An insult to our intelligence

The decision by Dartmouth’s board of trustees to terminate the right of Dartmouth alumni to elect half of the board insults the intelligence of the men and women of Dartmouth. For it implies that Dartmouth alums are not capable of electing trustees of the same caliber that a small, self-appointed elite group can select. Indeed, the leader of that small group, Ed Haldeman, made this insult explicit when he declared that “elections can’t guarantee” that trustees will have “the specific talents and experiences” Haldeman thinks the board needs. That, of course, is the traditional “we know best” lament of anti-democracy advocates everywhere.

Haldeman’s dim view of the discernment of Dartmouth grads seems to be shared by John Mathias, leader of the slate of candidates for leadership of the Association of Alumni that promises to capitulate to Haldeman and his inner circle. Thus, in his guest column in the Dartmouth student daily newspaper, Mathias relies on a series of evasions and red herrings that suggests near-contempt for student and alumni intelligence. This is consistent with his slate’s advertisement in the alumni magazine, which brands his ticket “positive.” It’s almost as if Mathias thinks he’s running for third grade class president.

The issue that this election may well ultimately decide is whether Dartmouth’s alumni will continue to elect half of the college’s trustees. Yet Mathias does not address the merits of this issue at all. He expresses no view on whether alumni should retain this right or whether it was lawful for the trustees unilaterally to terminate it. It’s as if a candidate for president was committed to ending the war in Iraq, and only that action, but refused to debate the merits of the war. Apparently, Mathias thinks few will notice his evasion.

Mathias focuses instead on the lawsuit that thus far has prevented the college’s board-packing scheme. He says lawsuits are divisive and expensive. But as a lawyer, Mathias surely understands that the decision to sue cannot be divorced entirely from the underlying issue of the suit and the suit’s merits.

In addition, Mathias’ analysis of the consequences of the suit is breathtakingly superficial. He pretends that his slate’s defeat would entail endless litigation. More likely, it will lead to a compromise. The trustees insist that there is an urgent need to expand the board. Thousands of alumni (and probably a majority, given Mathias’ efforts to focus attention elsewhere) favor electing half of the board’s members. The obvious resolution is to expand the board and keep parity. But this compromise is only possible as long as the board cannot both expand its numbers and end parity. If Mathias’ slate is elected, the board will be entirely free to do both, and thus will have no incentive to compromise.

Such a compromise, moreover, is the only hope for healing the divisions Mathias says distress him and threaten the college’s future. If the board-packing plan is rammed through, thousands of alumni will resent what they believe is their effective disenfranchisement. The resulting alienation likely will last for at least a generation.

Mathias tries to gloss this over with empty promises to address these matters through “constructive dialogue.” But, again, if the suit is dismissed, the trustees will have no incentive to listen. Nor have they ever indicated a willingness to do. Read the board’s announcement of its decision to end parity and ask yourself whether it leaves any room for compromise. Mathias’ assertion that “the trustees welcome. . .dialogue” on this issue is as unsupported as it is vacuous.

Bereft of any substantial arguments to support capitulation, Mathias resorts to conspiracy theories. After taking the obligatory shot at the Dartmouth Review (which is hard to reconcile with his claim to be a figure of “unity”), he asserts that “outside interests” are “financing” the lawsuit. This is misleading because the suit is being financed by Dartmouth alums, either directly or via the Hanover Institute, a group consisting of Dartmouth alums. The Hanover Institute also accepts contributions from non-alums, but Mathias fails to explain why this is problematic. If the suit is important and meritorious, it would make no sense to turn down such contributions unless Mathias thinks the money is coming from terrorists or drug lords.

Mathias asserts that Dartmouth alums have a right to know the identities and motives of people who are contributing to the lawsuit. In his mind that “right” seems to trump the contractual right to elect half of the trustees. The motives of contributors can readily be inferred: agreement with the suit and/or the view that electing independent petition candidates under other than meaningless conditions can be a good thing. Mathias seems concerned that some contributors may also disagree, as many alums do, with some of Dartmouth’s policies and trends. But this election is about whether alums (not “outsiders”) will have a role in making decisions about Dartmouth; it is not about what those decisions will be.

Is Mathias concerned that “outsiders” will dominate elections in which only Dartmouth alums can vote? If so, this constitutes a further insult to the intelligence of the men and women of Dartmouth.

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