A word to Dartmouth alumni

The Wall Street Journal commented eloquently in a recent editorial on the choice that confronts Dartmouth alumni today (voting continues through October 31):

Since 1891, Dartmouth has been among the handful of colleges and universities that allows alumni to elect leaders directly. At present, eight of the 18 members of the governing Board of Trustees are chosen by the popular vote of some 66,500 graduates, from a slate nominated by a small, mostly unelected committee. (The remaining seats, reserved for major donors, are filled by appointment.)

In practice, the Trustees have been largely ornamental overseers, rubber-stamping the management decisions of the “progressive” college administration and faculty. The passivity of the Trustees owes, in part, to the fact that many official alumni representatives operate as a de facto wing of the establishment, pushing candidates who won’t make trouble.

In 2004 and 2005, however, Dartmouth alumni were finally offered genuine choices. Over three successive Trustee contests, independent candidates bypassed the official channels and got onto the ballot by collecting alumni signatures. Each of the petition candidates–T.J. Rodgers, a Silicon Valley CEO; Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and current Hoover Institution fellow; and Todd Zywicki, a law professor–ran on explicit platforms emphasizing academic standards, free speech and Dartmouth’s acute leadership crisis. All three were unexpectedly elected by wide margins despite intense institutional opposition. Not only did the trend give expression to the general alumni discontent over how Dartmouth is being run (a rare thing in academia), but a critical mass was also building for more muscular stewardship, and, with it, fundamental change.

Dartmouth’s inner circles, quite naturally, loathe all of this. And so the Alumni Council–the representative body of sorts for the whole–decided there was nothing to be done but change the rules. At issue is a new proposed constitution, cooked up in 2004 and constantly altered in response to events, that would “reform” the incorporation of the Trustees.

We think the election of outsider candidates T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki is among the best things to happen to the college in recent years. The college, on the other hand, seems to view their election as an offense against majesty. Unhappy with the outcome of the most recent trustee elections, as the Journal observes, the college now wants to change the rules of the game. The Journal editorial continues:

Most of the details are too tedious to go into here, but the new document is plainly designed to prevent outsiders from gaining still more Trusteeships. Most significant is a provision that would require prospective candidates to submit petitions before the official nominating committee selects its candidates. Not only would this vitiate the entire rationale for petition candidacies–a last resort to express dissatisfaction with the status quo–but it would allow the nominating committee to shape its slate against external challengers and split votes. These rules, like those in a casino, would game the odds in any given election in favor of the house.

The constitution is promoted as a measure to increase fairness and transparency, but in reality it would do neither. While the Alumni Council–already a bureaucratic labyrinth–is to be reorganized, it would actually become less representative, with more unelected positions with more power to pick Trustees than under the present arrangement. The revisions would also increase set-aside seats for groups defined by race or sexual orientation.

The editorial also shows the lengths to which those involved have gone to promote the agenda of the powers-that-be at the college:

As if to redouble the throbbing of the tell-tale heart, the alumni executives recently “postponed” the elections for their own offices, in violation of their own bylaws, until after the constitution is given an up-or-down vote by the full alumni body. If it passes, the maneuver would entrench the leadership as currently comprised until at least 2009. Alumni would be left without democratically elected executives, let alone a say in Trustee nominations.

And so a pattern emerges at Dartmouth, one interminably replicated on other campuses: The academic establishment wants to consolidate its authority and exclude those who might deviate from the party line. But in a democracy, the results are not supposed to be foreordained. The new constitution will be put up for ratification by the alumni on September 15. Despite Dartmouth’s troubles in recent years, we trust its graduates are bright enough to see this power play for what it is.

Dartmouth chairman of the board William Neukom responded to the Journal editorial in a letter to the editor (subscribers only) that was short on facts and long on name-calling. He referred to the Journal editorial as “facile rhetoric” and “political grandstanding” while opining that “[t]he governance of colleges and universities should not be held hostage to political ideology.”

Yet, as Rodgers, Robinson and Zywicki observe in the letter they have sent to Dartmouth alumni (full text here; please read it in its entirety), resistance to the proposed new constitution crosses political boundaries:

Opposition to the proposed constitution is thoughtful, bipartisan, and widespread. The editors of the liberal Dartmouth Free Press and the conservative Dartmouth Review made common cause against the constitution on May 31 in The Dartmouth. The president of the College Democrats issued a joint statement with the president of the College Republicans opposing the constitution on July 18 in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Trustees T.J. Rodgers and Peter Robinson opposed the document in The New York Times on June 21; Trustee Todd Zywicki has done so in statements on the Internet. The Wall Street Journal came out against the constitution last Friday. And this past spring, two nonprofit and bipartisan organizations, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Association of College Trustees and Alumni, both expressed deep reservations about the constitution.

Why? Because they all believe that the proposed constitution would provide less democracy at Dartmouth, not more.

In his own letter to the editor of the Journal, Rodgers eschewed Neukom’s ad hominem approach to discussion of the issues. He spoke of his high regard for Dartmouth President James Wright (“I like and respect Dartmouth president Jim Wright, an imposing ex-U.S. Marine who worked his way through college as a powder-man in a zinc mine”), but succinctly noted: “The new alumni constitution is designed to prevent outsiders like me from seeking election to one of the few democratically elected college boards in the U.S.”

The proposed new constitution is unworthy and undemocratic. We urge our fellow alumni to vote against it.

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