August 27, 2007


College Trustee Fight Heats Up: Mailings, Advertisements Draw Attention to Dartmouth (Peter Jamison, 8/27/07, Valley News)

What is surprising to outside observers, perhaps, is the time and money Dartmouth's sons and daughters are willing to spend indulging that passion. And the extraordinary lengths to which alumni have gone in an intensifying blood-feud over a somewhat confusing set of procedural questions have led some to question whether the parties involved really care, as they say, about undergraduates' experience at Dartmouth -- or see the college as a battleground in a larger culture war between political conservatives and liberal academe.

The recently formed Committee to Save Dartmouth College has claimed it plans to pour up to $300,000 into a national advertising campaign to bring alumni's attention to potential changes to the college's Board of Trustees. The group -- whose organizers have remained anonymous, signing online communications with a moniker of combined Dartmouth dormitory names -- is opposed to the work of a new governance committee examining the board's structure and how trustees are elected. Former Chairman of Trustees William Neukom announced the committee’s formation in May.

Critics of the college administration say the governance committee is a thinly disguised means of diminishing alumni influence.

At present, alumni hold 16 of the 18 trustee seats (the other two are held by college President James Wright and New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch). Of those 16, alumni elect eight -- who are then formally approved by the board of trustees -- while the board itself chooses the other eight. The college's governing body is “unique” in the prominence it gives to alumni voices, according to Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

In recent years, a string of maverick candidates, earning a place on the ballot through petition, have defeated the handpicked candidates of the Alumni Council, an organization that critics say is too cozy with college administrators. These dissident trustees, who are openly critical of the Dartmouth administration, say the move to re-examine the Board of Trustees' current setup is intended to prevent more like them from winning office.

“This is a group of election-losers who realize they're being outvoted, and want to change the rules and thereby ignore the will of the majority,” said Stephen Smith, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate who in May won a seat on the Board of Trustees in a successful petition campaign.

Smith, a professor at University of Virginia Law School who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said he expects the governance committee to suggest either doing away with alumni involvement in the selection of trustees entirely or relegating trustees chosen by alumni to “ceremonial” status.

Haldeman acknowledged that the governance committee was created in response to the recent trustee elections, but denied that the board's motives were those of sore losers. He said trustee elections were becoming too divisive and costly -- Smith said he spent about $75,000 campaigning, as did one of his opponents -- and were creating a “reputational hit” to Dartmouth.

Haldeman, who is on the governance committee, would not reveal the committee's recommendations, which are due to be presented to the full Board of Trustees at a meeting on Sept. 7 and 8, but said that the board's size -- which he described as smaller than at many other colleges and universities -- would be one area of the committee's focus. The full board must approve any changes.

Some say the college administration's critics have a hidden agenda of their own. David Spalding, vice president for alumni relations at Dartmouth and a 1976 graduate of the college, said the petition trustees might be agents of an organized effort to bring politically conservative leadership to Dartmouth. In recent years, conservative media voices -- including the National Review and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal -- have lent their support to the Big Green's outsider trustee candidates. Dartmouth itself has a reputation as a bastion of sometimes dubious collegiate traditions: The college has a strong Greek system, was the second-to-last Ivy League school to admit women, in 1972 (Columbia University did not go co-ed until 1983), and is home to The Dartmouth Review, an independent student newspaper that is arguably the most notorious conservative organ in American higher education.

“I think everybody ought to be very honest about what they're doing,” Spalding said. “I think if this is going to be a conservative takeover of the college, people should be very honest and open about that. It could be a coincidence that three out of the four (petition trustees) are strong conservatives, and it could be a coincidence that the only media covering them are conservative media. But these coincidences do pile up over time.”

To borrow the cant of Academia, oughtn't the Ivy League be diverse, like having one conservative college in its ranks?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Yes they should be very clear and upfront. The alumni group wants to break the liberal stranglehold and the cozy relationship between the administration and the board.

If Dartmouth alumni pull this off and it looks like it might happen, other alumni groups won't be far behind.

Posted by: erp at August 27, 2007 10:54 AM