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Ho capito, signor sà¬!

The officers and Executive Committee of Dartmouth’s Association of Alumni have done to Dartmouth, to her students, and to her former students a massive disservice by canceling the annual election for the very offices they hold. It is cause for concern whenever an elected leader refuses to vacate his seat, or to allow his government to pass through a planned democratic checkpoint. It is worse when the motivations behind such tyranny—is this not the word we have always used to describe such behavior?—are dark and themselves undemocratic.

Here is why this is wrong.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if this were any old year in the universe of Dartmouth alumni governance. But it is not—this is the year a concerted effort has been concocted to interdict future petition trustees, and to re-organize alumni governance around a significant consolidation of power that will even further leave the system in the thrall of just a few. The effort centers on the proposed constitution of the Dartmouth Alumni Governance Task Force, and it is a document that has been debunked in various ways by sundry people. Just a few of the apt words used to describe it: illiberal, undemocratic, discriminatory, and the most important: gerrymandering. Because while our highest principles demand that the former three are unacceptable in any founding document, it is the case that Dartmouth alumni governance basically takes place in a sandbox—alumni have no codified power other than over themselves. It is more or less a sandbox. The exception is the Board of Trustees, half of which is composed of alumni elected by alumni. The Board, as boards do, runs Dartmouth College. And the rules for electing members to the board are nested in the constitution of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni. It is these rules that the proposed new constitution rends and reshapes with an anti-petition bias.

Gerrymandering, college-style.

And that is what this is all about. That is why the leaders of the Association yesterday, as a result of their earlier procedural tricks, were squeezed into confessing that they have no hope of installing this unfair constitution if, before its ratification is certain, their own positions go up for a democratic vote.

Their move is wrong, and it produces in me and, I hope, you, a queasy feeling. But is it through any rational interpretation constitutional? No. The constitution governing the Association of Alumni [PDF] states the following in Article IV, Paragraph 1: “The officers of the Association shall be a president, two vice-presidents, secretary-treasurer, and an executive committee of seven members, all to be elected at each annual meeting upon the nomination of a committee on nominations appointed by the president.”

And the forcible black letters of the Association of Alumni meeting guidelines [PDF] include the following, in item 2: “In accordance with the Association’s constitution, at each annual meeting, the executive committee shall set the date for the Association’s next annual meeting.”

Pursuant to these rules, a slate of officers was elected at the last annual meeting of the Association, on Sunday, October 23, 2005. These officers, in accordance with the constitution, were elected for one year. And these officers, at the close of the October 23, 2005 meeting, in accordance with the meeting guidelines, set the date for the next meeting. The minutes [PDF] record the following: “As a final order of business, Mr. Walters announced the date for the next annual meeting: Homecoming Sunday, October 15, 2006.”

This planned meeting—planned as they always have been, each and every year—no longer exists. A missive distributed yesterday [PDF, or click on the thumbnail] by Merle Adelman on behalf of the entire leadership of the Association, cancels this meeting and promises to hold the election sometime in “the first half of calendar year 2007.” It is not necessary to note that promises from this Executive Committee and these officers have been repeatedly broken. They were elected in a small meeting of 400 Dartmouth alumni amid calls to open up the vote to all alumni via all-media voting. This they promised to do. They could have done it via a conference call. They failed to do that, all the while installing considered and deliberate guideline changes and amendments to make ratification of the proposed anti-petition constitution easier. Include even a lowering of the voting threshold and new rules that allow them to campaign for the constitution directly on the ballot.

But that is not necessary to note, though it may be of interest. What is important is that the current leadership has set aside decency, honesty, and constitutionality that they may cling to power just long enough to see this axe of a constitution finally fall. They are punishing the Dartmouth community for opposing their constitution: You don’t like it? Then no election for you!

The current leadership is now overstaying their mandate. Officers are to be elected annually, and the current officers have now dictated that they shall extend their terms by a half-year, at which point they’ve given their word that they’ll allow elections. This is unconstitutional. They have cancelled the annual meeting in whole. And this, too, is unconstitutional. One half-hearted, meager attempt is made at justifying this blatant abuse of power. In the above-cited letter, Merle Adleman writes, “This approach is consistent with the current constitution of the AoA, which stipulates that officers be ‘elected annually at each annual meeting.’ The AoA operates under the same calendar as the College; therefore, the meeting must take place during the period from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007. €

The leadership’s dictum remains in violation of the rules because the date of the meeting, pursuant to those rules, had already been set and an election had been planned for it. But even the above-quoted constitutional justification is lacking. The leadership has here resorted to a trope that’s been bled dry by a thousand tricksters before it. The space of time between December 31 and January 1 does not an annum make, nor the space between June 30 and July 1. Three hundred and sixty-five days comprise a year. The leadership was elected for one year and is bound to put its own offices up for a vote at the end of that term, at an annual meeting. By the logic in this letter, it is only by random kindness that every leadership slate thus far has laid down its power after one year instead of after one and a half years.

What to do? For one thing, I am going to oppose the proposed anti-petition constitution with all my ability. A more apolitical issue than opposing this illiberal document I cannot imagine. A few folks have been wondering if the officers can be removed from office, since they have broken the rules for nakedly partisan reasons. There are no such provisions in the constitution. But fair-minded people everywhere would, it seems to me, be in the right to ask them to quietly step down, and mount an all-media replacement election, wherein anyone who desires to run may run. I have no idea if this will happen, but it seems the appropriate, civil response. Meantime, stay positive. There is a bright golden haze on the meadow, and it is the all-media vote on the proposed constitution, which will occur in mid September and extends into late October. A democratic checkpoint in which alumni can express their disappointment with this trickery. That is, if the anointed few currently in power deign to allow us to vote.

UPDATE: This alum says: “Let our voices be heard… This Executive Committee doesn’t care about democracy—all they care about is maneuvering enough alumni into voting for the AGTF proposal to get it in place. This is not what we deserve from our elected officials, and we need to send them that message.”

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