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What’s The Right Got To Do With It?

“A new fight has erupted at Dartmouth College, long a battleground for conservatives and liberals warring over politics, education and values.”

An old battleground? That’s possible. Few people are in a position to know, most having spent only four years on the Hanover plain, but certainly shanties and Reviews have put Dartmouth’s name on the national political map. “Long a battleground for conservatives and liberals” is a contextualization that isn’t so much wrong in this Associated Press dispatch as inapt. Katharine Webster’s report is certainly worth reading—it describes the role a national group, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has played in demanding that a maliciously-cancelled election of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni be reinstated. ACTA is legally required, since it is a 501(c)(3), to be non-partisan, and its foundership bears that out—unless one considers that Joe Lieberman is on the right-wing.

But I digress. The lede of the AP article digresses. We all digress. Take another look at what ACTA said when it wrote to the leadership of the Alumni Association. What you’ll find is chapter-and-verse citation—not of a well-thumped evangelical’s Bible but of the Association’s own constitution and guidelines. The ones from which it derograted willfully when it cancelled an election which, were it to swing in the reformers’ direction, may have threatened the leadership’s concerted efforts to turn an upcoming constitutional referendum into a simple installation. To, as Scott Johnson has recently noted, rig the vote to ensure that an anti-petition constitutional overhaul is put in place. A calculated decision was made, and a tawdry excuse conjured, to put to bed a long-planned demoratic checkpoint which happened to fall within the month-long voting period of the constitutional proposal.

Dartmouth as a battleground for liberals and conservatives? I sure hope every college is. But this cancelled election and the constitution debate represent a fundamentally different fight—a fight for fairness.

ACTA has not made a single conservative comment in either opposing the constitution—which it does, as does the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an ACLU-type organization with academe as its cause. Nor have I in writing against it the many times I have. Nor has Andrew Seal, the editor of the left-wing Dartmouth Free Press, in his writings against the AGTF proposal. Nor Dan Linsalata, Seal’s counterpart at the right-wing Review, in his. Nor the two in duet—their rare confluence of opinion provoking a joint statement by Dartmouth’s chiefest student politicians.

Well, the rational person leans back in his chair, rubs his chin, and wonders Why the left/right framing?

I touched on this question almost a year ago in “Rising Mists and Pierced Fog.” Here is an excerpt, still apt:

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.

This reminder—that there exists no right-wing cabal crouching in the tall grass, waiting for the chance to pillage Dartmouth, abduct her women, and spirit them away to Smith College—is significant because the remaining forces behind the Alumni Governance Task Force’s draft constitution seem to have made the decision that trying to twist this Hanover debate into a Washington, D.C. debate—into Republican versus Democrat—will cause them to win. I have no idea if that’s true, but it is in the event wholly dishonest. The Chronicle of Higher Education in a recent issue printed an article about left/right college politics, and the public’s opposition to government control of private institutions of learning. (Count me in their ranks.) The article does not mention Dartmouth once. But Stan Colla, a member of the slate of Association officers which is trying to install this constitution and the only audience member who made a comment in favor of the constitution at a Boston forum last March, has seen fit to reprint that Chronicle article on the official blog of the Association of Alumni leadership. He writes that the article “sheds light on Dartmouth alumni issues.” Well, no it doesn’t. Colla’s hope is that, if he can convince enough people that The Republicans Are Coming, they’ll forget about material problems with the AGTF’s constitution. I think that’s a gross underestimation of alumni’s devotion to Dartmouth. The import of groups like ACTA and FIRE is only that they are professional organizations with deep experience in governance issues and teams of lawyers who can produce line-specific analyses of college code.

This they’ve done, and I suspect Colla will soon learn that you can’t shake the rhetoric stick at black letter law.

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