Trustees | Trusteeship

Fired for doing his job

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  May 27, 2009 by Anne D. Neal

Alas, a man losing his job is not news these days. But even as the unemployment rate continues to rise, it’s worth noting a recent firing at a small college in New Hampshire.

The college in question is Dartmouth, and the dismissed individual is a professor named Todd Zywicki. Only he wasn’t fired from the faculty. He was tossed from his seat as a Dartmouth trustee.

Zywicki graduated from Dartmouth in 1988 and now teaches law at George Mason University. He won a spot on the Board of Trustees four years ago, running on a promise to “recommit Dartmouth to its traditional mission of undergraduate education.”

Working with other trustees, Zywicki pushed for hiring more faculty in popular departments, putting the brakes on administrative spending, and emphasizing teaching over research.

In 2007, Zywicki gave a speech at an academic conference in which he had some admittedly harsh words for Dartmouth. He took Dartmouth to task for low academic standards and a lack of intellectual diversity. Though Zywicki apologized for the remarks that some found intemperate, the board voted to reprimand him.

Then, last month, Dartmouth’s board voted to deny Zywicki a second term—a highly unusual action. Though the result of was handed down without any explanation, there is no doubt that he got the boot for speaking out on the key issues facing Dartmouth.

That is, he got fired for doing his job.

Sadly enough, such a response by a board is nothing unusual. A few years ago, the University of California Board of Regents formally rebuked board member John Moores for publicly raising questions about whether UC’s admission practices violated the state constitution.

At Princeton, trustee Steve Forbes was similarly reprimanded by the board chair when he opposed the hiring of bioethicist Peter Singer, who advocates euthanasia for severely disabled newborns.

As fiduciaries, trustees are legally and financially responsible for the well-being of institutions. Boards cannot simply act as rubberstamps. Unfortunately, trustees—like Zywicki, Moores, and Forbes who openly raise problems and ask tough questions are all too rare.

Perhaps the surfeit of complacent trustees isn’t surprising when you consider what happens to those who think independently. Their questions provoke outrage, and they’re labeled threats to institutional autonomy and academic freedom by those who tend to view themselves as the only stakeholders on campus—namely, the faculty and administrators.

On Wall Street, if a board is asleep at the switch, it’s a scandal—and rightly so. But on our campuses, we tend to look the other way—and there are serious consequences.

Higher education’s costs have outpaced even those of health care. And at least in health care, one can look back at recent decades and see an increase in quality. Not so in the academy.

Among college graduates, historical, economic, and scientific illiteracy are widespread. Employers complain about graduates who can’t write a coherent paragraph or correctly crunch numbers. Students are not satisfied—almost 50 percent in a recent poll—and neither are taxpayers, nearly half of whom say their state’s public higher education system should be fundamentally overhauled.

If ever there were a time when we needed college trustees to do their job, this would be it. But who is going to ask the hard questions if it means, as in Zywicki’s case, being denounced and dismissed by the university you love so much?

The academy’s runaway costs, diffuse curricula, and disconnect from the public’s concerns have everything to do with the go-along-get-along mindset that prevails on governing boards. That mindset must change.

Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence and accountability in higher education.


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