Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Bigger Picture

As a follow-up to my comments in the previous post, I would like to share some thoughts about the broader perspective regarding the petition trustees...

1. I believe that the presence of the petition trustees is ultimately beneficial to Dartmouth. I like Dartmouth's administration and I think they do a very good job. I've worked with some of the top administrators and they always seem on top of their game and the sort of people we want leading Dartmouth. But even the best administrators need good oversight, because people are human and they make decisions that are not always the best. And the stakes here are very high - one of the most prestigious academic institutions. I don't have great confidence in the oversight capabilities of the Board of Trustees because I believe they are overly willing to follow the administration's lead. By comparison, the election of the petition trustees put increased pressure on the administration, and their presence on the Board has led and will continue to lead to increased oversight. I think this is a good thing and will benefit Dartmouth in the long run.

2. The petition trustees should be given free rein to do their jobs as they see fit. They are a minority on the Board and always will be. They are not really a threat and shouldn't be treated like one. There should be less concern about what they may say and more interest in the issues they raise. Controversy is artificial, and debating loyalty and responsibility to the Board is ultimately a distraction. Constantly putting the petition trustees on the defensive is unwise. When people feel threatened, they act more aggressively and they act in unpredictable ways. From one trustee controversy to the next, Dartmouth has been under a state of emergency. We need to get back to normalcy. It is in everybody's interest to reduce the level of conflict. An outsider at the "Ask the Trustees Anything" forum two weeks ago would have found it difficult to distinguish the petition from the non-petition trustees. Everyone was very collegial and they revealed broader agreement than one might gather from newspaper headlines. That's exactly what we need moving forward, and I think that will comes from an environment where the petition trustees are treated as accepted members of the Board.

3. Zywicki's comments were undeniably blunt, but were fundamentally aggressive articulations of his well-known beliefs. He shouldn't have said it. But there is no need to go nuts over it. Everybody knew that Zywicki thought Freedman was a bad president; whether he called Freedman a "truly evil man" or a "bad leader" or a "mediocre president" is besides the point. It's all the same really. When we create an environment where trustees need to be hesitant about expressing their opinions, we reduce accountability and transparency. As elected leaders running on an opposition platform, it is absurd to expect the petition trustees to remain silent about the issues they care about. As a student, I want, and furthermore I expect, trustees to be open about the issues and concerns facing Dartmouth. When problems are shoved behind closed doors, things rarely turn out well - we end up with Enrons. Finally, concerns about PR problems are overstated. Only a few years away from the college tour circuit, I strongly doubt that any prospective student was turned off by the trustee struggle. That's simply not what students care about when picking a college. Secondly, I doubt the petition trustees have caused Dartmouth giving to decrease. If anything the increased attention should be good for alumni giving.


John Bruce said...

Style, especially in areas like a Board of Trustees, is unfortunately important. I had to make a decision when taking stock of my own strengths and weaknesses that I wasn't a good candidate for that kind of work, even locally in venues like condo boards, because I just wasn't smooth enough. Not saying anything good or bad, just I wasn't going to be as effective as a might, and there were other things I could be more effective doing.

You say the petitioners should "do their jobs as they see fit" -- but what are their jobs? In large part, I voted for them in hopes that they could bring changes to the Board. At this, they've so far not been as effective as I'd have liked, and Zywicki has probably peed in the lemonade as far as petition Trustees go.

The man is a lawyer, a prof, and an Ivy grad, and he doesn't seem to have recognized that there are times when you don't shoot your mouth off. There is a difference, in fact, between calling someone "evil" and calling him "ineffective" or whatever. Zywicki seems not to have had the good sense to put a sock in it.

Nor do I see an effort by Rodgers or other petition Trustees to mitigate this -- though I don't know how you fix peeing in lemonade.

The Ivy and Trustee-level style is understated, ironic, detached. You can get a lot done this way -- William Buckley used it to great effect, for instance. To accuse everyone you disagree with of not believing in God is, I hate to say it, not understated, ironic, or detached, and pretty much trashes your credibility as a good-faith interlocutor.

