commitment to engage with undergraduates in more powerful and creative ways. And the University today is much more diverse than when I was here in the 1980s, which is so important. One thing that has not changed is how remarkable the students are. As Overseers, we have various chances to talk with students. It’s always a highlight to hear about their extraordinary scholarship, their broad interests, their creativity, and just how remarkable they are as human beings. It’s incredibly inspiring.

GAZETTE: What are the opportunities and challenges you see facing Harvard, or higher education more generally, in the years to come?

CARNEY: We’re in a time when technology is providing new approaches to pedagogy, when we have the capability to reach out to broad populations to share our educational resources. That’s a great opportunity, and we’re taking advantage of it. As to challenges, right now, I think higher education is subject to criticism and being labeled as elitist in a way that equates with exclusion, not excellence. Harvard has been cognizant of the importance of socioeconomic diversity in our student body and has worked hard to broaden its embrace. Harvard needs to continue to share its values of learning and excellence in a way that is admired rather than seen as exclusive.

BROWN: I agree with Susan that higher education in general is facing a number of important challenges. It’s not always well understood, for example, how Harvard, as a research institution, enhances the public good — advancing sciences, improving public health, fostering innovation and economic development, or the critical role the humanities play in expanding and understanding the human experience, to give a few powerful examples.

In the past several years, Harvard has reached breakthrough levels of diversity. Now, more than half of the students accepted to the College are young people of color. With that exciting progress, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure all Harvard students experience a true sense of belonging. President Faust’s initiative on inclusion and belonging is tremendously important, and President Bacow is leaning heavily into making further progress. We need to ensure that everybody here feels a real sense that they belong at Harvard.

As for opportunities, I’d like to highlight one that President Bacow spoke of in his inaugural address, when he called for raising the resources so that any undergraduate who wants to do a summer of service can have the opportunity. It’s a really powerful vision to say “yes” to the idealism of Harvard students — and to put public purpose at the center of the Harvard experience.

GAZETTE: Finally, do you have any words of advice for students on how can they be connected to the University after they graduate?

CARNEY: While you’re at Harvard you should take advantage of everything that is around

you to the extent you can. It’s a very special time in your life, and I encourage people to reach out to faculty, to other students, and find what will excite you. Work hard and enjoy every moment you’re here. And when you’re out, think about a way to contribute. Get involved with alumni organizations, local Harvard school committees, or local Harvard clubs. It’s important for the University to have its alumni stay connected. It’s not just a duty; it’s fun to meet other alums and work on projects together. Most of all, it feels good to give back to the place that has given us so much.

BROWN: The best advice I can give to a Harvard student is to say yes to the extraordinary opportunities that are here every single day. Sometimes that means don’t study tonight and head out with a friend, try something new, join a club, talk to people of different backgrounds, visit museums, go to office hours, invest in the relationships that you build here.

Afterward, don’t wait for every five or 10 years to come back. Find a way to engage. I find so many people saying, ‘I re-engaged later in life; I wish I’d had done that earlier.’ What we do as alumni is incredibly important to the institution. And it’s a way to give back for all the investments that have been made in us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.