September 2, 2007


Mr. Rodgers Goes to Dartmouth: A cautionary tale about a businessman who ventured back into the Ivory Tower (JOSEPH RAGO, September 1, 2007, Opinion Journal)

Founded in Hanover, N.H., in 1769, Dartmouth has long been famous for the intensity of its alumni's loyalty. It is not unfair, or an exaggeration, to call it half college and half cult.

In part this devotion is because of what the school does well. "Dartmouth is the best undergraduate school in the world," says Mr. Rodgers, who graduated in 1970 as salutatorian, with degrees in chemistry and physics. There were "small classes taught by real professors, not graduate students," he says, "and I never realized how that was heaven on earth until I went on to my next school." (Mr. Rodgers earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1975.)

Partly, too, Dartmouth's alumni fidelity is a result of engaging graduates in the life of the college. It is one of a few schools in the U.S. that allow alumni to elect leaders directly. Eight of the 18 members of Dartmouth's governing Board of Trustees are chosen by the popular vote of some 66,500 graduates. (The other seats are reserved mostly for major donors, along with ex officio positions for the governor of New Hampshire and the college president.) This arrangement has been in place since 1891.

Until recently, though, Dartmouth's elections have been indifferent affairs, with the alumni choosing from a largely homogeneous slate handpicked by a committee closely aligned with the administration. In 2004, things got--interesting. Mr. Rodgers bypassed the official nomination channels and was named to the ballot by collecting alumni signatures; he needed 500 and ended up acquiring more than 15 times that. He was dissatisfied with the college's direction and resolved to either "do something or stop griping about it." He was elected by 54% of the voters.

Although there were a lot of political issues churning about the campus, Mr. Rodgers decided "that I would pursue just one issue, and my one issue, the one substantive issue, is the quality of education at Dartmouth. . . I decided that if I started debating the political argument du jour it would reduce my effectiveness."

That kind of pragmatism, however, didn't inhibit a highly political response from the aggrieved, including the college administration and some of the faculty. Mr. Rodgers notes that certain professors "seemed to specialize" in accusing him of being retrograde, racist, sexist, opposed to "diversity" and so forth. Or, in the academic shorthand, a conservative.

A curious label for a man who is in favor of gay marriage, against the Iraq war, and thinks Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush. Mr. Rodgers's sensibility, rather, is libertarian, and ruggedly Western. He is also a famously aggressive, demanding CEO, with technical expertise, a strong entrepreneurial bent and an emphasis on empirics and analytics. His lodestars, he says, are "data and reason and logic."

At Dartmouth, he remarks, he has produced dozens of long, systematic papers on the issues. His first priority was to improve its "very poor record of freedom of speech." Soon enough, the college president, James Wright, overturned a speech code. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group, elevated Dartmouth's rating from "red" to its highest, "green," one of only seven schools in the country with that status. "We made progress, and I was feeling pretty good," Mr. Rodgers says.

He intended to move on to quality of education next, but the political situation at Dartmouth degenerated. Mr. Rodgers's candidacy was followed by two further elections, in which petition candidates--Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Todd Zywicki, a professor of law at George Mason University--were also elected. Mr. Rodgers says that, like him, they're "independent people willing to challenge the status quo."

Perhaps sensing that a critical mass was building, Dartmouth's establishment then tried to skew the petition trustee process. The details are complex and tedious, but last autumn they cooked up a new alumni constitution that would have "reformed" the way trustees were elected. In practice, it would have stacked the odds, like those in a casino, in favor of the house.

The measure needed two-thirds of alumni approval to pass, and in an election with the highest turnout in Dartmouth's history, it was voted down by 51%. "It lost big time," Mr. Rodgers says.

Earlier this year another petition trustee, Stephen Smith of the University of Virginia Law School, was elected with 55% of the voters. Quite naturally, Dartmouth's insular leadership has loathed all of this. A former trustee, and a current chair of Dartmouth's $1.3 billion capital campaign, publicly charged that the petition process had initiated a "downward death spiral" in which a "radical minority cabal" was attempting to hijack the Board of Trustees. That was among the more charitable commentaries.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2007 8:03 AM

Just like the Episcopalian bishops and elites telling the African Anglicans to go back where they came from.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 2, 2007 11:05 AM

Is that vaunted handwriting on the wall becoming more and more legible?

Posted by: erp at September 2, 2007 2:13 PM