Thursday, October 4, 2007

Super Long Letter from Alumni Assoc.

The Association of Alumni sent a very long letter to Dartmouth students tonight via blitz:
Dear Dartmouth Students,

We are the executives of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni who are seeking to prevent the Trustees from implementing their highly controversial reorganization of the governance of the College. We owe you an explanation, as we recognize how this affects you today and in the future. At the moment, you are the most important people at Dartmouth. In four years, all of you will be alumni and there will be 4,000 new undergraduates. Our goal in all of this is to protect the core of the Dartmouth experience -- and even the '11s already know exactly what we mean by this -- from administrative overreach and from co-optation by a small (but, we readily admit, very wealthy) group of alumni.

A brief bit of background. Dartmouth's Board of Trustees hires, fires, evaluates, and sets the salary of the president. Of course, they don't decide, for example, which courses are offered in a given term -- faculty decides that -- but they are charged with overseeing the entire College and setting its strategic direction. Their decisions determine what Dartmouth will become. For over a century, half of the Board has been elected by former students of Dartmouth. The moment one's class graduated, one earned the right to vote.

Over the last four years, a remarkable series of events happened at Dartmouth. T.J Rodgers '70, the self-made CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, ran for a Trusteeship and won. Why was that remarkable? Because Dr. Rodgers did not have the administration's sanction. He used a petition process long embedded, and usual ignored, in the election rules. Dr. Rodgers's campaign explained all the good that ha been done at the College -- and all the hard work still required. By contrast his opponents did not offer substantive opinions. Dr. Rodgers won an astounding victory.

The next year, two seats were open. Two more petition candidates -- law professor Todd Zywicki '88 and author Peter Robinson '79 -- ran and won. They focused on issues of free speech (Dartmouth still had a red-light speech code at the time, limiting freedom of speech), and support of athletics (ask senior friends about the attempted cutting of the swim team). Again, these petition candidates won.

As a matter of course, each of these three petition candidates found themselves becoming even better informed in the details of the College and sobered by what they learned. Their concerns have centered on ensuring absolutely the best student experience, by eliminating bureaucracy, increasing the numbers of the full-time faculty available to students, and making sure that traditional out-of-class experiences are not diminished. This made those in power uncomfortable. Instead of addressing these issues head on, the administration became defensive, as you can now see on the infamous Ask.Dartmouth.Edu website. There was, and remains today, a sense that dissent is disloyal. You can still hear some people claim that talking about where Dartmouth needs to improve is akin to harming Dartmouth!

Needless to say, this sort of argumentation -- which echoes what we've heard in Washington over the past few years -- failed to convince many people. The year after Messrs. Robinson and Zywicki were elected, a brand new alumni governance constitution was proposed. Under the guise of changes to the structure of alumni organizations, a few people who feared having more petition trustees tried to change the rules to make it much more difficult for future petition candidates to be elected. The College spent a lot of money attempting to get the document ratified -- even hiring a public relations firm -- and some wealthy alumni hired a pollster to do telephone push polling. But it failed. It needed 67% approval to pass, and it only got 49%.

The next year -- and now we are talking about last Spring -- another petition candidate ran for a Trusteeship under the traditional rules.He is Stephen Smith '88, a legal scholar. (You can still see his website here: He won by a clear majority took his seat as the only African-American man on Dartmouth's Board. His campaign centered on bureaucratic bloat at our College. He noted that the number of assistant deans and vice presidents had ballooned in recent years, that Dartmouth was spending a smaller and smaller fraction of its massive resources on the actual classroom experience. Clearly, Mr. Smith said, there was an entrenched bureaucracy problem. A separate College-commissioned report by the McKinsey consulting firm said the same thing.

Probably you have already noticed this in dealing with the registrar, ORL, the parking people, and a Safety & Security force that is now bigger than the Hanover police department itself. But whether you have noticed it or not, the bottom line is that a fat administration means a lean faculty. Talk candidly with your professors -- particularly those in the government and economics departments -- and they will tell you that Dartmouth just plain needs more profs.

