Alumni Democracy at Dartmouth College: Critical, or Compliant, Oversight?

By January 25, 2010

Dartmouth College was little more than a cash-strapped finishing school when it asked alumni for a financial lifeline in the late 19th century. Graduates, in exchange for donations, demanded an effective voice in the college’s management. The resulting compromise: Dartmouth’s governing board would consist of an equal number of alumni-elected and administration-appointed trustees.

Then and now, degree-holders have fulfilled their end, providing ample resources for the New Hampshire institution to maintain, for example, the nation’s best undergraduate program, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Over the last half-decade, however, administrative actions have made this historic agreement a virtual dead-letter. After a series of so-called "outsider" petition trustees were elected to the board by alumni, plans were approved in September 2007 to increase the number of appointed "Charter Trustees" without adding elected "Alumni Trustees." Parity between these different trustee classes and, by extension, a powerful alumni board presence—arguable pillars of modern Dartmouth’s success—came to an unceremonious end. Litigation, a last-ditch effort by alumni to restore parity, has been before New Hampshire courts ever since.

College and university governance disputes are, to be sure, not usual Torch material. But underlying Dartmouth’s reforms are issues central to FIRE’s mission. How the battle for alumni democracy at Dartmouth implicates FIRE’s work—in ways both direct and indirect—will be the focus of a five-part blog series this week. Active alumni of all institutions, even those without such direct democratic access to the decision-making body of their college or university, should take notice.

The latest news: After a New Hampshire judge ruled earlier this month to dismiss a lawsuit that sought to reinstate board parity, the alumni plaintiffs are filing a request today asking the judge to reconsider the case. However, before examining the specific issues of this litigation (which will be the focus of tomorrow’s post), one must consider how the struggle for parity came to the courtroom in the first place.

Dartmouth trustee elections, historically speaking, were non-competitive, non-newsworthy events. That changed in 2004 when T.J. Rodgers, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Dartmouth alumnus frustrated with the college’s direction, decided to take advantage of what was then a seldom-used "petition" route to trusteeship, in which trustee-hopefuls gather signatures to appear on the ballot.

With a nonpolitical emphasis on improving Dartmouth’s undergraduate education and repealing the school’s speech code (PDF), his message resonated with alumni. Not only was he able to gather the required signatures, but he defeated other official candidates nominated by those close to the administration.

Fellow graduates followed suit. In the next three Alumni Trustee elections, petition candidates—whom Rodgers referred to as "independent people willing to challenge the status quo"—were victorious.

These Dartmouth representatives’ support for free speech on campus caught FIRE’s attention in 2005. They were trustees interested in substantive change—not just nominal support for free expression. When negotiations inside the boardroom stalled, these independent trustees weren’t afraid to publicly air their views. In March 2005, Rodgers wrote in the student newspaper, The Dartmouth:

While I am encouraged by [Dartmouth] President Wright’s public support for free speech in his convocation address, it remains to be seen whether Dartmouth will really stand behind his words and actually change the policies that have triggered punitive action in the past against individuals and organizations that simply exercised their right to free speech.

Sunlight, not always popular with those in power, was undoubtedly effective. In May 2005, a letter from Dartmouth’s general counsel confirmed that the college was repealing its speech code. As then-FIRE President David French wrote, it was a huge victory for free speech at Dartmouth; shortly thereafter, Dartmouth became a green-light institution.

To some board members and high-level administrators, these efforts—specifically, taking such issues outside the boardroom and into the public realm—violated a trustee’s role to serve the college; to the Petition Trustees, bringing public attention was a necessary antidote, at times, to what they viewed as board inaction on crucial issues. In other words, it was part of how Petition Trustees fulfilled their obligation to act in Dartmouth’s best interest.

Citing "divisive" campaigning and the negative effects of recent elections, a board-commissioned review recommended in August 2007 that the structures of Dartmouth’s governance be changed. A month later, amid stiff alumni resistance and pleas from Petition Trustees to preserve parity, the board approved the controversial plan. With that, alumni input was significantly diluted.

Tomorrow, I’ll examine the resulting litigation, an effort by alumni to enforce the time-tested 1891 Agreement. What may seem like an esoteric contract dispute concerns, in practice, larger questions of how trustees oversee their institutions—and how that oversight has the potential to end campus rights abuses, if wielded effectively. 

Schools: Dartmouth College