College and university presidents gathered last week to discuss what they need from trustees in times of economic uncertainty. Difficult discussions often arise, and the best board members are "strong enough to say, ‘No, that is a bad idea,’" a university chancellor explained at the annual meeting of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Principled oversight is an oft-cited value. In practice, however, colleges and universities aren’t always eager to hear—and some actively oppose—independent-minded board members.
Such opposition was recently on display at Dartmouth College and Harvard University, which allow alumni to choose representatives in annual governing board elections. Often, but not always, these elections consist of "official" candidates nominated by university-affiliated alumni associations competing against "petition" candidates who must gather alumni signatures in order to qualify.
In separate controversies, Dartmouth and Harvard have taken questionable approaches in supporting the "official" trustees and candidates and, by extension, opposing their "petition" counterparts. As a result, alumni hoping to bring real-world rationality to their respective alma maters have been pitted against the very universities they aim to serve.
FIRE co-founder and chairman Harvey Silverglate has undertaken a petition candidacy for Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the university’s alumni-elected governing body. In the 2009 election, Harvey and Robert L. Freedman—who each had to gather over 250 signatures to qualify—are running against eight candidates nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA).
Very rarely have petition candidates succeeded in challenging the status quo, and Harvey is finding out firsthand the reasons why. In the past two weeks, Harvard officials have waged an unprecedented outreach campaign to encourage alumni participation, with a subtext of support for the official slate. On April 26, the Boston Globe editorial staff weighed in on the recent electioneering:
Elections for Harvard’s Board of Overseers are usually low-key affairs. But this year, an e-mail to alums from board chairman Roger W. Ferguson Jr. emphasizes the board’s ‘remarkable mix of candor and collegiality.’ Another, from the Harvard Alumni Association, stresses the care the nominating committee took to find candidates ‘well-suited to the University’s priorities and needs.’ Could this have anything to do with the shake-things-up campaigns that attorneys Harvey Silverglate and Robert Freedman are waging as petition candidates for overseer?
Harvey asked for access to the same e-mail list that Ferguson used to contact all alumni. He was denied. The Harvard administration—not the candidates—controls the means of communication with alumni, Harvey wrote in an April 27 piece on MindingTheCampus.com. If elected, one of his first initiatives will be to open up the alumni communication systems for Overseer candidates, Harvey said.
But victory will not come easily. The last successful petition candidates, whose platforms demanded Harvard’s divestment from endowment holdings in apartheid South Africa, were seated in the late-1980s (more information here). The campaigns were highly politicized and, in one instance, University President Derek Bok wrote a letter asking alumni to support the official slate. But Bok had the Overseers president sign the missive and subsequently denied involvement. The Harvard Crimson‘s editorial criticisms ring true today:
University officials are again involved in silencing dissident voices on the Board of Overseers—this time by working to block their election. University officials must remain neutral in this and all succeeding overseers elections. Bok and the administration should be welcoming the democracy of the Board rather than shutting out its different voices.
Todd Zywicki, a George Mason Law professor, ran for a Dartmouth trustee position in 2005, championing free speech in his appeal to alumni. His message resonated, and he joined four other successful petition candidates who worked to change the college’s restrictive speech codes. Their service—and an uncompromised commitment to free expression—helped transform Dartmouth to a "green-light" institution; that is, a college free of codes that seriously imperil speech (as Sam recently explained).
The entrenched authority at Dartmouth did not take kindly to what one former Board member termed a "radical cabal." In September 2008, the board declared that five new trustees, all appointed by the board itself, would be added. This move ended more than a century of balance between alumni-elected members and those handpicked by Dartmouth establishment.
Earlier this month, the augmented board voted not to reelect Zywicki to a second term, marking the first such denial in recent Dartmouth history. Thus, a "usually routine" reelection process—which was formerly up to an alumni vote but, since 1990, has been decided by the board—became a debate about free speech and transparency at Dartmouth.
In an open letter to the board, Zywicki surmised that controversial comments made in October 2007 about the college’s former leadership, for which he was publicly reprimanded at the time, were a determining factor in his dismissal. But because he was asked to leave during deliberations and "not given an opportunity to address any charges that may have been made," Zywicki remains uncertain of the board’s rationale, according to the student newspaper, The Dartmouth. Likewise, the Dartmouth editorial staff criticized the board for not providing "a sufficient explanation for the removal."
Trustee T.J. Rodgers, in an April 22 Dartmouth guest column, slammed the "coldly deliberate" process by which Zywicki was excluded. It served as a warning to "petition trustees—and any others tempted to express independent views—not to cross the party line," Rodgers wrote in his column, fittingly entitled "Hang One, Warn a Thousand."
Both Dartmouth and Harvard offer a unique opportunity for their alumni. Not only are they given a voice in their alma mater’s leadership, but avenues are available for those outside the ivory towers to provide, if nominated and elected, their input. It’s no coincidence that these schools are well-respected around the world.
But the objectionable role taken by administrators and current board members to influence such elections is inimical to this democratic tradition of alumni voting. It is only with a narrow definition of the school’s "best interests" that multiple perspectives are rejected in the very colleges and universities where these ideals should be most valued.