Hanover — Two Dartmouth alumni have launched petition drives to become candidates for seats on the college’s board of trustees, saying they want to bolster undergraduate education and freedom of speech at the Ivy League school.
One also wants Dartmouth to end what he calls a "war against the fraternities and sororities."
And both would-be candidates — a tenured law professor and a former White House speechwriter for President Reagan — also mention on their Web sites a much-debated letter from Dartmouth Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg criticizing the "culture" around collegiate football.
The letter, written in 2000, was first reported by the Valley News in December.
Dartmouth’s Alumni Council has already nominated four candidates to fill two open alumni seats on the Dartmouth board in an election that starts next month. Petition candidates who submit 500 signatures from fellow alumni by Feb. 23 also would qualify, and the Web sites of the two challengers to the official slate reflect some of the longstanding grievances of alumni who feel the Alumni Council is too close to the Dartmouth administration. But the bids to be elected to the trustees are also hampered by arcane alumni rules that discourage campaigning.
Todd Zywicki, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate, wrote on a Web site announcing his petition drive that the "recently reported expressions of hostility toward Dartmouth’s football program by a senior College official demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the positive role that athletics can play in educating well-rounded students, building school spirit, and maintaining alumni loyalty."
Peter Robinson, a 1979 graduate who wrote Reagan’s famous speech calling for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, said on his petition-drive Web site that Dartmouth President Jim Wright was "utterly mistaken" when he said the school is "a research university in all but name."
Robinson also said Dartmouth should hire more professors to reduce class size, noting that the school now has more than 30 deans.
"The administration should forswear any attempt to turn Dartmouth into a second-rate Harvard or Yale, instead rededicating the College to its central mission: providing the best undergraduate education in the country," wrote Robinson, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif. "Dartmouth needs more professors and fewer deans."
Although the two alumni are running independent campaigns, both said they would support the other’s petition drive.
Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia and currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center, was a football reporter for The Dartmouth , the college newspaper, and also served as a broadcaster for baseball and basketball games. He was a member and athletic chairman of Zeta Psi, a fraternity that was punished with "permanent derecognition" by Dartmouth in 2001 for publishing newsletters that purported to detail the sex lives of students.
Zywicki wrote that Dartmouth "should honor students’ rights of freedom of speech and association. The administration’s war against the fraternities and sororities must end."
About 1,800 undergraduates, some 44 percent of the student body, are members of the fraternity and sorority system, according to a college spokesman.
Robinson, a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity who was editorial page editor of The Dartmouth , said Dartmouth had a low ranking on a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rating of freedom of speech on campuses, and he noted the restrictions on campaigning imposed on alumni seeking seats on the board of trustees.
Alumni hold seven of the 17 seats on the Dartmouth board of trustees, and two are up for election this year. The board of trustees has "ultimate responsibility for the financial, administrative and academic affairs of the College," according to the Dartmouth Web site.
The Alumni Council, about 100 of the school’s alumni who collectively serve as the official liaison between Dartmouth and its graduates, has nominated four candidates on the ballot.
If Robinson and Zywicki submit enough signatures from fellow alumni by the Feb. 23 deadline, they would also be placed on the ballot, which is mailed to all 65,000 Dartmouth alumni.
But the signature collecting cannot be done by fax or by electronic petition, and signatures in black ink are not allowed, apparently to prevent photocopying. Moreover, Alumni Association nomination guidelines say actual campaigning, besides one 400-word personal statement and two e-mails sent to alumni subject to the review and approval of an Alumni Council balloting committee, is "inappropriate."
"It is the responsibility of the candidate to communicate the dignity of the trustee nomination process to his or her supporters and to honor the spirit and the guidelines of the process," the guidelines state.
Both Robinson and Zywicki spoke guardedly to a reporter, saying they did not want to be accused of violating the guidelines on campaigning, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with them.
