Several Dartmouth alumni have sued Dartmouth, claiming it has violated an 1891 agreement that conferred upon alumni the right to select 50 percent of the Board of Trustees. The 1891 agreement was between Dartmouth and its Association of Alumni (AoA), which previously filed a suit against Dartmouth for the breach. However, the AoA withdrew the lawsuit after the alumni voted in a slate of officers that had pledged to do so. The new suit is filed by a small number of individual alums, heroes in my estimation, who assert that they are third party beneficiaries of the 1891 agreement.
The present group of AoA officers called itself the “Unity” slate during the election campaign earlier this year. Naturally, its leader, John Mathias, now complains that the latest lawsuit is a source of disunity. He adds that it will divert resources away from the needs of the college.
It was always clear to me, however, that the path to alumni unity was not to be located by capitulating to trustees seeking to minimize alumni participation in the college’s governance. Rather, as in 1891, unity could be achieved only by a compromise under which the power elite continued to tolerate the promised 50 percent participation by folks elected by the alumni in exchange for alterations in the system of electing these trustees that would alleviate the problems identified by the power elite. This is why I ran, quite unsuccessfully, for a place among the AoA officers.
Hope for such a compromise, and thus for real unity, died when the newly elected officers dropped the lawsuit, the only meaningful short-term pressure point on the over-reaching trustees. The new lawsuit could, in theory, revive hope of a compromise. As a practical matter, however, the power elite will respond by attempting to defeat the plaintiffs’ third-party beneficiary argument. And the plaintiffs, as well as those who support them, will be demonized.
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