Crossing the snow-covered Dartmouth green one night, I stopped, looked around, and asked, “Who owns this place, and by what right?” More than half a century later, I have still not resolved a complete answer to that question. But I can give you my short-form response: A small group of willful people, mostly money men disdainful of undergraduate education, have stacked the board of trustees, made an unannounced decision to convert a liberal arts college into a major research university, and “earned” themselves huge commissions on sales of their own securities to the college’s endowment while keeping details of the transactions secret.
A note on the history: Most of America’s early colleges were founded
by church denominations, whose control gradually weakened as costs and
instructional quality rose. The pivotal stage in this history occurred
in the decades following the Civil War, when alumni, having assumed the
major burden of support, began asserting claims for seats on the board
of trustees. Dartmouth alumni battled longest and won the most
significant concessions in 1891. Responsibility for the college was to
be vested in each and every alumnus; excepting the ex officio members
(the state’s governor and the college president), half the trustees
would thereafter be elected directly by the alumni body, and the other
half by the entire board.
The system worked very well at Dartmouth, but in the wake of the Vietnam War, the administration and faculty turned sharply left, and so did the political class of alumni officers. A large number of dissenting alumni grew restive, and elected an independent candidate though a petition process. An attempt to deny the victor his seat failed, but the establishment rejiggered the rules to make repetition of this “dangerous precedent” less likely.
In response, the alumni movement focused on electing trustees through the petition process, taking aim at campus speech codes, the bloated administration, overcrowding and hostility toward a core curriculum. By May of 2007, an unbroken string of four petition candidates filled half the eight alumni board trusteeships. At a gloomy meeting of the Alumni Council (by now wholly a creature of the administration), the head of the nominations committee rose to express futility and to state that there was no point in naming candidates only to have them humiliated in an election. But the next speaker, outgoing Chairman of the Board William Neukom, could not resist leaking an intimation that the cavalry had mounted: “Don’t despair,” he announced. “Rescue is on its way.” And indeed, alas, it was.
Meanwhile, a second approach by reformers pressed for democratization of the Alumni Association by enabling all alumni to vote in its elections without having to be physically present in Hanover. After years of meeting dogged resistance, this reform succeeded, and in the very first election in which many thousands could cast ballots, insurgents captured a majority of the Association’s Executive Committee. No election since 1891 would prove as consequential.
Neukom’s “rescue” was simple: he and his allies packed the board with eight additional trustees, creating a supermajority that rendered the four elected trustees utterly impotent. In court, a New Hampshire judge rejected Dartmouth’s motion to dismiss our suit, but then we faced a greater hurdle: a new election. Aware of what was at stake, the college threw its resources behind an opposition slate which freely misrepresented, smeared, and lied its way to victory. Eight minutes into its first meeting, without discussion, the lawsuit was not only withdrawn but withdrawn with prejudice — meaning it can never be revived. The 1891 accord was dead.
Only a few years later, what was afoot in this nasty game played by the board has become apparent. Responsible to no one, a small group consisting almost exclusively of money manipulators has hijacked a college. Unchecked, they have sold their own securities to the college’s endowment while keeping details of the transactions secret and failing to comply with state laws regarding conflict of interest. In gratitude for their predatory access, they have crowded the campus with ugly or just dull buildings serving their vanities. Far worse, they have rapidly advanced the transformation of a liberal arts college into a research university without ever opening the question to a careful analysis of the disadvantages as well as the presumed advantages of that metamorphosis.
Their previous choice for president, Jim Yong Kim, was a thoroughly materialistic utilitarian who consistently displayed ignorance of the shaping forces of Western Civilization. To him, the value of the arts lay in stimulating the brain to breakthroughs in other fields; somehow linked with the liberal arts, they constituted the “special sauce” of Dartmouth’s undergraduate education. But the Big Mac on which he and the board cast a lickerish eye was a Dartmouth University with a health care nexus. And now that miraculous transport on Obama’s angelic wings has raised Kim to the World Bank, nothing is to change. Both the composition of the presidential search committee for a successor and public statements by its heads and the board chairman who appointed them loudly proclaim, the next president must, above all, promote the interwoven interests of the medical school, doctoral studies in the life sciences, and the new emphasis on the public health program.
Why should we believe that is the road best taken? No prick of compunction moves the board to explain. Simply, it doesn’t have to. Indeed, if any trustee were to be so wayward as to disclose any portion of the board’s deliberations, he (or she) would be in violation of the Trustee Oath all must swear as a condition of installation — a sacred pledge befitting La Cosa Nostra more than stewardship of an academic institution.
It may well be that the alumni of a college, like the citizens of a republic, lack the knowledge and sophisticated judgment to best chart a course for the future, but recent history should alert us that trusting in the money changers is not necessarily the mark of superior wisdom.