On April 6, the Harvard Graduate Council’s outgoing finance chair, Mir Jahanzeb “M.J.” Mehdi, posted a message in the executive board’s internal Slack channel.
“I thought I was amongst friends, but you made an enemy out of me. Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Senate. I was stabbed in Aldrich 108,” wrote Mehdi, a Harvard Extension School and prospective Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student.
About a week later, during the HGC’s final general meeting of the year on April 17, the student body that represents Harvard’s 12 graduate and professional schools voted to remove Mehdi and disqualify him from serving on the council in the future.
The vote came amid a monthslong dispute marked with vitriol, legal threats, and a myriad of accusations.
During the HGC’s March election for next year’s new board members, Mehdi was not reelected to another term as finance chair.
The April resolution disqualifying Mehdi from future council involvement claimed that Mehdi had gone on an “inappropriate and unprofessional tirade” during the election, “suggesting that the Council should not have elected a white student as president over candidates of color or a woman” in reference to the election of Brett A. Monson, an Extension School student who will serve as the council’s next president.
The motion further stated that Mehdi had “posted intimidating and threatening messages” on Slack, uploaded screenshots of private messages and emails on social media, and hired an attorney to “intimidate the leadership and members” and call for reelection.
The resolution concluded by stating Mehdi had violated “the values of the Harvard Graduate Council, the Harvard Extension School, and Harvard University,” thus barring him from future participation in the council.
The resolution passed with 11 votes in favor, one abstention, and no votes in opposition.
Mehdi disputed all points made in the sanctioning in a 60-page written statement containing his comments regarding the accusations made against him.
In the statement, Mehdi wrote that his actions were “not a threat in any shape, way, or form to anyone or a group of people.” He also denied opposing Monson’s election on the basis of his race, calling this a “mischaracterization and false allegation.”
“I neither said, nor suggested this,” Mehdi wrote in his statement. “My unfiltered, candid, and knee-jerk reaction at 8:00pm had nothing to do with a white student being elected as president, rather I used the words: ‘foregone conclusion.’”
“I categorically deny and refute any and all allegations made in the Resolution,” he added.
Prior to the vote to remove Mehdi, the council had already been preparing for damage control.
In an email on April 12, Carlos A. Gonzalez Sierra, the council’s outgoing president, initially asked Mehdi to not attend the April 17 meeting in person to “avoid any unnecessary tension” following his election loss, but Mehdi responded that he planned to be there.
Gonzalez Sierra replied on April 14 urging Mehdi to end the year “on a positive note,” noting Mehdi’s Slack messages to representatives and other board members, which he said made others “uncomfortable.” Gonzalez Sierra added that he would not tolerate “inflammatory comments” from Mehdi or others at the meeting.
The council arranged for the campus security service Securitas to be present throughout the meeting “to ensure everyone’s safety,” according to Gonzalez Sierra.
After the meeting began, Gonzalez Sierra motioned to remove Mehdi from his office as chair of finance, after which he gave a three-minute presentation on Mehdi’s previous conduct.
“For weeks, since his disturbing tirade against Brett Monson on March 27, M.J.’s behavior has escalated from unprofessional to intimidating, to threatening, to harassment,” Gonzalez Sierra said. “In doing so, he violated the core values of HGC, Harvard Extension School, and Harvard University.”
Gonzalez Sierra then presented screenshots of Mehdi’s messages in Slack and instances of Mehdi posting internal communications on public sites.
“I was going to let it go and go peacefully. But you guys are trying to start a war,” Mehdi wrote in an April 3 Slack message, one of several presented by Gonzalez Sierra. “I will hire the best $1,000/hr suits that money can buy. I am putting you all on notice.”
Following the messages, Gonzalez Sierra removed Mehdi from the HGC Slack, citing members’ discomfort.
