Alumni Democracy at Dartmouth College: A New Chapter?

By January 27, 2010

This is the third entry in a five-part series on recent developments at Dartmouth College. See posts from Monday and Tuesday.

A day after the selection of former Harvard professor and global health leader Jim Yong Kim as Dartmouth College’s 17th President in March 2009, the student writers of "Generic Good Morning Message," a satirical news-of-the-day e-mail listserv on the Hanover campus, turned the announcement into a parody of the college’s first Asian-American president.

For some, the ethnic stereotypes in the tongue-in-cheek e-mail went too far, generating controversy on campus and attracting national media coverage. The initial reaction resembled other, all-too-typical FIRE cases.

But this time, censorship did not win the day. President-elect Kim, in a campus-wide e-mail, sought understanding for the e-mail’s author: "[W]e all make mistakes – especially when we are young." And in subsequent open meetings on campus, administrators reminded students that the "nature of the speech in the e-mail does not warrant College disciplinary action" because Dartmouth "does not have a speech code," The Dartmouth reported.

Four years prior, the situation might have ended differently. That’s because Dartmouth’s speech codes (PDF), shaped in part by controversial statements against free expression from then-President James Wright, remained in effect until 2005. Vocal public advocacy from concerned graduates and "outsider" Petition Trustees, elected by alumni as their representatives on Dartmouth’s governing board, finally pushed administrators to change the policy regulating student speech in May 2005.

Without this change in policy, the satirists behind "Generic Good Morning Message" could have been punished for their expression. Instead, with open campus meetings and other dialogue on race and diversity at Dartmouth, community members who objected were able to publicly air their disagreements. Speech was answered with more speech; the free marketplace of ideas functioned as intended.

Repealing the campus speech code was far from the only means by which Petition Trustees helped to improve the college. They pushed to refocus Dartmouth on undergraduate education by creating permanent academic committees on the board and leading the calls for additional faculty hiring. They also scrutinized spending patterns, voicing concern at what they saw as unnecessary renovation projects or administrative hiring that outpaced the college’s earnings.

These Petition Trustees knew why they had bested their administrative-nominated opponents in four straight alumni elections for seats on the Board of Trustees. It was "an alumni response to an administration that has been increasingly making questionable decisions," Todd Zywicki told The Dartmouth after he and fellow petition candidate Peter Robinson were elected in 2005.

Questioning the status quo and exercising critical oversight caused Petition Trustees, at times, to be at loggerheads with the administrative and board establishment. So when a board-commissioned review recommended ending the century-long balance between alumni-elected and administrative-appointed trustees, there was little doubt of the intended target. "The heart of this conflict lies in the history of recent trustee elections," according to a news article in The Dartmouth written after plans were approved to end board parity.

In other words, when the board and administration didn’t agree with the alumni’s trustee choices, they moved to diminish the alumni voice by changing the structure of the board. (Tuesday’s post detailed how the struggle to restore parity has played out in the courtroom; Monday’s post touched upon why this balance has been historically important.)

While structural board changes had the effect of lessening alumni input, so too did the actual removal of a Petition Trustee. In April 2009, the "usually routine" process by which the board reelected trustees became an opportunity for the board majority to eliminate a dissenting voice. Without giving Petition Trustee Zywicki a reason for his dismissal—hiding behind "confidentiality" requirements—the board denied his reelection.

Students criticized the decision, and Petition Trustee T.J. Rodgers wrote that the removal was a warning to "petition trustees—and any others tempted to express independent views—not to cross the party line."

These controversies are no doubt important in understanding where Dartmouth currently stands. But the point of this series is not rehash the past. As a January 22 staff editorial in The Dartmouth indicated, the campus is ready to move on from these divisive governance disputes. The lack of a definitive judicial resolution, however, serves to discourage reconciliation.

What it does is put pressure on first-year President Kim to take a stand on an issue he had no role in creating. He has already shown he is different than his predecessor in at least one regard. We will now see whether President Kim decides to embrace the strong alumni role that has, for centuries, set Dartmouth apart from its peers.

Schools: Dartmouth College