The current issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine features a story by Matthew Mosk ’92 about the series of recent trustee elections and related battles at the college over the role of the alumni in college governance. Mosk, a reporter for the Washington Post, wanted to find out whether the election of four independent petition candidates — T.J. Rogers, Peter Robinson, Todd Zywicki, and Stephen Smith — is part of a conspiracy to effectuate a “hostile takeover” of the board of trustees. Mosk seems to have come away believing that the answer is “yes,” though he couldn’t prove it. It would have been useful if Mosk had proposed criteria for determining the existence of such a conspiracy.
One criterion that most believers in the conspiracy probably have in mind is that the “conspirators” possess a “political” agenda in an ideological sense. Martha Beattie ’76, the president of the alumni council, told Mosk:
The one thing that is so sad about alumni governance is that it’s become a political game. Especially when it comes to trustee elections. You would just hope that choosing the stewardship of the College for generations to come could be completely free of politics. But it really has become so political.
And Sandy Alderson ’69, who recently lost a trustee election to petition candidate Steven Smith, said, “The problem for me is that, for most [of the "insurgent" candidates and their major backers] their loyalty to a political ideology seemed stronger than their loyalty to the College.”
Both Beattie and Alderson assume (a) that the “insurgency” is fueled by politics/ideology and (b) that this phenonmenon does a disservice to Dartmouth. An analysis of the sense in which proposition (a) is true will, I think, demonstrate that proposition (b) is false.
Those who support petition candidates are motivated by a variety of issues. For many, class size and retaining top professors are key concerns. These issues are not political. Both sides recognize the centrality of small classes and retention of top faculty. The dispute here is simply over how well the administration is doing.
Many alums who support petition candidates are concerned with maintaining certain college traditions — strong sports teams, robust fraternities, and (most fundamentally) an emphasis on undergraduate education even at the expense of enhancing Dartmouth’s status as a research university. Here, there may be disagreement but the disagreement isn’t political or ideological in any strong sense — it’s more accurately characterized as aesthetic.
Some alums who support petition candidates are concerned about issues whose political character cannot be denied. The main examples, for me at least, are promoting free speech on campus in the face of “political correctness” and minimizing the extent to which humanities departments are captured by radical professors bent on preaching “deconstructivism” and (for example) figuring out which characters in Shakespeare’s plays are gay.
In this context, the statements of Beattie and Alderson don’t make much sense. Beattie thinks the course of the college over the next generation should be charted without regard to politics. But charting that course necessarily involve making decisions that are political in the weak sense — how much to emphasize sports and how much to emphasize graduate programs — and in the strong sense — the extent to which speech should be limited, the extent to which racial and ethnic diversity should be imposed, and the extent to which various intellectual fads and ideologies should dominate in certain departments. As a practical matter, trustees who don’t want to challenge the preferences of the administration in these matters are no less political than trustees who do.
As for Alderson, he posits a false dichotomy when he suggests that those with strong views on issues such as free speech on campus and the domination of certain departments by radical professors are placing loyalty to ideology over loyalty to the college. It is not disloyal to fight for changes in the way the college operates merely because ideology informs one’s view of the kinds of changes that will make Dartmouth a better place.
Those who agree with college policy would serve their cause better by defending specific policies than by questioning the loyalty of those who see things differently.