For two decades, Dartmouth College has tried to rein in rowdy fraternities—such as the one that inspired the movie “Animal House”—and make the campus more welcoming to women, minorities and scholars.
Now, some alumni who appreciated the old Dartmouth are pushing back. Football, fraternities, opposition to codes regulating hate speech and a fresh focus on teaching undergraduates top their agenda.
The struggle for control of Dartmouth is being waged in elections for the board of trustees, which steers its policies and hires top administrators for the top-tier school. In the past four years, the football-and-fraternities faction has won all four open seats on the 18-member board using a once-obscure rule to elect petition candidates.
Election rules aside, the issues dividing Dartmouth are not unique. They derive from cultural shifts at campuses that were previously all male and nearly all white.
Elite colleges such as Dartmouth began admitting women in the 1960s and ’70s and stepped up recruitment of minority and low-income students. New U.S. rules required schools to invest more money in women’s sports, sometimes shrinking the budgets for football and other traditional sports beloved by alumni. And states raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, making most campus drinking illegal.
The changes were at times painful for Dartmouth, an isolated, rural campus in Hanover where sports and so-called Greek life—fraternities and sororities with Greek alphabet names—remain the biggest social outlets. In the past decade, Dartmouth has cracked down on underage drinking, investigated racist and anti-Semitic incidents and put fraternities on a short leash, banning one for newsletters that detailed members’ sexual exploits.
At the same time, the college improved its graduate programs and commitment to research, important draws for faculty.
Last week, Stephen Smith, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, was elected to the board of trustees. Campaigning on cutting administrative spending, reducing class sizes, supporting sports teams and reforming the student discipline process, he defeated three rivals in a contest that resembled a political election. Smith and one opponent each spent $75,000 (55,000 pounds) or more in their campaigns.
Smith’s victory was sweet for disgruntled alumni, who have accused the college’s Alumni Council of nominating only candidates who are cozy with college administrators.
“The critical issue in the race came down to independence—which candidate for trustee is going to be independent of the administration,” he said.
Smith and the previous three petition candidates have benefited from election rules that require the council to nominate at least three candidates for one opening or four candidates for two open seats, so the council’s nominees split mainstream votes. An effort to change the rules to allow one-to-one races failed last year.
Frustrated council members say the petition trustees had almost no involvement with Dartmouth before they were elected and simply want to promote their conservative ideology.
Richard Routhier, chairman of the council’s nominating committee, said Smith has “never given a dime” to the college or served as an alumni volunteer, which Smith did not dispute.
According to Smith’s campaign Web site, he attended Dartmouth on a military reserve corps scholarship, pledged a fraternity, played football and basketball, and joined the Navy Reserve. He graduated in 1988.
Routhier said Smith was not forthcoming about his conservative background, including a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his support for arguments advanced by Phillip Johnson, a leading proponent of “intelligent design”—the argument that a higher power, rather than evolution, is responsible for creation.
Smith, who says he does not believe in creationism, brushes off the criticism.
“The administration’s allies always claim that it’s a right-wing cabal,” he said. “The alumni know better than that.”
His supporters say the petition trustees are forcing the college to heed the views of alumni once treated only as cash cows.
“They have, in many respects, been discouraged or disappointed by the direction of the institution, and they have disengaged,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a mostly conservative Washington group that promotes alumni activism. “Dartmouth has been a test case for reinvigorating alumni voices.”
College President James Wright said he shared many of Smith’s goals, but he expressed frustration over the college’s critics, noting that Dartmouth continues to attract superior students and faculty.
“For those people who don’t like goals that include diversity, that don’t include faculty doing scholarship, I’m sorry, but I think those are the best traditions of Dartmouth,” he said.