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Rising Mists and Pierced Fog

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Dartmouth, as an institution with vasty roots spread across, as the Alma Mater goes, the girdled earth, is no stranger to political, scientific, or academic controversy. No worthwhile college is, I suspect. But what is new, at least in the memories of those now participating, is the ruction inside. Sons of Dartmouth they all remain, but the quarter of alumni interested enough in the life of the College to vote or run have been galvanized into two encampments, with the result not entirely unlike the American political party system of which Thomas Jefferson warned. Yet, as Americans learned in the early 19th century and as we must today acknowledge, amidst massive change and earnest discordance, the party is what by nature comes perambulating over the Green.

The Green, just a handful of mornings fore was overrun with frost and the entire town of Hanover with fog so thick the green spire atop Baker could not be seen from Robinson Hall. I was out at my usual time—6:30 or so—and could not resist allowing myself to think that this drastic and mercurial weather was just analogy to the political revolution as plainly afoot as the white ice on the grass.

If it is not a revolution that changes the direction of Dartmouth’s academic mission, it is one that changes the system whereby that direction is decided. In either event, it comes unhaltingly and surely, and it comes to the cost of what has been popularly termed “the establishment.”

But Dartmouth, as I have said, is but meek stranger to widespread and unified alumni discontent. And rhetoric, like the fog, has confused a lot of people. To any fair observer, the recent slates of petition candidates have advocated for a handful of concrete deliverables: full enfranchisement of all alumni in all elections, the cutting of our yet-thick administrative grease and its sundry deans, rededication to excellence in undergraduate education, the abolition of any speech code or atmosphere foundational of the same, budget transparency.

By most accounts, and mine included, the current administration has done excellent well in keeping the ivory tower shiny: Dartmouth is on solid financial ground, rising buildings abound, every incoming class is better-credentialed than the last, and we remain near the top of the nation for alumni donations.

The grievances declared in this Lone Pine Revolution are not those. They relate to academics (intellectually diverse or internally-promoting?), and to the orientation (half-hearted university or full-blooded college?) of Dartmouth, and to the day-to-day administration of the College as it affects students. They relate to a governance system so top-down Newton, having observed it, wouldn’t have needed an apple to be sure.

But the reaction of this establishment to this revolution is so strident, so destructive, and so proving of the claims against them, that it’d be cause to chuckle, if only it were not being taken so seriously. I wrote “Savor the Victory” after Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki won the trustee election last Spring. Though I bashfully confess that it was partly an assay at Peggy Noonanism, whose Election 2004 work I adored, I did have a serious point to make. I wrote: “The four other candidates did not really lose. We appreciate their efforts to better Dartmouth and their continuing love for it: neither will end with this election. But the advocates of great centralized power have lost. Anyone who sought to limit speech in the interest of feelings lost. Anyone who dismissed crowded classrooms and scant housing as attendant to Dartmouth becoming a large and impersonal research university: they lost today. Those who allowed the office of speech to die lost today. Anyone whose confident embrace of academic freedom quails at the border of political correctness suffered a grave defeat indeed.”

Yet in response, Geoff Berlin wrote that my column was “worthy of a cable news talk show” and it demonstrated that the election was “all about demonizing people.” The Dartmouth editorial board said the election was full of “alarmist discourse.” And others minced no words. Professor Susan Ackerman, during the election, sent a mass missive assailing Robinson and Zywicki as “anti-intellectual” and “reactionary.” When they won, one liberal student blog wailed, “Republicans win again.” Just two weeks ago, before another election in which petitioners were squaring off against the “establishment” a coterie of students sent e-mails and distributed flyers attacking Joe Asch, who was running for Vice President, as “right-wing/reactionary.” It warned that one of the candidates was “a former Dartmouth Review staffer” and expressed concern that “conservative alumni are highly organized.” Martha Hennessey, one of the drafters of a proposed constitutional overhaul, warned in a mass e-mail that the petitioners had “their own agenda.”

I will be blunt: there has been none of this from the petitioning candidates. And, as my inbox proves, there is no credit to the claim that all of those espousing the revolutionary ideas concatenated above have a necessary tendency toward Republicanism or political conservatism.

In fact, during both the recent Executive Committee election and during the Trustee election, the petition candidates hardly uttered the word ‘liberal’ except to refer to liberal arts. They expounded upon Dartmouth issues. Politicization came from the “establishment”, which saw daggers and right-wing evil and special agendas, and railed against them. In those railings, though, the worst accusations of monolithism, of elitism, of Ivory Tower fiats were proved. Because those decrying the petition candidates saw nothing but a threat to the hermetically-sealed system that allows a virtually single-minded establishment to go virtually unchallenged.

And then there is the proposed constitutional overhaul. If post-election establishment overreaction laid bare the circled wagons at Dartmouth, the new constitution does so tenfold. In reaction to round harpoonings, drafters have all but rescinded their draft (sent to me months ago with the word “final” stamped on it) and have retired to revise. But they have no timetable, no advisories, no public list of changes, no deliverables, no standards, and no oversight save for what they post on their blog. The drafters I have met are smart and dedicated folks with good intentions, but good intentions do not establish a mandate for constitutional overhaul—especially one which all but slays petition opportunities. Needless to say, many trustees (both nominated and petitioned) are concerned about the new constitution. T.J. Rodgers, as reported in The Dartmouth via anonymous brown-envelope sources, expressed via a personal e-mail his intent to oppose any constitution which would work to seal alumni governance from outsiders. The AGTF evidently sees this as an attack on their work, and may say so in coming days in a letter to the editor in The Dartmouth. Yet Rodgers has every right as an alumnus to express his opinion, and per the AGTF’s own dictum the current draft is dead so criticism of it is undue. It does not seem appropriate to attack Rodgers for expressing his view especially when the constitutional overhaul process itself is in the shadows.

And in deed, trustees opposed to the constitution seek merely to prevent the AGTF from deepening an already-chasmic rift in alumni sentiment. Their major changes are, simply put, divisive. I suspect T.J. Rodgers doesn’t want to intimidate or interfere: just advise that ‘this isn’t going to go over well.’

One day—I sincerely hope that it is soon—I will be able to write a comic post about the hilarious machinations behind alumni governance of Dartmouth; governance effected by an alumni body distributed throughout the world via e-mail, where the people you CC indicate the earnestness of your convictions. For now, though, I hope some of the haze has been penetrated. Because in play are serious concerns of a revolution misread, an election system being sealed, a constitutional task force that reports to seemingly no one, and accusations abound of hidden agenda. There is politicization here, but it does not come from the likes of Robinson, Zywicki, and Rodgers. It comes from a monolith challenged.

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