The candidates nominated by the Alumni Council are Sheila Cheston, a 1980 graduate who is the vice president, general counsel and secretary of BAE Systems North America; Gregg Engles, a 1979 graduate and chairman and CEO of Dean Foods Company; Richard Lewis, a 1984 graduate and chief executive of Curzon Global Partners in London; and Curtis Welling, a 1971 Dartmouth and 1977 Tuck School of Business graduate who is president and CEO of AmeriCares.
Although other petition candidates could still emerge, alumni interviewed for this story knew only of the attempts by Robinson and Zywicki to make the ballot.
Dartmouth College spokesman Roland Adams declined to comment on the petition drives, saying they are part of an election run by alumni.
Alumni Council President Karen Calby, a 1981 graduate from Darien, Conn., said the four nominees already on the ballot could be seen as having the Alumni Council endorsement, and said the council is "affiliated (with Dartmouth), but not an organ of the college."
"I think it suggests to people that they have been through a very thorough (vetting) process. It should not suggest that they came from the administration of the college," said Calby.
The petition campaigns are certain to spark more debate among alumni.
Dartmouth Trustee T.J. Rodgers, who last year became the first alumnus in 20 years to win a petition-drive candidacy, said he supports the focus on undergraduate education and freedom of speech and will back both Zywicki and Robinson. A 1970 Dartmouth graduate and the founder and CEO of San Jose, Calif.-based Cypress Semiconductor Corp., Rodgers also has raised the issue of freedom of speech on campus, noting restrictions on delivery of newspapers at dormitories and a prohibition on banners at football games to prevent spectators from unfurling images of the old Dartmouth Indian mascot.
"I think the college should spend more money on teaching," said Rodgers, who said he believes Dartmouth has hired too many administrators.
"I would rather have one more professor in the economics department than a dean of pluralism. That’s an example of an administrative cost I would give up," Rodgers said. Dartmouth has an associate dean of student life for pluralism and leadership, and The Dartmouth is currently running a series of stories on large class sizes at the college.
The office of pluralism and leadership is designed to "support historically underrepresented populations and to encourage the building of cultural bridges across historical boundaries," according to the college’s Web site.
David Shipler, a former New York Times correspondent and Dartmouth alumni who served as a trustee from 1993 to 2003, defended the importance of the dean of pluralism and said Dartmouth has done important work diversifying. Shipler, in a telephone interview Thursday, also disputed assertions that Dartmouth has lost its focus on undergraduate education and said there is a "false impression that Dartmouth alumni are very conservative and don’t want change," which could be fostered by low participation in alumni voting. Roughly 22 percent of alumni voted last year.
"My experience with Dartmouth alumni has been that the sort of moderate- to liberal-minded people are not really very well organized, and are not very outspoken, whereas the conservatives are much more outspoken and better organized," Shipler said.
John MacGovern, a Windsor resident and 1980 Dartmouth graduate who has battled against the powers of the Alumni Council, said the petition candidates could fare well because of lingering anger about the Furstenberg letter.
In a letter on Dartmouth stationery to the Swarthmore president in 2000, Furstenberg wrote, "I wish this were not true but sadly football, and the culture that surrounds it, is antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours." Furstenberg told the Valley News in December that the letter was a private communication that did not reflect Dartmouth policy or the way in which he conducts operations at the admissions office.
"I think there are a lot of alumni who are looking for change at Dartmouth," said MacGovern. "I think the Furstenberg matter is something that people wonder why he is still around."
But Shipler defended Furstenberg as one of the best admissions directors in the country, and Hans Penner, a retired religion professor and former dean of the faculty who was at Dartmouth for 36 years, also questioned the alumni criticism.
"You want to talk about free speech, and then they condemn Furstenberg," said Penner, a West Lebanon resident. "It always seemed to me that alumni (trustees) that wanted to get into the actual workings of the college make more trouble than it’s worth. They don’t know what’s going on. They are the trustees of the future. It’s the faculty and the administration that they should trust."
Schools: Dartmouth College