“I told Mr. Mehdi multiple times that several Council members had complained about his messages and that I would have to remove him from Slack if he could not engage respectfully,” Gonzalez Sierra wrote in an emailed statement. “Sadly, Mr. Mehdi continued to post messages on our Slack channels that members of the Council found offensive.”
After Gonzalez Sierra’s speech on April 17, Mehdi received three minutes to defend himself, during which he talked about his successes as finance chair — having left a surplus in council funds coming back from the pandemic — and pointed to his passion for his job on the council.
“Have you guys ever been in love? That’s the only person that you think about, you know, you’re so passionate about this, and I love doing this,” Mehdi said. “This is the first time I’ve held public office, and it just consumes me.”
“My ways were wrong on election night, but I was actually not saying, you know, ‘Elect me.’ I was advocating on behalf of three minority women because of what’s going on in the world,” Mehdi added of his remarks about Monson’s election.
Mehdi wrote in his 60-page defense that he was hindered in his ability to gather evidence due to being locked out of his official council email and the HGC Slack, as well as not having early notice of the removal, while Gonzalez Sierra “had the whole weekend” to write up the resolution and to gather evidence against him.
“I was set-up to fail by being given 39 minutes to go impromptu,” Mehdi wrote.
According to Mehdi, the meeting agenda, which was first emailed out on April 14, did not mention the motion to remove him nor the resolution to sanction him. On the day of the meeting, however, the agenda had been updated to include those items.
Gonzalez Sierra wrote that the decision to not initially include the vote on the agenda was a safety precaution.
“After discussing it with our adviser and other Council members, we decided to wait to add the vote to remove and sanction Mr. Mehdi to the agenda until we made arrangements to ensure everyone’s safety during the proceedings,” Gonzalez Sierra wrote. “The Council is not required to announce every agenda item before our meetings start.”
In his statement, Mehdi also categorically denied that any of his messages or behavior were threatening or harassing, adding that his removal from the HGC Slack instead served the purpose of “silencing dissent.”
Kody Christiansen, an HES representative, wrote in an email that Mehdi’s “threats, name-calling, and personal attacks” were “uncalled for” and “done in retaliation to a group of students who voted with their conscience at the elections.”
“As the President of the student government of Harvard Extension School, it is unbelievably disappointing to see a fellow HES Student acting in the manner MJ has been for the last few weeks in response to his loss during the HGC elections,” Christiansen wrote.
Mehdi denied that any of his communications with Christiansen were threatening, adding that Christiansen had no firsthand knowledge on which to base this characterization.
The council’s last-minute move to add the motions to remove and sanction Mehdi into the April 17 agenda, Mehdi claimed, was “purely in retaliation, as political retribution” to a letter sent by his then-attorney Aaron S. Foldenauer.
Gonzalez Sierra wrote that he had become “fully aware of [Medhi’s] behavior towards other members and me on Friday morning” before receiving the letter in the evening.
Three days before the council voted to remove Mehdi, Foldenauer emailed a notice to Gonzalez Sierra alleging an improper election process and the misappropriation of the HGC’s resources. Foldenauer also copied other HGC board members and representatives on the email.
The letter claimed that over the past three presidential elections, the governance chair had become the president because the chair has an unfair advantage due to its role in administering elections.
“Mr. Monson had every opportunity to recuse himself so that the elections could be held free of any conflicts of interest,” Foldenauer wrote. “This jarring conflict of interest reeks of practices that exist in authoritarian regimes.”
Gonzalez Sierra called the letter’s accusations “meritless,” adding that he “voluntarily addressed and disproved every accusation at our last General Council meeting.”
The letter further stated Monson was appointed governance chair in January 2023 by Gonzalez Sierra and claimed the representative counting votes during the March election “had a friendly relationship with Mr. Monson,” thus resulting in an unfair election.
The election results, released by Gonzalez Sierra during the last council meeting, showed Monson had won the council presidency with six out of 11 votes.
Gonzalez Sierra wrote that while he had appointed Monson following a vacancy in the governance chair position as authorized by the constitution, the council still had to confirm Monson with a vote. He added he did not participate in the deliberation nor the vote.
