Outside Input Unwanted: A Brief History of Petition Candidacies in University Governance

By on March 24, 2009

In cases of campus speech restrictions, the path to censorship is paved with seemingly benign intent: see, for instance, bans on "rude, disrespectful behavior," as in the case of Johns Hopkins University (covered extensively yesterday by Samantha). Yet the inherent conflict between free speech and open inquiry on one hand and enforcing "civility" on the other is unmistakably clearthose with the power to define "civility" also define an orthodoxy of conduct.

Hopkins is not the only university with a wrongheaded (and at public universities, legally questionable) civility provision. To pick just two examples, Bergen Community College and the University at Buffalo (featured as the January 2009 Speech Code of the Month) have both recently found themselves in hot water for supporting similar codes. What has received less attention, however, is the emphasis on civility among university trusteesthose tasked, in a broad sense, with overseeing campus affairs and shaping policies. Critical self-examination and transparency in university governance is virtually nonexistent at colleges across the country, as those who challenge the status quo are frequently dismissed as "dissidents" or "outside agitators" by the powers-that-be. A few examples illustrate why this is such a dangerous development, especially in the realm of American higher education, where those values should be most honored.

Dartmouth College

For over a century, Dartmouth College provided alumni with an avenue for direct participation in selecting leadership, with eight of the 18 members of Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees coming from popular vote (the other ten were appointed by the Board). Starting in 2004, petition candidatesthose who had to gather alumni signatures to be nominatedchallenged those selected by the Association of Alumni in the annual trustee elections. Alumni responded in kind: over the next four years, four petition candidates were elected to the Board of Trustees.

These trustees spoke out when they perceived their alma mater as not living up to its mission, and Dartmouth students benefited. In May 2005, the college repealed its speech code, and it immediately moved from FIRE’s "red-light" rating and became a "green-light" institution.

These developments did not please everyone, however. Some campus officials viewed the propensity of petition candidates to voice their opinions on illiberal policies as detrimental to the school’s image. The Wall Street Journal profiled T.J. Rodgers, a petition-nominated trustee, who explained the criticisms leveled at the "divisive dissidents."

If ‘divisive’ means there are issues and we debate the issues and move forward according to a consensus, then divisive equals democracy, and democracy is good. The alternative, which I fear is what the administration and [Board of Trustees Chairman] Ed Haldeman are after right now, is a politburo-one-party rule.

As the petition candidates grew in numbers (including George Mason Law Professor Todd Zywicki), so too did the official criticism. After Zywicki expressed disagreement with Dartmouth’s leadership, the Board’s chairman responded.

Haldeman and his cohorts wrote in a statement on the board’s Web site that Zywicki "violated his responsibilities as a trustee of Dartmouth College, which includes acting in the best overall interests of Dartmouth and representing Dartmouth positively in words and deeds."       

It was clear that a frank discussion of the issues at Dartmouth was not welcome on the governing board. The Trustees thus moved to alter the playing field. In September 2008, the Board declared that it would add five new positionsall hand-picked by current Trustees. The century-long tradition of parity between alumni-elected Trustees and the self-perpetuating Board members was erased. It came as no surprise when the Association of Alumni announced in January that the 2009 election would feature no petition candidates.

Hamilton College

At Hamilton College in New York, a group of petition candidates (who, like their Dartmouth colleagues, also had to gather signatures to appear on the ballot) ran on a free speech platform in 2005 to change what they perceived as mismanagement at their alma mater. But these reformers were placed at a severe disadvantage. They were limited to a single 100-word statement that was mailed to all alumni, and rules forbade these statements from including "any contact information or references to specific hard copy or online resource material." Furthermore, these dissident candidates were not permitted to use e-mail for their campaigns.

As then-FIRE President David French asked:

How can a candidate run an effective campaign offering a comprehensive critique of the status quo in 100 words? How can they get their message to the voting alumni without references to additional materials or e-mails? More importantly, how are such draconian free speech restrictions at all consistent with representative democracy and academic freedom?

With the aforementioned restrictions, the reform slate at Hamilton lost. The college continues to maintain policies that substantially restrict freedom of speech and therefore maintains a "red-light" rating.

Harvard University

Harvard University has one of the more unique governing structures of American institutions. The Harvard Corporation is a self-perpetuating governing body that shares power with the Board of Overseers, a 30-member organization, to which five new members are directly elected by alumni each year. Like Dartmouth, most Overseers candidates are nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), but the occasional petition candidate has challenged the status quo.

In the late 1980s, a group of alumni that pushed for divestment of Harvard’s holdings in Apartheid South African ran as Overseers’ petition candidates. The movement struck a chord with concerned alumni, and a Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) sponsored petition candidate was elected in 1986the first time an "outsider" gained a seat on the inside in the more than 300 years of the Board’s history.

The HRAAA continued to support slates of petition candidates, and their approach was working. By 1989, after the election to the Board of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the HRAAA had mounted three successful petition candidacies. The Harvard establishment then took action. Controversial changes in election rules were passed, including a provision to list petition candidates separately from those nominated by the HAA.

The election of an Overseers president in 1989 was also mired in controversy. Peter Goldmark, a former student activist, was nominated to lead the governing body, but he was withdrawn and replaced by a more amicable and administration-friendly leader. The Crimson, Harvard’s independent student newspaper, described the situation:

Many overseers, who say there is pressure on the Board to toe the University line, typified Goldmark as a leader who would have been more willing to encourage debate and dissension on the 30-member, alumni-elected Board.

Since these developments, no petition candidate has been successfulincluding Barack Obama, who lost in 1991. And Overseers election returns reflect a growing apathy among the 330,000 Harvard alumni. Over the past ten years, the percentage of alumni who bothered to return their ballots has shown a steady decline, from a high of 17.9 percent in 2000 to 12.6 percent last year.

Perhaps the election returns will be different this year, as two petition candidates are in the Overseers running. As previously reported, FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate is running as a petition candidate, along with FIRE supporter and Philadelphia lawyer Robert Freedman. Harvey is focused on restoring free speech at Harvard, as well as reforming the student disciplinary tribunal; Freedman is focused on curricular issues and tuition costs. Both agree that a more proactive role for the Overseers is needed, and neither will shy away from speaking out, if elected.

Their petition candidacy has attracted coverage from blogs, newspapers, television news programs, and radio talk shows. They have also recently co-authored a piece for Forbes.com that describes their candidacies.

Undeterred by the unfriendly history toward petition candidatesboth at Harvard and elsewhereBob and Harvey are seeking support to bring change to Harvard form the inside.

Ballots for the Overseers elections are mailed to all living Harvard alumni starting next week (April 1st), and they are due back to Harvard by May 29th. To see how you can get involved, call Cambridge campaign headquarters at (617-876-5610), or send an e-mail to HarveyForHarvard@gmail.com.

Schools: Bergen Community College Hamilton College Dartmouth College Harvard University