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“Any Such Political Sleepers”

When in 1961 Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey wanted to expand the College’s Board by four seats, he first had to secure approval from the state. As the College’s attorney wrote to Mr. Dickey on January 16, 1961, there was only one thing the Attorney General of the State of New Hampshire wanted to know: Mr. Dickey wasn’t trying to pack the Board, was he?

*   *   *   *

In the event, the answer was very certainly no. Dartmouth under Mr. Dickey was a prosperous place guided by a firm and uniting vision. There was no need to ‘pack the Board’—to expand it by adding loyalists rather than independent and critical-minded Trustees—because there were at the time no grand outstanding questions riving the student and alumni bodies.

When John Dickey wanted to add four seats to the Board, he needed permission from the State of New Hampshire. Even though the Supreme Court famously granted the College independence in 1819 in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, New Hampshire had an ongoing role in the governance of the College; for one, the citizens of the state were allowed to elect a Trustee of the College—the governor; for another, the State could object to changes to the College’s Charter. The first component of State involvement remains even today. The latter was repealed in 2003 when the Administration lobbied for, and the New Hampshire legislature passed, “home rule” legislation devolving all Charter adjustment authority upon the Board of Trustees.

Since a change in the size of the Board is a Charter-level amendment, Mr. Dickey sought state approval. New Hampshire exercised its veto power judiciously, never wantonly harming the College and in fact serving only as a check against abuse of power by the College’s executives. The letter seen here, copied from the College archives by a reader, was unsealed just six years ago. (Dartmouth maintains a policy of sealing all Board documents for fifty years and all presidential documents for forty.) The writer is Dudley W. Orr, Esq., an attorney with the Concord firm Orr & Reno, and counsel for the College. Mr. Orr writes to John Sloan Dickey, the president, about his negotiations with the Attorney General of New Hampshire.

At the meeting, which occurred in the winter of 1961, Orr reports that “our first hurdle” in “getting the Charter amended” has been surmounted; Attorney General Louis E. Wyman seemed entirely amenable to Mr. Dickey’s plan to expand the Board to fourteen seats, even “express[ing] amazement” that the College should need to consult him at all. Attorney General Wyman could only see a few possible objections to an expansion of the Board; Mr. Orr mentions these in the third and final paragraph of his report to Mr. Dickey.

Attorney General Wyman wanted to be assured only that there were no “political sleepers” at the College—no ongoing debates, no fractiousness, no leadership crisis—“that the addition of four trustees would affect.” Mr. Orr could respond resoundingly in the negative. But then, as if to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Orr continues: “Specifically, [Attorney General Wyman] wanted to know if there was a difference of opinion among the Board that would be tipped one way or another by the new [trustees].”

The College’s counsel replied accurately: “…the trustees were unanimous in support of the [expansion] and that so far as I knew, the entire Dartmouth constituency would support it.”

*   *   *   *

Now I judge it is highly worthwhile to compare this exchange with the present fracas. Over the course of the last four years, tens of thousands of students and alumni have come together, in earnest national elections, to request better management. Four independent petition Trustees—a full quarter of the Board—have been elected, and for them the officially sanctioned candidates were passed over. An entire constitution meant to stem the success of those petitioners was defeated in a national referendum which constituted the largest democratic action in the history of the College.

There is thus no doubt that “a difference of opinion” exists not only among current and former students—who are demanding an end to lax management, bureaucratic bloat, and remedies to other woes—but indeed within the Board of Trustees itself. And there is no doubt that the Board’s now infamous Board-packing plan is purposed precisely to upset an existing balance of opinion.

With the latest expansion—which would double the number of unelected Trustees—James Wright appears to be doing just what Attorney General Wyman, representing a responsible, placid legislature, was concerned about. In 1961, Mr. Dickey and his attorney could answer with straight faces that their expansion was not a ruse to shut down “political sleepers.” Can Mr. Wright, and his attorney Robert Donin, say the same?


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