A History of Opposition

Student and faculty opposition to Dartmouth’s administration is nothing new. Throughout the school’s history, the student body, faculty, and other stakeholder groups have reasserted themselves in the face of an out-of-touch administration many times. Two well known examples are the Nathan Lord incident and the infamous Student Life Initiative. In recent years, there have also been successful examples of faculty votes of no confidence against a sitting president at peer institutions.

Nathan Lord, former President of Dartmouth College

Nathan Lord, President of Dartmouth College (1828-1863)

Nathan Lord was president of the College from 1828 until 1863, when he lost his position because the Board of Trustees disagreed with his support of slavery and thought his views did not represent the College well. Lord’s loss of favor with the board stemmed from his transformation from a staunch abolitionist to a pro-slavery advocate. The president had been active in abolitionist circles for many years, and he was friends with men such as William Lloyd Garrison. He even held the position of Vice President of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and was one of the few college presidents to admit black students during the early 1800’s (even after his abolitionist views changed, this never did). Lord’s abolitionism was a product of his deep devotion to Calvinism. As a young man he had entertained becoming a pastor, and he often gave sermons to the students at Dartmouth. The sympathy he felt for downtrodden peoples stemmed from his strong religious beliefs.  

When Lord heard a statement by abolitionist leader Garrison that threw his religious and abolitionist beliefs into conflict, religion won out. Garrison said, “If the Bible sustains the principle of Slavery, and justifies Slavery, either in the Old or New Testament, then down with the Bible.” Garrison’s disdain for the Bible put Lord on a collision course with him and the abolitionist movement as a whole. Lord combed through his Bible searching for any validation for slavery in it, and he found passages suggesting that slavery was approved by God. From that point on, Lord broke with abolitionism.

Instead, Lord began to argue that slavery elevated the people who deserved to be on top and created order in the world. Without slavery to provide a hierarchy, the world would be thrown into chaos. In Lord’s view, the system of slavery itself was not the problem. The issue was with un-Christian slaveholders who mistreated their slaves. In his paper “A True Picture of Abolition,” he blamed the abolitionists for the Civil War and painted the Republicans as heretics who were responsible for antagonizing the South. Despite his anti-abolitionist stance, under Lord’s leadership Dartmouth continued to be one of the only colleges to accept black students. Still, coming from the president of a college as far north as New Hampshire, Lord’s pro-Southern views did not sit well with the Board of Trustees.

Thus, the Board was already quite displeased with Lord when they began to discuss whether to give Abraham Lincoln an honorary degree from Dartmouth. The vote on the matter became a deadlock, and Lord’s vote broke the tie to tip the vote against Lincoln. For the Board, this was the last straw, and they made a public statement excoriating Lord for his political views: “Neither the trustees nor the Faculty coincide with the president of the College in the views which he has published, touching slavery and the war; and it has been our hope that the College would not be judged a partisan institution by reason of such publications.” Being so humiliated by the Board was enough to get Lord to resign, and although he stayed in Hanover for the rest of his life, he never again associated himself with the Dartmouth administration.

The Nathan Lord incident provides a valuable example of Dartmouth stakeholders reasserting themselves in the face of a President that does not share their vision for the College. The trustees and faculty wanted Dartmouth to be progressive by supporting Lincoln. Nathan Lord did not share their view and attempted to undercut them by voting against granting Lincoln an honorary degree. When Nathan Lord realized he was at odds with the faculty and the Board about what Dartmouth should stand for, he stepped down.

Over a century after the Nathan Lord case, on February 9th, 1999, President James Wright and the Board of the Trustees released a report as part of the Student Life Initiative. It was immediately understood to be a thinly veiled first strike in a war against the Greek system. The report began with a letter from James Wright, President, and William King, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, to the community; the letter reiterated core principles of James Wright’s reform efforts including, “providing additional and improved social space controlled by students; creating a substantially coeducational and inclusive system; [and] reducing the number of students living off campus.” These principles had been identified a year before, and in the intervening time, President Wright had established a committee to analyze the situation. The February report detailed their recommendations.

The Student Life Initiative report cited a survey that showed 30% of students found Dartmouth’s social life was either mediocre or poor. Its authors further reasoned that such dissatisfaction stemmed from exclusivity and the dearth of social options beyond Greek life. The administration set out to change that. The report recommended tougher standards for the Greek system including a later rush period, a more comprehensive definition of hazing, and higher maintenance requirements for houses. Most ominously, the report called for a review after five years of whether the college should continue to recognize Greek houses at all. President Wright said it would be the end of Dartmouth’s Greek system “as we know it.”

Students reacted immediately. Greek houses cancelled social events for the upcoming Winter Carnival, and there was a large protest on the President’s lawn. The severe response from students and alumni forced the administration to back down from their uncompromising stance towards the Greek system.

Student and faculty protests have a rich history at other institutions of higher learning as well. This is particularly true regarding votes of no confidence, which have been quite successful at colleges and universities across the country. Yale and Harvard provide some interesting case studies of successful votes of no confidence at peer institutions.

In 2005, then Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers spoke at a research conference and implied that physiological differences might make women less capable than men of rising to the top of their fields in math and science. This firestorm came amid complaints about the president’s leadership style and vision for the future of the University. In the end, the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences passed the motion “The Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers” with a 218 to 185 vote, according to an Associated Press report at the time. Even though the vote represented only the University’s undergraduate faculty and none of the graduate schools, it was still a striking statement. While the Harvard Corporation (Harvard’s board of trustees) backed President Summers, the vote opened up a conversation and provided legitimacy to increasingly frequent calls for the president’s resignation. Summers tendered his resignation a little less than a year later, right before another scheduled no confidence vote. Their vote was a success.

Yale University saw a similar episode in 2012. University President Richard Levin and the Yale Corporation (Yale’s Board of trustees) had just announced a plan to establish an institution bearing Yale’s name in Singapore—without faculty approval or input. This move, many argued, endangered the university. The new undergraduate institution’s location in an authoritarian state was seen as a threat to open discourse and academic freedom, which would delegitimize teaching and research done there and possibly sully Yale’s reputation. In addition, Levin’s exclusion of faculty from the process was a dangerous precedent. For that reason, the faculty held a vote of no confidence. The vote expressed a lack of confidence in the proposed institution, not Levin’s presidency in general, but nonetheless made a serious impact. He got the message. Shortly after the vote, in a conversation with an emeritus professor, President Levin reportedly said “I think the faculty want me out.” He resigned a little more than six months later.

The Harvard and Yale cases are just two of many examples of no confidence votes at colleges and universities. Dr. Sean McKinniss, a PhD in Higher Education and Student affairs maintains a database of no confidence votes at American institutions of higher education. His database, which even he admits is “by no means complete,” contains 165 separate instances of faculty no confidence votes. The database can be found at seanmckinniss.org.

University stakeholders should demand accountability from their presidents. In these examples from peer institutions, the faculty showed their disapproval for a president that did not represent them. A similar process occurred when student and alumni opposition forced James Wright and his administration to back down from their anti-Greek life reform program. One hundred and fifty years ago, Nathan Lord stepped down as President when he realized that his position was out of step with that of other stakeholders. History shows us that members of the Dartmouth community can and should oppose any administration that does not represent them well. We can – and maybe should – learn from the past.