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Tutte le Macchine, Rovescerà²

Several days ago I placed a phone call to a member of Dartmouth’s Alumni Governance Task Force—a small group of alumni charged with drafting an overhaul to the constitution on which Dartmouth alumni draw their power and organize themselves, and the document under which the two underdog trustee candidates last year were elected—thanking that member for an open-mindedness I had not expected. That committee’s “penultimate draft” had just come out and, though I hadn’t read it, I had heard that concessions were made on some points of argument, like the installation of “instant run-off” voting. That small tip was accurate: the current approval voting system now remains. Later, at the behest of Dartblog readers, I sat down in an overkitschy coffee house in Lambertville, New Jersey to deconstruct the thing and prepare a report on which changes I thought were good or bad.

My objective measure here is whether a given change empowers the masses or empowers an anointed few. The latter is the case at too many colleges, where rigged systems have made schools unresponsive to their founders and their formers, creating a sealed form of governance resistant to change and without a safety valve. As a matter of simple philosophy, I abhor such closure and its oafish progeny, stagnation. I don’t like gerrymandered district-drawing in congressional races and I hate closed systems at colleges. Both slay representation, democracy, decency. Both starve the open mind of oxygen and halt everything that inspires reform. If an idea is good, or if the electorate has a will, it should win.

The Alumni Governance Task Force’s proposed constitution—dubbed “penultimate” because it has been strangely ordained that discussion must soon end—ensures that broad will and new ideas will fall on deaf ears. Although it allows for more elected offices in aggregate, it nets to less democracy. And of grave concern to all alumni who have in the past or may in the future support petition trustees, it hinders the chances of future petitioners. In fact, in almost every instance, it steels the system against outsiders, denying them a voice and creating instead an endless wilderness of red tape and rigged committees. Because of this, the constitution should be opposed with great vigor.

The areas of concern are plenty, but the tenor is this: Every seat of power has been essentially pre-ordained. There is token democracy, but wherever alumni are permitted to elect someone, they are merely deciding who will occupy the perpetually in-the-minority sect of a given committee. Wherever there are executives and leaders, these seats have been filled not through any “starter” election but by taking the in-crowd currently in power and transposing them into the new governance system, with the added benefit of putting them on a power “arc” that will ensure that any mandate for change is made opaque and wobbly by the time that elected person reaches office. It is a sort of political soma pill, something quite new and quite dangerous.

—While alumni are given the opportunity to elect more people from a purely numerical standpoint, power is divided among committees whose membership is almost permanently stacked against outsiders. The Balloting Committee and the Nominating Committee, which control trustee elections, will be hand-picked by the current insiders on the Alumni Council. While some portion of both committees are directly elected, both will have a majority of insider, un-elected members. In the Balloting Committee, this is because the President of the Assembly (who will not be elected should this constitution be ratified, but has instead been appointed) is an ex officio voting member. In the Nominating Committee, a group also initially populated by fiat, there is a provision that a majority of members can add an additional chair to the committee—which the initial in-circle group will do immediately—and the majority is self-propagating.

Potential petition trustee candidates themselves face the wild-eyed demand that they identify their intentions and submit all of their petitions before the Nominating Committee chooses its slate of candidates, a concept that ignores the truth of the petition provision, which is that it is a way for alumni to react, or to rebel, against irresponsible or ineffective leadership. It is not the medium of a ‘petition party’ which must always oppose the ‘establishment party’. It is an in-case-of-emergency option which by its very nature is reactive. That this constitution demands that petitioners warn the anointed few before they pick the official slate speaks volumes about how the in-crowd sees the state of alumni affairs. Their window to collect signatures is now a slimmed thirty days. The due date of the petitions is now arbitrarily determined, rather than codified. Supporters of petition candidates must file paperwork themselves, as petitioners are evidently no longer trusted to collect their own signatures.

—Alumni will not see an elected president until 2009. This is a result of the constitution’s “presidential arc” system, which aspires to subdue any possible shake-up in the power structure once all alumni are enfranchised. The current crop of insiders is actually preserved under this system. Because the president, who will be initially appointed, holds power both before he actually becomes president and after he leaves the office, a single election sets off an extended tour of duty during which a president is responsible to no one—no provisions for recall are in this constitution.

—Almost unbelievably, provisions are made at length for accusing Dartmouth alumni of cheating in trustee and other elections, or of authoring fraudulent votes. The arbiters are to be a College official and one of the chiefly-unelected committees.

Constitutional amendments not favored by the anointed few are subjected to an extreme burden—an unheard-of 3,000 petition signatures—to even reach alumni for a vote.

—Then there is the Alumni Liaison Board, a vague committee with, again, a permanent un-elected majority membership. It is tasked with linking the Dartmouth administration with the alumni governance structure, and simultaneously is given the job of conducting research to determine what it is that alumni want, which research will presumably be reported to executives and taken as gospel. But it should be evident that the philosophy behind such a thing is antithetical to broader democracy: No un-elected body is needed to determine what the Dartmouth community wants. For that there are elections and referenda.

—As if to put too fine a point on all of these critiques, there is the utter tragedy that race, origin, and sexuality-based discrimination remains a badge of honor in this constitution. There are certain clubs—called “Alumni Affiliated Groups” and so anointed by College officials—to which some Dartmouth alumni, by the uncontrollable circumstances of their birth, are permanently barred from membership. These groups are codified, legitimated, and given extra voting power in this constitution, beyond the simple and equitable system of assigning representatives to classes.

This constitution has found a way to proclaim democracy while everywhere shunning it. Reams of the unsaid unfurl as one pores over this constitution. Reams about what sort of trust is placed in the sons and daughters of Dartmouth this document seeks to govern. The ringing answer is, “not much.”

The constitution as offered does not deserve to pass.

There will be much more on this in days, weeks, and months to come, as a public relations effort builds behind this document on the way to a Summer vote. Some sort of gala has been planned for Boston on Monday, at the Sheraton, where this constitution will be promoted. There will be a webcast of same. Discussion continues on the AGTF’s blog. And certainly many more people will weigh in with articles, blog comments, and the like. I hope Dartblog readers do the same, because much of what was started a year ago is now threatened. Procedural concerns are nowhere near so sexy as the substantive ideas that fellows like Peter Robinson, T.J. Rodgers, and Todd Zywicki raised during their campaigns, but the procedural issue is, regrettably, what has been forced. Let the response come in full.

MORE: Be sure to read also the Dartmouth blog of David Gale, class of 2000. He has been doing excellent analysis.

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