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In Wake of Lost Elections, Dartmouth’s Board, President, Force Overhaul of Governance Structure; Debauch democratic element

After four victories for pro-oversight candidates and a rejected constitutional proposal to change the election process, elected Trusteeships capped and unelected Trusteeships expanded by eight seats;

Transfer of power to internal Executive Committee;

Insularity for Dartmouth leadership: the recommendation of the Governance Committee enacted in spite of outpouring of current and former student sentiment in favor of status quo;

On lopsided Trustee vote, election provisions rejected in last year’s constitution enacted;

Governance Committee considered censoring or limiting bloggers who write about Trustee elections;

Conflict of interest, good governance questions. Former Dartmouth students considering litigation to undo damage.

Read the official report here.

Note from author: This was composed in haste, just as I learned the news. For any errors I beg your pardon.

When the expanding Athenians arrived on Melos midway through the Peloponnesian Wars in 416 BC, they dispatched emissaries to instruct the Melians of their options before the siege. It was an undisputed fact that the Athenians possessed the superior forces; their victory in armed battle was never in question. The options were simple: the Melians could fight, lose, and accept pillage, or they could surrender, pay tribute to Athens, and remain safe. Thucydides, recording a version of this many years later, writes that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. That saw has since been used by statesmen to explain, in a breezy few words, global politics.

It also happens to explain the politics of self-saviorship at Dartmouth College, whose Board of Trustees, on doubtlessly lopsided votes, has just declared that a democratic election system of more than one hundred years’ standing has become, after the first four earnestly contested elections in the College’s history, utterly broke.

WrightDart2.jpgThe College’s President, James Wright, whose leadership was the subject of public inquiry during those last four elections, led the effort as a member of the Board’s Governance Committee—the unelected imperium in imperio which controls many Board proceedings. Dr. Wright, who a search of the archives will reveal has been only lightly criticized on this page, instituted a new scheme for choosing who reviews his performance, sets his salary, dismisses him, and chooses his successor. Whether Dr. Wright voted on the measures taken today by the Board is of no concern, because he had a hand in initiating the schemes, in promoting them, and in finally delivering them to an expectant audience. The conflict of interest, as the national newspapers have noted, is indelible.

And acting on the advice of the Governance Committee, it is my surmise that the non-petition members of the Board voted to dilute democracy by holding the number of elected seats steady and increasing the number of unelected seats by eight.

This eight, mirroring the governance structure of Harvard University, will help to establish an Executive Committee—an insular upper house—which rules over the wider Board. Each Board committee will report to the Executive Committee.

Elections will continue, but for a marginalized minority clique within the Board of Trustees. And Dr. Wright and the rest venture no risks there, either: the Board has declared a new election process that will be similar to the one proposed, and rejected by a majority in a democratic referendum, in last year’s constitution. There will be only one officially sanctioned candidate, and that candidate is actually a designate. Elections will not even take place unless there arises a petition candidate. If there is a petition candidate, he needs to earn fewer signatures than at present and will be assisted by the College. There is hardly a principled objection to that, of course; it is the Board’s manufactured response to its manufactured worry that money, nowadays, buys Trustee seats.

At an August meeting with students, Trustee Brad Evans confessed that those seats that go to appointed Trustees are purchased for large sums of money. Any claim that elections are being “purchased” merely because candidates need to exert funds and mail letters in order to make known their opinions is hypocritical if not fallacious.

All other meekly offered rationales for this illiberal jab at Dartmouth College and its proud history are creditless, too. Do away with democracy because the petition candidates are conservatives? The College itself, in a bid to stop the loss of seats, nominated Padres chief Sandy Alderson to run a staunchly conservative campaign. He lost because voters do not care a whit about conservatism; it was Mr. Alderson’s claims of independence that rang hollow.

Do away with democracy because the petition candidates are well-financed, causing them to win on some basis other than their merits? Pap, too; both Mr. Alderson and the proponents of last year’s failed constitution outspent the independents by lengths. And both had professional political consultants while the independents had none.

Ultimately, the situation at Dartmouth reduces to one of personal ambition. No member of the Board save one has a genuine casus belli against Dartmouth’s longstanding democratic tradition. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal observed, the business executives who make up the majority of the Board of Trustees would be subject to serious liability if they facilitated a power play such as this at a publicly traded company.

The petition Trustees’ concerns have, time and time again though in desperate reaction rather than edified proaction, been addressed. Bureaucratic bloat, an unfair disciplinary system, a lack of resources going to athletics, classroom overcrowding, too few professors in economics and government, a speech code. In beginning—but only beginning—to fix these problems after the election of petition Trustees, Dr. Wright has confessed they exist.

There is no cabal, no money problem, no unsound critique. All that remains to impel someone to actually dilute democracy by fiat are the demands of reputation. Six straight national votes: T.J. Rodgers, Todd Zywicki, Peter Robinson, the constitution, the Association of Alumni officers, and Stephen Smith. All results that telegraph profound displeasure with certain enclaves of mediocrity at Dartmouth. And all, for the first time, public.

The legal happenstance permitted a small faction—the administration of the College and its very wealthy, very proud allies on the Board—to execute a power play. But it was motivated, I am left to judge, by ego.

If this were all being related in a trendy sociology class, it might focus on the fact that three of the four petition candidates, those insurging renegades, are the only members of the Board whose incomes approach the national average. Or that this end-run around the democratic process was triggered finally by the victory of a black man—the only one on the Board. But all of this is a sideshow. It does not matter the demographic characteristics of the fight, even though one army is Athenian, rich, exclusive, and pleased, and the other scrappy, poorer, passionate and Melian.

What matters, rather, are the merits. A series of decently expressed dissensions has resulted in four consecutive Board seats lost, in equitable elections, by Dartmouth’s chief executive, who was used to the pleasure of simply choosing his own superiors. First a constitution—heavily-lawyered, expertly promoted, crushingly rejected—to do it kindly and neatly. Then an official candidate who looked, acted, and spoke exactly like the previous independent candidates—and his failure to be elected.

Finally, this crude measure: the dilution of democratic influence and the installation of the insular Harvard governance system that has led directly to the mediocrity of that undergraduate program.

This is not a moment but a period, I think, of embarrassment for our once-bold College. The Association of Alumni has retained Williams & Connolly to defend stakeholders in the College. To my mind, though, the prevailing question is not about legal limits but about the stewardship of the College. Here is an objectively negative move that, by the admission of its proponents, would not even have occurred had the last election fadged differently. Here is Dartmouth trending toward conformity and mediocrity by adopting the Harvard Model. Here are exhibited the deleterious effects of personality on an organization. Here is vulgarity unworthy of Dartmouth. Reactionaries harming the College? Here they are.

Melos, by the bye, elected to fight Athens for its independence. They were trounced, as expected, and the city routed. But history remembers the Melians as honorable, and always will.

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