Dartmouth’s Ersatz Elections

New ways for alumni to participate in College affairs other than requests for donations are needed in order to reverse this trend.

Last month, the last of almost nine thousand ballots were submitted in an election in which a slate of candidates was elected handily, each receiving well over eighty percent of the votes cast. These voters also approved a new amendment to their constitution (which we’ll get to in a moment) at a rate of about eighty-nine percent. Where might this election have taken place? The plebiscite in the Crimea? Some sleepy municipal backwater? Try Dartmouth College.

The election mentioned was the annual Association of Alumni election, which decides its executive board and facilitates the vote for Board of Trustees alumni candidates.  These data may appear to suggest that there is overwhelming support behind the nominees elected, but a closer look reveals the election’s ersatz nature.  The 8,860 voters comprise only 12% of the over seventy thousand living alumni.  That twelve percent voted for eleven candidates, who were running for eleven executive positions.  This pattern is not exactly new, as the Association of Alumni has run similar elections a few years in a row now, having a small percentage of alums “vote” for positions, which have one candidate each.

Perhaps, though, we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves.  To understand these elections and their importance (or lack thereof, these days), one must know what these organizations are and what they do.  Let’s start off with our Board of Trustees.  Currently, it is a cabal of twenty-three members who, theoretically at least, have control over what goes on in the College. After all, if they disapprove of Parkhurst’s moves, they can hand President Hanlon the pink slip at any time.  The Board’s denizens include two ex officio (“by default”, essentially) members, the President of the College and the Governor of New Hampshire; eight so-called “alumni members,” who are chosen in the alumni elections run by the Association of Alumni; and thirteen “charter members” who are chosen by a committee within the Board.

The aforementioned Association of Alumni’s main job is to run alumni elections. It used to be the main group governing alumni relations with the administration, but its role has atrophied over time.  Another group, the Alumni Council, a group made up of delegates chosen from each graduating class, nominates alumni trustee candidates.  Previously, it chose three nominees for each vacancy, but now, the council is required to choose only “one or more” candidates; of late, that “or more” has been ignored.  In fact, this led to the approval of the aforementioned amendment this election — it was decided that for such one-candidate elections, paper ballots would not even be sent out unless requested.  This step makes sham elections cheaper, at least, but is a sad sign of the decline of alumni participation.

The administration did not always have such a blatant disregard to the will of the alums.  According to John MacGovern ’80, an alumnus of The Review and former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Dartmouth alumni held a position of some power following the Board’s 1891 resolution, when members succeeded in a decades-long battle for the right to elect five Trustees, half of the non-ex officio Board members at the time.  By contrast, today’s Board has twenty-three members, of which only eight have been chosen by alumni.  Now each member holds a proportionally smaller representation on a larger Board where each voice carries less weight.

This current state of affairs arose after a period in which alumni vigorously exercised one of their rights in College governance — that of nominating their own candidates.  If alumni were unhappy with the choice(s) set forth by the Alumni Council, they could put forth one of their own with a petition signed by a certain number (these days, five hundred) of other postgraduates.  These alumni-nominated “petition candidates” won a string of elections: John Steel in 1980; T. J. Rodgers in 2004; Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki in 2005; and Stephen Smith in 2007.

It was at this time that the Wright Administration and the charter trustees made their move to stop this blatant alumni concern for College affairs. Analogous to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme in 1938, they would increase the size of the board without increasing the number of alumni trustees.  In a long-fought campaign, including a lawsuit by the then alumni-controlled Association of Alumni to keep the Board’s constitution constant, the Administration spent millions of dollars in an advertising campaign to defeat alumni candidates for the Board of Trustees and executive positions on the Association of Alumni.  Dartblog writer and former management consultant, Joe Asch, ’79, made a last stand running as a petition trustee candidate in 2010, but ultimately lost to a similar negative advertising blitz.

As a result, alumni participation in College elections fell precipitously.  Previously, alumni voted at a rate of about 20-40%, but, as was noted earlier, that has dropped this year to a mere 12%, a similar rate to those of 2011, 2012, and 2013.  This could be chalked up to a sense of futility. Why run as or vote for a petition candidate when your opinion will be ignored by the administration or drowned out by the charter trustees who exist these days to rubber-stamp the President’s agenda?

Joe Asch notes that the current Board “doesn’t do much other than pick a president and essentially rubber-stamp what he does. They don’t spend nearly enough time on campus talking to faculty, and … students to find out how poorly managed the place is.”  According to him, the Board is now a cliquish group that does not want a “micromanager” to investigate details of College day-to-day operations.  Many of its members do not have backgrounds in education, coming instead from the business world.  Understandably, alumni have become frustrated at this lackadaisical approach to governance and have stopped giving as much to the College; the giving rate is in the mid-forties, compared with pre-1990 rates in the mid-sixties.

Falling alumni involvement and participation rates is not only representative of the College’s administrational concerns, but of Dartmouth’s general decline.  The recent fall in applications and rise in acceptance rate has roots in the College’s mismanagement, in both finance and public relations.  As some may know, Dartmouth spends more money than Brown does, which has 30% more students and faculty in a more expensive city; of course, such facts are well reflected in our already high and ever rising tuition.  This problem has continued over the last decade, with no end in sight.

Confounding this are the unforced errors Parkhurst has made as of late. Take, for instance, the recent decision to stop accepting Advanced Placement exam credits, or the ham-handed, craven obeisance to the Dimensions protesters last year.  Adding to an already bloated staff, the College has hired over one hundred new staff members within the last year.  All these issues are why the number of applicants has fallen and why the College could be taking a hit in rankings for higher education, as Asch notes.  “People are starting to see that the management is just terrible and that’s why the giving rate is down, the participation rate is down, and why we’re hurting in a lot of areas.”

Both Asch and MacGovern attribute the previous and current administrations’ bumbling in key areas to the vastly disproportionate yearly donations given by relatively few Dartmouth alumni.  According to Joe Asch, eighty-five percent of alumni giving in the last capital campaign came from about eleven hundred people.  This income stream has blinded the College’s leaders to increasingly apparent problems, as alumni have largely become apathetic to trying to repair matters.  Quoth MacGovern,“They want [alumni] to show up at football games and have a good time, but they don’t want them to have enough power to ‘rock the boat’ and their plan is to make up what they lose there with donations from a few extremely wealthy alumni and federal grants.”  Dartmouth’s unfortunate trend of decline can be expected to continue without new educational initiatives and ways for alumni to participate in College affairs other than requests for donations.

Despite their many grievances, both Asch and MacGovern believe a reversal in the College’s fortunes is possible. Cuts made to federal grants and a further drop in donations could force the administration to implore support from a wider alumni base; a similar situation a long time ago established the 1891 agreement, where the College’s lack of funds brought them to make concessions to the girdled Earth’s wanderers.

“If I thought there was no hope, then I wouldn’t be criticizing it,” says Asch.  After all, governance fights are nothing new for Dartmouth alums. As a certain New Hampshire-granite-brained and -muscled lawyer said in 1819, “It is a small college, sir, and yet there are those who love it.”

Julie A. McConville also contributed to this report.