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May 27, 2008 [feather]
Oversight, integrity, and alumni

I've written about Dartmouth's travails with governance a great deal over the past several years. The story is long, convoluted, and, I suspect, numbing for people who aren't in the thick of either Dartmouth politics or higher ed debates. I suspect it's those things for a good many of the people who are in the thick of Dartmouth politics and higher ed debates, too. That's in part due to the internecine, baroque character of academic governance processes. But it's also due to the manner in which so much of the debate about higher ed is centered on shockadelic material--politicized firings, punishment of dissenting students, damaging double standards in policy, extremist faculty rantings, and dumbed down courses--that appeals to a broad public but is not in itself useful for getting at how things work, who makes the decisions, and how things might be changed. It's one thing, for example, to wax appalled by Delaware's residential life program (which deserves plenty of such waxing). But it's another to work out how to effect reform at Delaware (the trustees have recently voted to approve a highly politicized residential life program for next year, despite the efforts of many to alert them to the problems with the program and to encourage them to do their fiduciary duty and deny approval).

Anyhow. All of this is by way of saying that understanding what's really going on in higher ed requires a level of attentiveness that is at odds with the outrage so easily summoned by anecdotes about trivial courses and ideologically challenged professors. It also requires a sobriety of affect that is actively selected against by the "outrage of the day" approach to higher ed critique. Dartmouth's story is a good place to begin exercising both faculties.

In lieu of summarizing again what I have already summarized many times, I will quote the account of Dartmouth's difficulties published in this morning's Wall Street Journal by William McGurn:

In little more than a week--on June 5--elections will close for the leadership of Dartmouth's Association of Alumni. If the establishment slate wins, the board will eviscerate a progressive, 117-year-old arrangement that makes this college in Hanover, N.H. one of the few where alumni have a real say in the way the school is run.

That arrangement dates to 1891, when the trustees were divided into two equal groups, plus two ex-officio members. The first group was appointed by the school itself. The other half was chosen by alumni from within their ranks. In recent decades, because of the way alumni seat nominations and elections were run, these alumni trustees were pretty much insiders themselves, and the relationship with the board was a cozy one.

All that changed in 2004, when T.J. Rodgers--class of 1970 and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor--ran for one of the board's alumni seats. Mr. Rodgers had to mount a petition drive just to get his name on the ballot, and then won election by a comfortable margin. Like many of his fellow alums, Mr. Rodgers is a passionate believer in the liberal arts, and his platform stressed high academic standards, free speech and the primacy of the undergraduate mission at Dartmouth.

"It sounds hammy," he says. "But Dartmouth is unique because it has this great liberal arts tradition and people who just love the place."

Since Mr. Rodgers's election, three other alums have also run as "petition candidates": Peter Robinson, '79; Todd Zywicki, '88; and Stephen Smith, '88. All have run on themes stressing accountability and the quality of undergraduate education. And all have been elected by their fellow alums.

Only in academe could an institution respond the way Dartmouth has. Instead of embracing reform, the Dartmouth establishment and its allies have launched personal attacks on the four popularly elected petition trustees.

In a recent letter from 12 establishment trustees sent to all alumni (a mailing list Dartmouth refuses to share with the elected trustees), the four were accused of pursuing "Washington-style politics" as part of a "political agenda" (read: vast right-wing conspiracy).

To end their influence on the board, the college approved a plan that would transfer real oversight to an unelected executive committee – and give unelected trustees a 2-1 numerical advantage on the board, down from the 50/50 split today.

Mr. Robinson is a fellow presidential speechwriter and friend, and I know Messrs. Zywicki and Smith--both law professors in Virginia--by reputation. All three are reasonably described as conservative.

Mr. Rodgers, by contrast, is a libertarian who favors gay marriage and opposes the war in Iraq. Far from pursuing a political agenda, these men have all run on an Obama-style campaign for change that Dartmouth alumni can believe in. For all to have won the popular vote of an Ivy League electorate underscores the real message here: A high level of alumni discontent with the Dartmouth establishment.

Which brings us back to the current election. Right now, the Association of Alumni is supporting a lawsuit that is the only thing stopping Dartmouth from implementing its board-packing plan. In other words, the election for the association's leadership is in fact a referendum on the board-packing plan.

Daniel King, '02, sums it up well. Mr. King describes himself as "an openly gay man, a teacher, a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, the ACLU, and the Human Rights Campaign." In an essay posted online, he puts it this way: "The real battle going on is one between an overly paternalistic College administration, supported by a rubber-stamp Board of Trustees that has totally abdicated its oversight responsibilities – and, on the other side, loyal alumni from all sides of the political spectrum who wish to not see the value of their Dartmouth degree plummet and to preserve the historic and unique ties that alumni have to our alma mater."

Question: Do you know how your alma mater handles its board membership? Are you clear on the role alumni can play in maintaining the integrity and excellence of your school? Are you clear on what trustees should and should not be doing? Do you follow what's happening with your school--academically and financially? If these are issues you care about, are you doing what you can to get involved?

posted on May 27, 2008 8:36 AM

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Let me confess that I have not the slightest interest in my role as an alumni and even though I still live in the same town as my alma mater, I haven't the vaguest clue what's going on there. I paid my tuition, I got my degree, I moved on.

But still, it's not clear to me how the value of (say) a Dartmouth degree can "plummet" for anyone who's been out of school for more than a year. I run a company and hire people and frankly I don't see much of a differential in value among universities, until you get to third or fourth tier schools. When I was on the other side, the university name on my degree (from a top 5 in the field) did nothing for me or my career. Is there anything really at risk for alumni? Is T.J. Rodgers going to the poor house if Dartmouth decays? Or do I have a warped perception because I am in a technical field where one can acquire at least a rough idea of an applicant's skill level from an interview?

I do understand having a general concern for higher education, and I can see a case for fighting about it at one's alma mater on the single candle theory, but on the basis of degree value? That, I just don't see (although I seem to be the odd one out on that score).

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at May 28, 2008 3:34 PM