During Mehdi’s allotted speech for his finance chair campaign in the March election, he instead focused his remarks on Monson’s election, suggesting that the council showed favoritism toward Monson and was unwilling to prioritize diversity.
“Thus, amongst a crowded field of three minority women, to go against a protected class of people, who are qualified and socially relevant, only exposes the strong motivation of a coalition of representatives adamant on Mr. Brett Monson becoming president that they just did not care about any other considerations,” Mehdi wrote in his statement.
According to Mehdi, he was interrupted in the middle of his speech by several members of the council and was prompted to sit back down, after which School of Public Health representative Heather A. Olden and Christiansen “kept coming at” him. Mehdi criticized Olden for making “juvenile insults,” including a statement that he was “in his feelings.”
Olden disputed this characterization in an emailed statement, writing that she does not appreciate “being singled out” by Mehdi. She added that she had only tried to give him “another opportunity to better represent himself.”
“I raised my hand during the questions portion and vocalized that I understood and empathized that MJ was upset about the recent loss, hence the ‘in your feelings statement,’ but that the time allotted for his speech now was to talk about the Chair of Finance role and not his feelings about the HGC Presidential election,” Olden wrote. “Another council member agreed with my comment, and either they or I asked, ‘What do you plan to do if selected as Chair of Finance?’”
According to Olden, Mehdi then briefly responded with “something along the lines of his work speaks for itself,” rather than answering with concrete examples.
“I did not respond to Heather. I was raised to be respectful of women. I looked to Mr. Sierra to gesture him to get her to stop,” Mehdi wrote. “For Kody, yes, I retorted in a passionate manner asking him: ‘What are you so offended about?’ to which he had no answer.”
Christiansen condemned Mehdi’s behavior in an emailed statement, writing that “no student leader should ever be made to feel unsafe” in the performance of their duties.
“If any other of my fellow HGC members had done the same things he did, I would have signed on to sanction them, too,” Christiansen wrote. “This is not about him, this was not personal, this was about all of us on the HGC board and the people who come after us.”
Mehdi also wrote that Harvard Kennedy School representative Eliazar M. Chacha, who had arrived at the meeting after the candidates’ speeches, “should have been disqualified” from voting and yet proceeded to participate.
Gonzalez Sierra wrote that the representatives themselves must make the decision to abstain in such circumstances.
“He walked into the meeting shortly after candidate speeches had started but was present for candidate questioning,” he wrote. “As president, I do not have the power to disqualify any duly appointed Representative from voting at any meeting they attend, including elections.”
Chacha wrote in an email that he “felt comfortable voting” given his experience with the candidates and their work over the past year.
According to Mehdi, after the election and before the HGC open meeting on April 4, Marshall Page, associate director of student engagement and HGC adviser, and Gonzalez Sierra were attempting to pressure him to resign.
“They were coercing me to resign and later to prevent me from attending the meeting at SEAS on April 4th, 2023 and record an absence,” Mehdi wrote. “1. There was no Zoom link provided for the meeting; although, it has been provided at every meeting before. 2. My card would not swipe at the SEAS Complex (could be a coincidence).”
According to Ulziijargal Sukhbaatar, HGC operations chair, the council’s policy is that Zoom meeting links must be requested at least 24 hours before the meeting.
“But at that point, he addressed on April 1 and 2nd that he would not attend or did not request any Zoom meeting access from the Chair of Operation,” Sukhbaatar wrote in an email. “Suddenly, on the day of the meeting, after 5 minutes had passed, M.J. wrote to the Chair of Operations asking for the Zoom Link for the meeting.”
During the meeting, Mehdi said, he sat down quietly and then left when the meeting ended, after which Gonzalez Sierra texted him, “You didn’t have to leave.”
