Roger L. Simon

Dissidents at Dartmouth

As a professional writer, I do my best to respect commercial boundaries put up by publishers, but in this rare instance I think a subscription-only editorial from the Wall Street Journal merits breaking my rule and publishing here in its entirety. It criticizes reactionary behavior by my alma mater Dartmouth College that is emblematic of a cancer spread across the American academy. Pretending to be “progressive,” these institutions are turning into the most rigid insular communities threatening freedom of expression and even thought. The folks at Powerline (also Dartmouth alums) have previously published this editorial but I am doing so here because of the open comments. Please have your say.

Dissidents at Dartmouth
September 1, 2006; Page A14

The left-leaning faction that dominates American higher education doesn’t take kindly to strangers — particularly those who challenge the prevailing academic orthodoxies. Just ask Harvard’s Larry Summers.

Or consider the escalating governance controversy at Dartmouth College. A few reformers have achieved a bit of influence, and now the New Hampshire school’s insular establishment is doing everything it can to run them out of Hanover.

Since 1891, Dartmouth has been among the handful of colleges and universities that allows alumni to elect leaders directly. At present, eight of the 18 members of the governing Board of Trustees are chosen by the popular vote of some 66,500 graduates, from a slate nominated by a small, mostly unelected committee. (The remaining seats, reserved for major donors, are filled by appointment.)

In practice, the Trustees have been largely ornamental overseers, rubber-stamping the management decisions of the “progressive” college administration and faculty. The passivity of the Trustees owes, in part, to the fact that many official alumni representatives operate as a de facto wing of the establishment, pushing candidates who won’t make trouble.

In 2004 and 2005, however, Dartmouth alumni were finally offered genuine choices. Over three successive Trustee contests, independent candidates bypassed the official channels and got onto the ballot by collecting alumni signatures. Each of the petition candidates — T.J. Rodgers, a Silicon Valley CEO; Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter and current Hoover Institution fellow; and Todd Zywicki, a law professor — ran on explicit platforms emphasizing academic standards, free speech and Dartmouth’s acute leadership crisis. All three were unexpectedly elected by wide margins despite intense institutional opposition. Not only did the trend give expression to the general alumni discontent over how Dartmouth is being run (a rare thing in academia), but a critical mass was also building for more muscular stewardship, and, with it, fundamental change.

Dartmouth’s inner circles, quite naturally, loathe all of this. And so the Alumni Council — the representative body of sorts for the whole — decided there was nothing to be done but change the rules. At issue is a new proposed constitution, cooked up in 2004 and constantly altered in response to events, that would “reform” the incorporation of the Trustees.

Most of the details are too tedious to go into here, but the new document is plainly designed to prevent outsiders from gaining still more Trusteeships. Most significant is a provision that would require prospective candidates to submit petitions before the official nominating committee selects its candidates. Not only would this vitiate the entire rationale for petition candidacies — a last resort to express dissatisfaction with the status quo — but it would allow the nominating committee to shape its slate against external challengers and split votes. These rules, like those in a casino, would game the odds in any given election in favor of the house.

The constitution is promoted as a measure to increase fairness and transparency, but in reality it would do neither. While the Alumni Council — already a bureaucratic labyrinth — is to be reorganized, it would actually become less representative, with more unelected positions with more power to pick Trustees than under the present arrangement. The revisions would also increase set-aside seats for groups defined by race or sexual orientation.

As if to redouble the throbbing of the tell-tale heart, the alumni executives recently “postponed” the elections for their own offices, in violation of their own bylaws, until after the constitution is given an up-or-down vote by the full alumni body. If it passes, the maneuver would entrench the leadership as currently comprised until at least 2009. Alumni would be left without democratically elected executives, let alone a say in Trustee nominations.

And so a pattern emerges at Dartmouth, one interminably replicated on other campuses: The academic establishment wants to consolidate its authority and exclude those who might deviate from the party line. But in a democracy, the results are not supposed to be foreordained. The new constitution will be put up for ratification by the alumni on September 15. Despite Dartmouth’s troubles in recent years, we trust its graduates are bright enough to see this power play for what it is.