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The empire strikes back, unpersuasively

Voting began today in the election of Dartmouth’s Association of Alumni leadership, an election that may determine whether Dartmouth alumni remain able to elect half of the college’s trustees, as they have since 1891. I’ve already presented the case for the candidates (including me) who are fighting to preserve this right. But what is the case for the slate that’s running for the purpose of promoting a board of trustees that consists overwhelmingly of a self-appointed, self-perpetuating group?

Today, the trustees who unilaterally abrogated the 1891 agreement mandating alumni selection of half the board sent a letter to all Dartmouth alumni. It states their case for electing a slate that will capitulate to its board-packing scheme.

That case is based almost entirely on attacks against those who disagree with the board-packing decision. Thus, the trustees say their opponents are “well-financed;” that they have a “political agenda;” that the lawsuit filed by the current leadership of the Association of Alumni to enforce the 1891 agreement is costing the college money; and that the plaintiffs in that suit haven’t said where the financing is coming from.

These claims have nothing to do with the merits of the underlying question this election will influence — whether Dartmouth’s alums should continue to elect half of the college’s trustees. About this, the trustees say only that, under their plan, alumni “will nominate more trustees than at virtually any other institution in the country and will remain central to the College’s governance.” The latter point is clearly false – the alumni as a whole cannot be central to the college’s governance if they elect only a small portion of those govern the college. The former point – the comparison to other colleges – begs rather than answers the question of why Dartmouth alums should elect a much smaller percentage of trustees than they have since 1891. The 1891 agreement was reached for the purpose of regenerating alumni enthusiasm in what was a “failing regional institution.” Since then, Dartmouth alumni have rewarded the college with the legendary generosity that made it great. Indeed, the trustees’ letter insists that Dartmouth continues to make great progress. What, then, is the case for change?

Although the trustees don’t tell us, their real reason must be that they simply don’t trust alumni to make good decisions when they vote in trustee elections. The head of the group, Ed Haldeman, has said as much, though not in this letter. That claim is implicit, moreover, in the trustees’ insistence that those who oppose them “would push the College far outside the mainstream of higher education.” Put aside the lack of evidence to support this claim; under the current democratic system, critics of the college can’t “push” Dartmouth in any direction unless they are elected to the board by their fellow alums. The trustees don’t explain why, if a significant number of critics have enough support among alumni to win election to the board, they should be prevented by a rule change from having some influence on the direction of Dartmouth. Instead, the trustees imperiously assume that Dartmouth’s direction should be set solely by them and those they anoint.

Now, let’s address the trustees’ diversionary attacks on those of us who disagree with them. Are we “well-organized and well-financed?” I hope so, and we have been able to run a few ads, do some mailings (though the college won’t give us the full alumni mailing list), and establish a web-site. Not surprisingly, however, we are substantially outgunned by the Dartmouth establishment. For example, the pro-capitulation slate was able to place its glossy ad on the front page of the alumni magazine. Ours was somewhere in the back, as I recall.

Do we have a “political agenda?” I don’t know the politics of most of my fellow parity candidates, though I’m vaguely aware that not all of them share my take on politics. It’s possible that, as a group, some of our views of what’s good for Dartmouth differ from the views of the opposing slate. If so, that wouldn’t mean that we have a “political agenda” and our opponents don’t. In any case, the only “political” issue we can expect to be able to influence if elected is whether Dartmouth alums will retain the right to elect half of the college’s trustees. All of us think they should.

Is the lawsuit costing the college money to defend? Yes, but the trustees can put an end to that by adhering to the 1891 agreement. Indeed, assuming the trustees act with a modicum of good faith, they will try to settle the lawsuit if their slate loses this election. The trial court’s denial of the trustees’ motion to dismiss plainly signals that the trustees have a losing hand. Thus, the sensible course (if the trustees’ election gambit fails) would be to concede the issue of parity and to negotiate other issues they say concern them, such as expanding the board and reforming the election process. Unfortunately, the trustees have never shown an interest in negotiating. They prefer to dictate.

Finally, we come to the biggest red herring: who is paying for the effort to oppose the trustees’ power grab? As I understand it, funding comes through the Hanover Institute, a 501(c)(3) educational foundation that was founded and is run by Dartmouth College alumni. The Hanover Institute raises money primarily through letters sent to Dartmouth alumni. By an overwhelming majority, most contributions come from thousands of Dartmouth graduates. A few come from non-alumni who wish to lend support because they are offended by board’s power play, favor free and fair trustee elections, and/or agree with the Institute with respect to the primacy of undergraduate education, or similar issues.

Perhaps the trustees will now explain why this funding mechanism, which pales in comparison to what’s available to them, constitutes a reason for backing a slate committed to packing the board and marginalizing Dartmouth alumni. And while they’re at it, perhaps the trustees will explain how, if the only message with sufficient funding to be heard by alumni is their own, the alumni can be expected to make an informed decision. Assuming that’s the kind of decision the trustees want.

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