Mr. Smith's victory -- and we apologize for the long blitz; it is almost over -- was the last straw. Asked by The D to comment on his win, then-chairman Bill Neukom '64 said: "We have a new Trustee." His unwillingness to say any more, or anything positive, was just as strong a condemnation of Mr. Smith as if he had said something negative. And implicitly this was also a slap in the face to the Dartmouth community which elected him.

Quickly after Stephen Smith took his seat, the Board announced that it would conduct a "study" to see whether it should reorganize itself. Not surprisingly, the Board decided that indeed it should reorganize itself. This was after hearing from thousands of current and former Dartmouth students -- young, old, men, women, liberal, conservative -- who told the Trustees that they shouldn't try to change the rules for elections just because they aren't winning them.

But, in the midst of this serious debate about the direction of our College, the Board did indeed change the rules -- shutting down the debate in violation of all the academic principles Dartmouth holds dear.

Acting on the advice of its Governance Committee, the Board doubled the size of the unelected part of the Board and kept the duly elected half at the same size. Further the Board delivered a dictum that effective immediately the College will take over the Trustee election process. In effect, the College is now in the hands of a powerful few, and more divorced from the desires of the community than ever.

This is just a short synopsis of what has been a years-long saga at our small, well-loved College. It is the story of tens of thousands of voices coming together yearly to ask for innovation, evolution, and improvement; it is the story of personal politics getting in the way of progress. More than anything, though, it is the story of Dartmouth struggling to keep its special place in academia. You came to Dartmouth, not Williams. And you came to Dartmouth, not Harvard. Some are not so sure Dartmouth should stay Dartmouth. And some are eager to use Harvard's mediocrities as excuses for their own.

In the end, that is what this present squabble is all about. The Association of Alumni, the official organization whose members are all 68,000 living graduates, is not meddling in how to run Dartmouth; instead we are asking for help (an injunction) to prevent the Board from making these harmful and regressive changes.

So that you know exactly what the Association of Alumni is asking of our legal system, here we quote from the official request for a judicial opinion:

"The Association of Alumni of Dartmouth College respectfully prays for:

(a) a declaration of the Association's right to choose one-half of Dartmouth's non-ex officio trustees through the Association's chosen selection process;
(b) an injunction (i) barring the College from adding charter trustees to its board, unless it seats an equal number of alumni trustees chosen by the Association, and (ii) requiring the College to continue seating alumni trustees chosen by the Association;
(c) an order that the College specifically perform its contractual obligations and promises by seating equal numbers of charter and alumni trustees chosen by the Association; and
(d) such other and further relief as the Court deems just."

Please ask yourself if these requests seem reasonable. You will be a Dartmouth student for a very short while, and then a graduate for a lifetime. The Association response, a last resort done with considerable reluctance and deliberation, is intended to secure for you, and for all alumni, the right to participate in defining what you collectively think is best for our beloved Dartmouth.

Please do not hesitate to email us if you have any questions at all.
Well, that's probably the longest email or blitz I've ever received. Obviously, they've seem to forgotten that people tend to stop reading blitzes that are longer than two paragraphs.

The Association of Alumni did a good job of presenting their case. They were smart to emphasize the trade off between administration size and the number of professors. Most students have faced problems with class size or getting into classes, and I think that many students are perplexed about the administration's size. I'm not sure, however, that the average Dartmouth students really cares that much. I don't think students in general are paying that much attention to the alumni hubbub. It's not that students doubt the importance of the debate, it's just that there is a very high cost of becoming informed. For example, I'm not sure that I fully understood every angle of the proposed alumni constitution debate, because it was just so complex (I wasn't blogging back then). Students also have a very different perspective than alumni. Because they are here at Dartmouth now, students are focused on the short-term rather than the long-term. From a long-term perspective, the governance debate is extremely important to Dartmouth, but the chances of it directly effecting students within their time as undergrads is relatively low. For students, issues such as DDS changes might matter more to them, even if they would seem banal to alumni.


Anonymous said...

David: Did you read it and what did you think of its content?

David Nachman said...

I edited the original post and put some commentary up

Anonymous said...

Strange that it doesn't even mention the lawsuit, don't you think? Isn't that kind of the elephant in the room when the Association uses its official Dartmouth email address to send a message to students?