Alumni | Trusteeship

Alumni vie for influence over college mission

August 27, 2007 by Peter Jamison

On a winter night half a century ago, Frank Gado paused while strolling away from his Dartmouth College fraternity house to regard the Northern Lights. The aurora borealis hung in the sky between Dartmouth Hall and Rollins Chapel, shimmering blue, purple and pink above the snow that blanketed the College Green, he said. Something about the scene spurred him to what he described as a reflection that changed his life.

“Here I am, this son of Italian immigrants, looking around me at this very imposing sight,” Gado, 70, of White River Junction, Vt., recalled. “And I asked myself, ‘Who owns this place?’ ”
It’s a question, he said, he has been asking ever since. And he is not alone.

A well-financed, media-savvy and increasingly vocal faction of Dartmouth alumni are urging their fellow graduates to take an interest in who’s running the college. Their campaign–conducted through mass mailings, websites and a prominent advertisement on the New York Times website–has turned into a no-holds-barred information war against the college administration and its loyalists.

“Dartmouth people are passionate about Dartmouth,” said Charles “Ed” Haldeman Jr., chairman of the college’s board of trustees and a 1970 graduate. “That’s true of Dartmouth students, and it’s certainly true of the Dartmouth alumni body. It’s not surprising that that passion manifests itself in how the college is managed and how the college is governed.”

What is surprising to outsiders, perhaps, is the time and money Dartmouth’s sons and daughters are willing to spend indulging that passion. The extraordinary lengths to which alumni have gone in an intensifying feud over a somewhat confusing set of procedural questions have led some to question whether the parties involved really care, as they say, about undergraduates’ experience–or see the college as a battleground in a larger culture war between political conservatives and liberal academe.

The recently formed Committee to Save Dartmouth College has claimed it plans to pour up to $300,000 into a national advertising campaign to bring alumni attention to potential changes to the board of trustees. The group–whose organizers have remained anonymous, signing online communications with a moniker of combined Dartmouth dormitory names–is opposed to the work of a new governance committee examining the board’s structure and how trustees are elected. Former board chairman William Neukom announced the committee’s formation in May.

Critics of the college administration say the governance committee is a thinly disguised means of diminishing alumni influence.

Dissidents rising

At present, alumni hold 16 of the 18 trustee seats (the other two are held by college President James Wright and Gov. John Lynch). Of those 16, alumni elect eight–who are then formally approved by the board of trustees–while the board itself chooses the other eight. The college’s governing body is “unique” in the prominence it gives to alumni voices, according to Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

In recent years, a string of maverick candidates, earning a place on the ballot through petition, have defeated the handpicked candidates of the Alumni Council, an organization that critics say is too cozy with college administrators. These dissident trustees, who are openly critical of the Dartmouth administration, say the move to re-examine the board of trustees’ setup is intended to prevent more like them from winning office.

“This is a group of election-losers who realize they’re being outvoted and want to change the rules and thereby ignore the will of the majority,” said Stephen Smith, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate who in May won a seat on the board in a successful petition campaign.

Smith, a professor at University of Virginia Law School who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said he expects the governance committee to suggest either doing away with alumni involvement in the selection of trustees entirely or relegating trustees chosen by alumni to “ceremonial” status.

Haldeman acknowledged that the governance committee was created in response to the recent trustee elections but denied that the board’s motives were those of sore losers. He said trustee elections were becoming too divisive and costly–Smith said he spent about $75,000 campaigning, as did one of his opponents–and were creating a “reputational hit” to Dartmouth.

Haldeman, who is on the governance committee, would not disclose the committee’s recommendations, which are due to be presented to the full board of trustees at a meeting Sept. 7 and 8, but said that the board’s size–which he described as smaller than at many other colleges and universities–would be one area of the committee’s focus. The full board must approve any changes.

Conservative takeover?

Some say the administration’s critics have a hidden agenda.

David Spalding, vice president for alumni relations at Dartmouth and a 1976 graduate of the college, said the petition trustees might be agents of an organized effort to bring politically conservative leadership to Dartmouth. In recent years, conservative media voices–including National Review and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal –have lent their support to the Big Green’s outsider trustee candidates.

Dartmouth itself has a reputation as a bastion of sometimes dubious collegiate traditions: The college has a strong Greek system, was the second-to-last Ivy League school to admit women (doing so in 1972) and is home to The Dartmouth Review, an independent student newspaper known for its conservative viewpoint.

“I think everybody ought to be very honest about what they’re doing,” Spalding said. “I think if this is going to be a conservative takeover of the college, people should be very honest and open about that. It could be a coincidence that three out of the four (petition trustees) are strong conservatives, and it could be a coincidence that the only media covering them are conservative media. But these coincidences do pile up over time.”

Spalding–a self-described conservative who said he had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate–said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn the “Save Dartmouth” campaign was being funded, at least in part, by conservative foundations.

Members of the Committee to Save Dartmouth College did not respond to an e-mail sent to an address listed on the committee’s website. No other contact information for the group was provided.

Gado, a retired college English professor who graduated from Dartmouth in 1958 and holds a seat on the Executive Committee of the Dartmouth Association of Alumni, has been an active opponent of college administrators and supported the four petition trustees. He said efforts to cast dissidents as foot soldiers in a conservative conspiracy are nonsense.

“Our concerns are educational concerns,” Gado said. “It’s a group of people who are concerned about the future of Dartmouth College. I’ve never voted for George Bush. I can give you a whole litany of places where I’m probably more liberal than most of the faculty at Dartmouth.”

According to Gado, Smith and others, what’s at stake is not the political complexion of Dartmouth but the college’s historic emphasis on undergraduate education. They say that Dartmouth’s past two presidents, James Freedman and Wright, have steered the school away from its traditional role as a preeminent small college toward one as a “research university.”

As evidence, they point to an expanding corps of bureaucrats, larger classes, weaker athletic programs and pricey construction projects–such as the proposed $93 million Life Sciences Building–that foster faculty research and graduate studies.

“The energy of the place, the resources, the focus, was always on undergraduate education,” Smith said. “I think that made Dartmouth distinctive. I think it gave it a niche in the field of higher education. A lot of alumni, judging from recent election results, feel that that distinctiveness is being lost.”

Spalding, the vice president for alumni relations, said there was not “any factual basis” for assertions that Dartmouth has abandoned its small-college character. He said surveys show that the college continues to satisfy its primary customers: undergraduate students.


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