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“As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.”

Dartmouth College is in the midst of a power shift.

The Task Force on Alumni Governance was commissioned to draft an update to the constitutions of the Dartmouth Alumni Council and Alumni Association in the Spring of 2004, just as T.J. Rodgers ‘70 —a petition candidate —was elected to the Board of Trustees. Rodgers’ democratic win inspired two new petition trustee candidates in last spring ‘s elections (still run under the old constitution) and once again, the petitioners won spaces on the eighteen-person board. Now, significant changes are proposed to the election system under which these men won, and through which alumni voiced dissent. In fact, there are changes to the entire alumni governance system, not just the trusteeship. I will look at some of the changes in the extended.

In the worst light, this endeavor —which constitutes nothing less than an overhaul of the relationship and powers between alumni and the College itself —smacks of consolidation of power. I do not presume to accuse any one person or group for attempting to circle the wagons, as it were, but it must be made plain upfront that that is precisely how it appears. Dartmouth and other institutions, through the discovery of long-ignored €œpetitioner clauses € in their charters or constitutions, have undergone something of a revolution of late. Alumni steeped in tradition and with visions for their schools that differ markedly from those of current administrations have been successful not only because of popular stances on issues such as free speech, but because of a general malaise with the stodginess of so many colleges.

That malaise is most piqued, I think, when college administrations (and I speak generally), work behind closed doors, within their own ranks, to the exclusion of interested alumni, and without transparency of process. This is not a conservative, liberal, Republican, or Democratic issue. It is one of openness. When they feel shut out, alumni seek redress inside their own ranks, and the petition process is what allows that to occur. Dartmouth ‘s has been called a Lone Pine Revolution, but its rippled rings will not stay within Hanover, New Hampshire. They ought to, and will, spread.

Click “Read Extended” below to view the analysis.

dartconstgfx.jpg

Anyone who has attempted to, in a few moments, understand the current positioning and power structure of Dartmouth’s alumni governance systems has become rather baffled amidst a bevy of associations, councils, committees, organizations, et al.

I cannot say that this new constitution (of which a fair analogy can be made to the Department of Homeland Security created in 2002) makes things any simpler. In fact, it seems to make every aspect of alumni governance more complicated and denser. I doubt that was the goal. (In fact, I have received via email high praise for Joe Stevenson ‘57, who chaired the Task Force on Alumni Governance.) The goal may not have been obfuscation, but it is one of the many worrisome results.

[RAW DATA: Proposed Constitution; Original Association Constitution; Original Council Constitution]

The proposed constitution has one overarching effect. It combines the elected Alumni Association and the unelected Alumni Council under one 6,562 word constitution. Previously, the Council ran under a 2,817 word constitution and the Association under a largely-duplicative 1,586 word constitution. Bylaws and governing regulations, therefore, more than doubled in size, and that is indicative not of bombast, but of a significantly more opaque governance structure.

Those six thousand words contain proposals that are likely to significantly undercut Dartmouth’s responsiveness to alumni concerns.

Several features of the proposed constitution raise in me significant concerns.

Among them is the Alumni Liaison Board, which is a partly-unelected council the purpose of which is to provide “alumni, the Board of Trustees, and the College Administration” a mouthpiece into the ostensibly democratic processes of the Alumni Association. The problem is that the alumni and trustee contingents referred to are irrelevant, since alumni elect representatives and trustees are themselves elected representatives. The net effect, therefore, seems to be to give the College Administration a hand in alumni deliberations. Imagine the outcry from congressmen if the White House ever attempted to install an Executive Branch Bloc in the Senate.

I also take issue with the proposal, enshrined in this constitution, that an entire block of seats on the elected Alumni Assembly will be reserved for “special” people. Specifically, there will be Assembly seats dedicated to Asians, blacks, gays, and Native Americans. This is, on its face, outrageous, undemocratic, and wrong.

Also included in the new constitution is a strange term limiting system that appears to benefit no one but anarchists. Alumni Assembly members with senior positions have terms of three years, after which they must wait nine years before running again. This seems likely to sponsor unduly quick turnover and possibly erratic leadership. The three-year term is no change, as the current Council constitution specifies a three-year term, but I find the nine-year intervention to be rather strange.

But changes to the trustee election procedures are the most troubling, and the College having just come off of several failed bids to keep the trustee selection procedure within relatively closed ranks, any change in the election rules sends a very negative message. Imagine George Bush proposing the nationalization of butterfly ballots in the wake of the 2000 election!

Under the proposed constitution, the internal nominating committee will select two candidates for every open seat on the Board of Trustees. Previously, three were picked. This paring down of nominees allows “pro-establishment” votes to be concentrated against outsider candidates.

Further, alumni interested in running for a trusteeship via petition must actually submit a “Statement of Intent to Petition” forty-five days before the internal committee chooses its candidates. This is an unfortunate change, because it allows the slate of establishment candidates to be stacked against any independent alumni.

The standards for petitioning have also been raised. T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson, and Todd Zywicki became recognized candidates after submitting the required 500 petition signatures. The minimum is now 1% of alumni, which currently means between 600 and 650 signatures. And as time goes on that bar will rise steadily.

The voting system for trustee elections will be changed to an instant run-off, rather than the pure multiple-vote system currently in place. This allows alumni to rank their choices for trustee. Instant run-off is a much criticized process, especially in situations (such as this one) where a single element has the power to put more than one candidate on the ballot. One can quickly imagine how a weaker candidate can be used to artificially push another candidate to the top, above an out-of-the-loop third candidate.

There you have a few issues that I cannot help but take with this proposed constitution. I am sure there will be much discussion to come, as alumni meet on October 23 to consider the proposal.

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