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Mr. Neukom, Keep it Democratic

After four petition victories, concerns that Trustee elections may end or be postponed after chairman addresses alumni over Green Key weekend;

Association of Alumni lobbied for elections in 1890, now in 10-1 vote passes motion calling on Board to preserve elections for half of the Board;

Motion earns vote of co-drafter of last year’s constitution, but lone dissenter remains veiled.

For more than a century, Dartmouth alumni have elected Trustees. The Class of 2007 graduates in just ten days, and its members—along with 66,000 other alumni all over the world—expect to remain stakeholders in the College, since they finance large portions of it and are integral to its continuing forward momentum. Yet the Class of 2007 and all other alumni may suddenly be deprived of the ability to elect Trustees when the Board meets over Commencement weekend.

As half the world by now knows, Dartmouth is unique in that half of its sixteen member Board of Trustees is democratically elected by alumni. (There are also two ex officio members, the President of the College and the Governor of New Hampshire.) Elected members of the Board are called Alumni Trustees; appointed members are called Charter Trustees. The split is fifty-fifty, and both types of Trustees are fully invested with Trustee power. There is no functional difference between them once they have taken their seat.

This has been the composition of Dartmouth’s Board since 1892.

1892minutes.gifIn June 1890, alumni formed a committee “to confer and co-operate with a Committee of the Board of Trustees in devising some plan to secure to the Alumni an active participation in the management of the college.” One year later, in 1891, this negotiating team reported that its efforts were successful. In the minutes of the annual meeting of the Association of Alumni that year, it is recorded that “[t]he desirability of a more sympathetic and close relation between the Corporation [the College itself] and the Alumni, to be brought about by alumni representation in the Board of Government in some way was not questioned,” and moreover that “closer relation[s]
between the Board of Government and the Alumni would strengthen the college, and promote its welfare and usefulness.”

In the event, that is precisely what occurred. Alumni gave the College impressive financial bailouts when it was in trouble, donation rates in general went up, and the College came to occupy an ever more eminent place in higher education. Dartmouth’s Board in 1891 recognized that there is nothing so healthy for a small college in a competitive industry than an army of successful, smart footsoldiers, swarming the globe, with a stake in the weal of their alma mater and an incentive to build upon its grandness.

So, what happened in 1891? At the time, was Board was twelve in size. Ten Charter Trustees and the same two ex officio members. Immediately, half of the members of the Board (that is to say, five members) voluntarily tendered their resignations to make room for the alumni designates. They resigned on a staggered basis, so that alumni would vote each year for the next five. They did.

Elections began and continued pursuant to a resolution passed by the Board of Trustees, and included in the document linked above.

Moreover, each time the Board has expanded its size, it has done so in accordance with the basic implication of this agreement, which is that there should be half Alumni Trustees and half Charter Trustees. In other words, the Board expands in twos. This it has done for over a century. There are now eighteen Board members; two ex officio, eight Charter, and eight Alumni.

As late as the winter of 2004, the powers that be (which is to say the College administration and a few very wealthy donors) were pleased with this agreement, because in large part they controlled who was nominated and voted upon for Alumni Trusteeships. Then petition candidates, not approved by the administration and with lists of reform measures they’d like to enact, began winning elections. Four in a row.

And after the first three, a brand new constitution was advanced aimed at making it more difficult for candidates who earn their spot on the ballot by asking for alumni signatures. In the largest democratic action in the history of Dartmouth College, that constitution was defeated by a majority. And then, just weeks ago, Professor Stephen Smith ‘88 became the fourth petition Trustee. 55% of voting alumni checked the box next to his name.

neukom.jpgSome were not amused. Professor Smith had actually noted Dartmouth’s booming bureaucracy, its lean faculty size, and its reckless spending. When the student newspaper, The Dartmouth, reached Chairman of the Board Bill Neukom ‘64 for comment, he offered this thought: “We have a new trustee.”

That comment, in a way, said it all.

But Mr. Neukom had more to say a few weeks later, over Green Key Weekend, when the Alumni Council met. (The Council is the group that chooses the group that chooses the group of alumni who will be “officially” on the ballot as Trustee candidates.)

Rick Routhier, the outgoing chairman of the committee which selected those official candidates, gave a speech in which he announced that the committee could likely not continue in its task of selecting viable candidates, since petitioners keep winning. (One must be skeptical of this claim. Consider, for instance, that all the committee had to do to present a diverse slate of candidates to alumni was to nominate at least one candidate who had been publicly opposed to last year’s new constitution. The committee failed to do so.) Mr. Routhier announced that, when the Board of Trustees meets on June 8, he will announce to them that the Nominating Committee is at an “impasse” and simply cannot press on in its current form. Mr. Routhier suggested that the job of establishing a workable system for nominating Trustee candidates be thrown to the Board itself.

