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Daniel Webster’s Legacy in the Dartmouth College Case

A fantastic summary of the history behind the Dartmouth v Dartmouth case, in which the Association of Alumni is suing the Board of Trustees to uphold the right of alumni to vote for for 50% of the Board.

What is it about Dartmouth College that arouses the acquisitive instinct of bureaucrats? Back in the early 19th century, the legislature of New Hampshire attempted to take over the college, replacing its board of trustees with their own chaps and so converting a private college into a public entity. Daniel Webster argued the case for Dartmouth before the Supreme Court, accurately noting that €œThe question is simply this, €˜Shall our State Legislatures be allowed to take that which is not their own, to turn it from its original use, and apply it to such ends and purposes as they in their discretion shall see fit! ’ € His famous peroration, which brought tears to the eyes of the Chief Justice John Marshall, acknowledged that Dartmouth was but €œa small college. And yet, € said Webster, €œthere are those who love it! €


Webster won the day, but the threat to Dartmouth ‘s independence keeps recurring. Since 1891 until early last September, nearly half of Dartmouth ‘s eighteen trustees were elected from a slate of alumni candidates. The other half, apart from a couple of ex officio slots, were appointed by the board itself. In practice, since the administration vetted elected as well as appointed candidates, the board of trustees controlled all the seats.

In 2004, however, something unexpected happened. T. J. Rodgers, someone not sanctioned by the Dartmouth board, ran —and won —as an independent or €œpetition € candidate. His victory was followed in short order by the election of two more independents, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki. Panicked, the Dartmouth administration tried to change the rules and proposed a new constitution governing the way trustees were to be elected. The administration went all out to get the alumni to vote for the new constitution, hiring a Washington, D.C. public relations firm and inundating alumni with promotional material. Nevertheless, the proposed constitution was soundly defeated. The last straw came in May when Stephen Smith, a University of Virginia law professor, ran and won as an independent candidate. Now nearly a quarter of Dartmouth ‘s trustees were elected by the larger Dartmouth community, not appointed by the Board. Many important issues were on the table, from the question of class size and growth of the administrative bureaucracy to speech codes and preserving Dartmouth ‘s character as a college, not an embryo university. What to do?

Well, the people running Dartmouth —president James Wright and Chairman of the Board Charles €œEd € Haldeman, who is also President and CEO of Boston-based Putnam Investments —had tried democracy. They put things to a vote. That didn ‘t work. They tried again. Still no luck. So they employed executive fiat instead. Early in September (a moment between semesters at Dartmouth), the Governance Committee —the five-man board-within-the-board that wields the real power —issued the diktat that henceforth Dartmouth ‘s board would be expanded by eight more appointed trustees. Net effect? The power of the independent trustees would be severely circumscribed. The status quo would prevail. The growing threat of reform was quashed, but concerned alumni have taken the college to court.

The article goes on to talk about Board of Trustees Chairman Ed Haldeman and his alleged corporate malfeasance. But the real end to the story is that the Association of Alumni election is now at hand. In this election alumni will determine whether they want to preserve Parity on the Board of Trustees, the right of alumni to democratically elect 50% of the Board. The alternative is voting to give away the alumni vote, complicity in the Board-packing scheme.

Daniel Webster fought to keep Dartmouth College in the hands of Dartmouth alumni and College, to me it is pretty clear which side Mr. Webster’s legacy would favor today.

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