Volume 29 - Number 14 - Thursday, April 10, 1997

David Johnston to oversee Harvard

Former McGill principal David Johnston

It was announced this weekend that law professor David Johnston has been elected to the position of president of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University. A 1963 graduate of Harvard in law, Johnston has been an Overseer since 1992, and previously held the position of vice-chair of the board. His appointment is for a one-year term.

Johnston says he's "proud and flattered" to serve his alma mater.

"Harvard first contacted me about a scholarship when I was 14 years old on the advice of an alumnus who had heard I was a promising scholar athlete. I've been trying to put water back in that well ever since."

Did it surprise him that such a prestigious American university would know of a boy from Sault Ste. Marie? "At the time I was completely surprised, but not once I came to know the university. Harvard has a remarkable outreach program to recruit students--and faculty. They work harder at it than any institution I know."

Although the Harvard Overseers fill the usual board role of counselling and advising the university, they exercise virtually none of the other customary powers of a board, such as taking decisions on investments, budgets, planning and policy.

These matters are governed by the Harvard Corporation, an executive board also known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College. This seven-member executive committee is composed of the university's president, the treasurer and five fellows.

"The Board of Overseers represents the ultimate responsibility of the community at large for the operation of the University," said Harvard's Associate Secretary Marten Liander. "The primary role of the Overseers in Harvard governance is to keep the University true to its charter as a place of learning."

The 30-member Board of Overseers is elected by Harvard's alumni, some 240,000 worldwide. Overseers hold office for six-year terms. They counsel on educational policies and practices, and can approve teaching and administrative appointments. These duties are carried out through a system of visiting committees that inform the Overseers about the state of the University. Also because of its diverse membership and closer relationship to the alumni and alumnae, the Board of Overseers is responsible for fundraising.

After serving 15 years as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill, Johnston returned to teaching in the Faculty of Law. He also took on the job of chairing Industry Canada's Information Highway Advisory Council which concluded its mandate last week and is scheduled to publish its final report in May. He continues to serve as Chair of the Board of the Neuroscience Network of Centres of Excellence, which is based at McGill, and as Chair of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. And he still hosts The Editors, a current affairs roundtable on PBS.

What might seem like a punishing schedule doesn't appear to faze him.

"Most of what I do is easy from the point of view of time," says Johnston. "But I still teach two- and three-hour classes here at McGill--that's the fun part."

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