Alumni Democracy at Dartmouth College: Changing the Culture

By January 29, 2010

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

Over the last decade, FIRE has secured 168 public victories in its ongoing effort to maintain liberty at colleges and universities across the country. (This interactive map documents each case.) While these individual victories are no doubt significant, the difficult question remains: How do we change the culture from which these abuses arise?

One possible method, though there are many, is for alumni to take a more active role in their alma mater’s direction. That has been the underlying message of this week’s series on governance trends at Dartmouth College: In order for reform to take hold, alumni should use all available avenues to make their voices heard.

At Dartmouth, a group of concerned alumni were able to use Dartmouth’s unique system of open democracy to gain seats on the inside. Their advocacy—repeal the speech codes, hire more faculty, and reinvigorate financial oversight—resulted in the powers-that-be attempting to mitigate their influence by changing the board’s structure.

The board structure has now been changed, but whether Dartmouth alumni will accept this diminished role remains to be seen. All eyes in Hanover will soon turn to the first trustee election since 2007, in which pro-parity petition candidate Joseph Asch will compete against an officially-nominated opponent who has no declared position on board parity—which makes all the difference when it comes to the relative influence of the alumni on the board.

For those outside the Dartmouth community, this may appear to be just one college’s internal governance dispute. But lessons abound for graduates hoping to influence the culture of their college, even those without the same degree of democratic access to their school’s decision-making body.

At Dartmouth, independent trustees (and candidates) showed the importance of parsing university press releases and polished data sets to find out what’s really going on. Asch, for one, has built a reputation of not accepting Dartmouth’s claims at face value. He wrote a Dartblog series, for example, that questioned official statistics on student-faculty ratio in August and September 2009. It upset some administrators, but it also contributed to the discussion of why some students were shut out of certain classes. Even in the midst of budget cuts, the college continued to hire new professors in November 2009.

While the Internet offers powerful ways to reach students and administrators, submitting opinion pieces to independent campus newspapers is no less effective at providing a critical alumni perspective. Petition Trustee T.J. Rodgers criticized the school’s speech code, his colleague Todd Zywicki called on the board to honor the 1891 Agreement, and trustee—hopeful Asch examined administrative expansion, all in the student-edited newspaper, The Dartmouth.

Of course, money talks, too. If alumni are dissatisfied, perhaps they should consider Zywicki’s advice to "Check That Checkbook" when the development office comes calling. Rather than reflexively donating to a college’s general fund, Zywicki writes, graduates should consider earmarking their gifts to support programs of their choice. The more ambitious alums might even consider telling their school’s development office that they’d like a voice in how their contribution is spent. Or, as some at Dartmouth have put it: "No Donation without Representation." (FIRE also has a donation option for giving to FIRE in lieu of a gift to your university—and we can let your university know that you’ve taken a stand.)

Having trustees willing to speak up against students’ rights abuses or to speak out when their college or university doesn’t live up to its promises is also essential to changing the campus culture, according to FIRE Chairman Harvey Silverglate. "They cannot be allowed to accept the accolades, honors and prestige that go with being trustees," Harvey wrote, "without performing the sometimes-hard duties."

At Dartmouth College, those who willingly embraced the sometimes-hard duties—recognizing it would benefit their alma mater in the long-run—became the targets of an administrative power grab. Yet, more than two years later, they are still actively trying to right the ship and preserve alumni democracy. Their involvement and perseverance should serve as inspiration for any alum who knows their college or university can do better.

Schools: Dartmouth College