“If my conduct and behavior, as the resolution alleges since the meeting, was ‘inappropriate, intimidating, and threatening’ and/or if people felt I was allegedly ‘questioning their integrity and/or harassing them,’ then why would Mr. Sierra text me right away and ask me to stay?” Mehdi wrote.
Gonzalez Sierra wrote in an email that Mehdi’s behavior at the meeting had made others uncomfortable.
“After arriving late, he put in his AirPods, sat quietly at the table, and refused to acknowledge any other Council member who tried to address him,” he wrote.
Mehdi questioned why a vote to remove him took place during the council’s final meeting of the year, where the “mood should be celebratory, not persecutory.”
“It was not to seek justice, rather personal retaliation, political retribution, and public humiliation,” Mehdi wrote. “One of the sponsors, Kody Christiansen, is already doing victory laps on social media.”
Christiansen wrote in an email that sponsoring the sanction was not fueled by personal motivations and was instead him fulfilling his role as a student leader to protect others from harassment.
“There are no ‘victory laps’ here,” Christiansen wrote. “I take no joy in expelling a member of any group I am a part of, especially a fellow Harvard Extension student, but the safety of myself and others comes first.”
Though the council has voted to remove him as finance chair, Mehdi said he intends to keep his position through a “holdover clause” that allows one to hold a previous position, which one has failed to receive a majority vote for, until a successor is elected or the holder resigns, according to Mehdi.
“Due to the ‘Holdover Rule,’ I have no successor to turn over the bank accounts to, I am legally rightful to and look forward to continue serving as the HGC Chair of Finance, until the next round of elections,” Mehdi wrote in an email.
But Gonzalez Sierra wrote that the successful April 17 vote to remove Mehdi immediately removed him from the council and the finance chair role.
“Mr. Mehdi ceased being Chair of Finance and a member of the Council the moment the motion passed that night,” he wrote.
Gonzalez Sierra added that Mehdi had “verbally agreed to resign as Chair of Finance” before the HGC’s meeting on April 4.
Mehdi raised concerns regarding the process of the vote against him and the motion’s passage.
“I thought they were determining how to move forward and would call me back, so I was waiting close to the doors,” Mehdi wrote. According to Mehdi, Mayank D. Kumar, the HGC vice president, “came out and said something about how a vote was cast and it was against me. He did not specify what it was for.”
Mehdi said this was the only vote he was made aware of and that he had not been notified of the vote on the resolution to sanction him.
“At this point, I should have been: I. Asked to come back in and be given three minutes to address the clauses contained in the resolution, consistent with the voting in the Constitution. II. Notified of the vote,” he wrote. “Yet, neither happened.”
The HGC constitution does not require that representatives subject to votes on their censure or disqualification from office in future academic years be given three minutes to speak — only those subject to removal as an officeholder or representative.
While the constitution states that resolutions “must pertain to university-wide matters,” Mehdi stated sanctions against an “individual for alleged misconduct” are not a University-wide issue.
“If a resolution is presented that does not pertain to university-wide matters, the HGC must approve the presentation of the resolution by a simple majority,” the constitution states.
While there was a vocal vote held to remove certain clauses from the resolution and an online vote to pass the resolution, there was no explicit vote to approve the resolution itself during the course of the meeting.
However, according to Gonzalez Sierra, who did not participate in either vote, since the HGC spans Harvard’s 12 graduate and professional schools, matters pertaining to the council or its members do not need to be separately approved.
“The representatives should hear both sides of the issues before casting a vote,” Mehdi wrote. “Also, if there was another round of votes, I should have been notified.”
Though the council has concluded its term for the school year, Mehdi is gearing up for further action.
Mehdi is now working with Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP, as Foldenauer, the New York-based attorney who wrote the April 14 letter to Gonzalez Sierra and the council, “was not licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” according to Mehdi.
Going forward, Mehdi plans to either “appeal and overturn” his removal and sanction or sue the council and the resolution’s sponsors “for defamation, as a result of the frivolous proceedings” — or possibly both.