Mr. Neukom’s remarks dovetail perfectly with Mr. Routhier’s to paint a bleak picture for the future of Trustee elections at Dartmouth. The Chairman said that, over the past year, the Governance Committee of the Board of Trustees (a small committee within the Board that sets the agenda) has been meeting to reevaluate the composition of the Board, including the Alumni Trustees. The best way to reach that composition is also within this Committee’s purview. The Committee’s findings, he announced, would be given to the Board over its Commencement Weekend meeting.

Well. This was news to not only the alumni body. It was news to at least one sitting Trustee, petition Trustee Todd Zywicki, who said, “I personally have not heard of any effort by the Governance Committee of the Board to reevaluate the composition of the Board or to tamper with the way in which Alumni Trustees are elected, nor am I aware of any efforts to consider such a change in the future.”

Professor Zywicki adds: “I assume that any such proposal would be a nonstarter as a practical matter, as the eight of the incumbent Alumni Trustees who currently compose half the board presumably would oppose fiercely any efforts to disenfranchise those who trusted them with their seats in the first place.”

aoaltrtobrd.gifBut nothing is certain, and the secret task assigned to the Governance Committee will culminate in a report that, presumably, those Trustees not involved have not yet seen.

And although even non-petition Alumni Trustees might be expected to vote against any radical restructuring, the president’s ex officio vote is a tie-breaker. Moreover Mr. Neukom seemed determined at the Alumni Council meeting. When pressed to affirm his commitment to democratic elections and a half-and-half split of elected Trustees and appointed Trustees, Mr. Neukom demurred, effectively saying that all options are on the table.

All options on the table? Simply because alumni have found better representation through non-nominated candidates? If last year’s constitution was an elegant and carefully calculated attempt to hinder petition candidates, here comes the sucker punch.

The Dartmouth Association of Alumni, of which all alumni are members, just this morning released a message to all alumni. The Association’s officers and executives write:

The Dartmouth Board of Trustees is considering changes to its composition, including the means by which its members are seated. The agreement for seating alumni trustees is one between the Trustees and the Association of Alumni. […]

This is of great concern to us, as participation by alumni-chosen trustees has been of great value to the College, and through this stewardship, it is a most-meaningful way of engaging her loyal sons and daughters.

The attached letter was approved by ten of the elected leaders of your Association, with one dissenter, and sent to the Trustees. […]

And here is the text of the letter, signed by President of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni (and co-drafter of last year’s proposed new constitution) Bill Hutchinson ‘76, calling on the Board of Trustees to make no changes to its democratic nature:
Dear members of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees:

We, the newly elected officers and Executive Committee of the Association of Alumni, wish to convey the concern of a majority of our members regarding an issue raised in a statement made by current Board Chairman, Mr. William Neukom, to the Alumni Council on May 19, 2007. In those remarks, Mr. Neukom indicated that the Governance Committee of the Board would be presenting its report to the Board at its June 9, 2007 meeting and that the Board would consider changes to the alumni trustee election process and over-all Board composition at that time.

We sense that the agreement alumni have with the Board, established in 1891 and historically evolved since then, whereby alumni effectively elect half of the non-ex officio members of the Board, is threatened. We believe that any action which violates, restricts, abridges or dilutes that agreement, as currently enjoyed, would be injurious to Dartmouth College, its students and alumni. Not only do we strongly urge the Board to take no such steps, but we also believe strongly that the newly constituted AOA Executive Committee, elected for the first time in all-media, alumni-wide voting, should be included in any discussions related to that agreement. We feel that such cooperation and coordination with the Board is the best means for alumni to be engaged in solutions to problems facing the Board and the college’s administration and for us to fulfill our obligation to take all appropriate measures to protect and insure retention of the agreement, the uninterrupted exercise of which has redounded to the great benefit of Dartmouth for 116 years.

For the committee,

William L. Hutchinson ‘76, President

As Dartmouth politics go, a statement signed by both pro-constitution and anti-constitution folks is about as bipartisan as it gets. The Trustees could in theory do away with or curtail elections, and indeed in 2003 they even won the right to alter the Charter of the College. But the 1891 Agreement stands, and even if it were to be revoked we would need to consider common law contract or other rights that may exist. We will see what they do.

UPDATE: The Dartmouth Review is now on the story. A. S. Erickson reports on who the lone dissenting vote was on the bipartisan resolution calling on the Board to keep elections intact. And Emily Ghods does a swell dispatch of the whole situation. Read them both.

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