Alumni Democracy at Dartmouth College: Another Active Alum Seeks Trusteeship

By on January 28, 2010

This is the fourth entry in a five-part series on recent developments at Dartmouth College. Read posts from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Joseph Asch, a 1979 graduate of Dartmouth College, saw a problem with his alma mater and endeavored to fix it. After auditing several courses—attending lectures, scrutinizing syllabi, and talking to students and instructors—Asch found that the quality of undergraduate writing was a common complaint among the Dartmouth professoriate. In response, the business owner and Hanover resident launched (and funded) the Departmental Editing Program in 1998, a free service for students that provided one-on-one tutoring to improve their writing skills.

Since 1990, in addition to starting the writing program, Asch has audited over 30 courses, contributed regularly to a student-initiated blog, and penned 30 opinion pieces in the student newspaper on topics ranging from speech codes to alcohol policies to administrative hiring. Now, after decades of advocating for students from the outside, Asch is seeking a seat on the college’s Board of Trustees.

Throughout this week, I’ve been examining the recent struggle to maintain alumni democracy at Dartmouth. This struggle is the result of a 2007 decision to end more than a century of equal balance, or parity, between alumni-elected and administrative-appointed trustees on the college’s governing board. For alumni like Asch, never one to mince words, the governance changes were the college President’s attempt to build "a fortress around himself by appointing unquestioning supporters to important positions."

But the Dartmouth leadership has changed, and Asch is now looking to support first-year Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim as a trustee who emphasizes fiscal responsibility, improving undergraduate education, and restoring parity on the board. (His campaign website is here.) Asch’s path to trusteeship will be an uphill climb, however, as he must first gather 500 signatures before February 4 in order to appear on the ballot as a petition candidate.

It will be the first alumni trustee election since 2007, when the controversial governance reforms caused the college to put elections on hold. As discussed in yesterday’s post, Petition Trustees were the unspoken targets of these reforms, as their view of fiduciary duty—not only trumpeting Dartmouth’s virtues, but also publicly discussing instances where the college didn’t live up to its professed values—clashed with the college’s entrenched leadership at the time.

Though not always popular in Hanover, Asch’s approach to oversight appears to be in line with the Petition Trustees. Take, for example, a February 10, 2009, opinion piece he authored in The Dartmouth. With proposed budget cuts from college leadership in the air, Asch examined the college’s official statistics to shed light on how the financial situation had become so dire. He found that, from fiscal year 2007 to 2008, the expenditures on administration support increased 45%, or $14,790,000. Asch analyzed the college’s personnel directory, too, and noted major increases over the past decade in administrative employees. "We have virtually the same number of students, faculty and alumni as we did 10 years ago," he wrote. "[W]hy do we need all these extra administrators?

As Petition Trustees can attest, asking these kinds of tough questions, even if they serve the college’s best interest, can be greeted with personal hostility. "He’s an unrelenting critic of Dartmouth, almost pathologically," John Mathias, the Association of Alumni President who voluntarily dismissed the Association’s lawsuit to restore board parity, said in a September 2009 profile of Asch.

While Asch’s budgetary analyses have irked some, so too has his unwavering stance on parity. "My sense is that there was an agreement in 1891 on parity—whether it was binding legal or gentlemen’s agreement, I don’t much care," Asch told The Dartmouth. "I think the Board is honor-bound to respect that agreement."

Asch’s administrative-nominated opponent in the upcoming trustee elections, personal care company executive John Replogle, doesn’t have a "yes or no" answer on parity. He told The Dartmouth that he would not decide until after the trustee election. Ballots will be mailed to Dartmouth’s 69,000 graduates starting in late March.

What can those outside the Dartmouth community take away from Asch’s experience? Before mounting his petition candidacy and using Dartmouth’s unique open election system, Asch was like any other alumnus frustrated with the direction of his college.

But he actively tackled Dartmouth’s problems, not waiting for administrators to address what professors saw as weakness in undergraduate writing skills. And he was willing to dig beyond the college’s public relations and crunch the numbers, speak out on blogs, and write opinion pieces in the student newspaper. Simply put, he was willing to hold the college to the principles that he felt they should be embodying.

Though this didn’t make him a popular figure among Dartmouth higher-ups, students recognized—and appreciated—his influential engagement. "[I]f Asch didn’t care so much about this institution and want it to continue to excel in all facets of its existence," a student columnist wrote in October 2009, "he wouldn’t bother to write or criticize."

Whether a majority of alumni share this student’s opinion and are willing to vote for Joseph Asch as their trustee representative remains to be seen. But, win or lose, this active alum will continue to remind his alma mater that students—and their rights—come first.

Maria Romero contributed to this entry.

Schools: Dartmouth College