In 1891, Dartmouth agreed to a pact that instituted a novel scheme of democratic governance. Alumni — the school’s financial underwriters — won the right to elect half of its non-administrative or ex officio trustees, who oversee the school and hire and fire its president. (The remaining seats are filled by appointment and typically go to big donors.)
The candidates for elected trusteeships have traditionally been vetted by a small committee, ensuring quiescence. Over the last four years, however, no fewer than four reform-minded candidates won seats on the board using a provision allowing nomination by petition. They include Silicon Valley CEO T.J. Rodgers and Virginia law professor Stephen Smith, who have raised the profile of such issues as academic standards, bureaucratic bloat and free speech.
Their presence has proven to be a tremendous offense to Dartmouth’s inner circles. Like administrators at most universities, these academic elites expect only money — not opinion and oversight — from their alumni donors. A year ago, the administration worked with a small committee of alumni to alter the petition process to make it less likely that outsiders could win. They lost in a rout in an alumni referendum.
Should the board decide to vitiate Dartmouth’s own experiment in democracy, it will be a departure from standards of good governance now required in the marketplace, as T.J. Rodgers explains nearby. Worse, it will be one more sign of a widening crevice between the real world and life on the nation’s campuses.
The endowments of the 25 wealthiest institutions of higher learning total $178 billion, and a college education is one of the largest investments a person will ever make (in tuition and donations as an alumnus). It isn’t a surprise that alumni stakeholders have begun to show interest and exert influence. The only surprise is the lengths to which academic elites will go in order to keep out the light of day.
The governance changes that have been intimated by the powers-that-be at Dartmouth threaten to make Dartmouth look like a banana republic.
JOHN adds: I believe that Dartmouth is unusual in allowing direct and effective participation by alumni in selecting trustees. It is therefore, at present, an exception to the banana republic status that already prevails at most universities and colleges. People sometimes ask why we devote as much attention as we do to Dartmouth “politics.” The answer in part, of course, is that as alumni we care deeply about our college, as do some (but by no means all, or even most) of our readers. Beyond that, though, it seems to me that what happens at Dartmouth may be important to the future of higher education in America. If the activist example set by Dartmouth alumni spreads, it could shake up complacent, liberal administrations across the country. If, on the other hand, the rebellion by Dartmouth alumni is stamped out, it becomes that much more likely that entrenched, unresponsive, left-wing governance of our universities will continue indefinitely.
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