The best thing that can happen is for some adults to get hold of Zywicki, and separately Haldeman and the Committee on Governance, and negotiate a resignation on the best terms possible for the future of the peitition movement.

Anonymous said...

David, when you hit your car with a hammer, someone will say "he shouldn't have done it." But when you hit your friend with a hammer, saying "he shouldn't have done it" kind of misses the point. You have a duty not to hit your friend with a hammer, and your sincerity or the benefit your friend receives do not matter.

Zywicki was fully aware of the duties he took on when he became a trustee, and he knew that they included a duty not to speak ill of Dartmouth or its administration, a duty to raise money for Dartmouth, and a duty not to seek donations to benefit himself or his employer while acting as a Dartmouth trustee.

If he hadn't wanted to take on these and other obligations to Dartmouth, he wouldn't have accepted the nomination or the election. It doesn't matter that certain beliefs of Zywicki are well-known if he is obligated not to articulate them while a trustee.

David Nachman said...

Anon. 2:48:

I don't think that the trustees have a fundamental duty not to criticize the administration. I'm don't know what rules typically govern the board of directors of a corporation, but in the context of Dartmouth, it doesn't make sense to me that being a good trustee should require one to abstain from criticism. A trustee's ultimate responsibility is to best serve the interests of the institution. If a trustee believes that public criticism would benefit the institution, then wouldn't it be proper for the trustee to do so. Of course, I don't think Zywicki should be criticizing the administration - because I don't think it's deserved. But I think his right to do so should be in question.

DartBored said...

Criticizing the administration is OK, but Zywicki has done a bad job of it.

John Bruce said...

And at that, Zywicki is not all that far out in front of Rodgers.

Anonymous said...

A trustee has a duty to criticize the administration in trustee meetings if he believes that's in Dartmouth's interest.

But in public, a trustee has a duty to speak well of Dartmouth. That means he may not engage in some or most forms of public criticism, even if he thinks (for some reason, I don't know why) it would help the institution.

Zywicki signed away his right not to do these things that you may avoid doing because you are not a trustee:

Act in the best overall interest of Dartmouth.

Represent Dartmouth positively in words and deeds, particularly and proactively to Dartmouth constituents.

Serve Dartmouth as a whole, rather than the interests of any constituency.

Help Dartmouth secure the financial, human and other resources necessary for the institution to achieve its mission.
[Zywicki proposed to his audience that they donate to his employer or other alternative institutions instead of Dartmouth. He failed to "work on behalf of Dartmouth between Board meetings."]

Uphold the integrity of the Board.

Avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance thereof, in accordance with the Board’s Conflict of Interest Policy. [One of the institutions he's shilling for is his own employer]

Adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional behavior so as to reflect favorably on Dartmouth.
[Calling the late past president evil does not reflect favorably on Dartmouth and fails to adhere to high standards of personal behavior]

Anonymous said...

What's strange is that Zywicki has apologized for or tried to explain the "evil" comment but not his fundraising for his employer over Dartmouth. That action is the most egregious -- and incidentally more likely to be illegal than anything of which he accused the rest of his board.

John Bruce said...

Zywicki, of course, is saying both bad things of Dartmouth, and bad things about Dartmouth by his personal example. More here.

That he hasn't resigned, or someone hasn't pushed him off, by this point also says a lot about Dartmouth, none of it good.

Anonymous said...

Only John Bruce can turn the crankiness of one crank -- whom he helped nominate -- into a failure of the Dartmouth Board in particular and a Dartmouth education in general!

Come on, Haldeman already said he will bring up Zywacko's behavior at the next meeting. What more would you expect him to do? And do you really think the disguised and then revealed wackiness of one guy is a reason to condemn the education provided by the Ivy League schools to tens of thousands of graduates over the past 20 years? Or are you just trying to turn your own mistake into another anecdote to support your anecdotal thesis, which is that everything went downhill since your days of dropping acid?