Prof Hart on alumni governance

Longtime advisor and intellectual mentor to the Review and its writers, Professor emeritus of english at the College, Jeffrey Hart, comments on the trustee governance reform below.

Professor Hart’s analysis will appear in the forthcoming freshmen issue of TDR, which will be available online very soon. In the meantime, read his piece below and please let us know what you think; for those of you who too hastily boil this trustee issue down to merely politics, you will be surprised to find Professor Hart deviating from the “party line.”

Reform Was Needed

This knot is difficult to untie, especially if you don’t arrive with preconceptions. As always one must depend upon fact and analysis.

During Jim Wright’s tenure as president of Dartmouth we have seen four petition candidates defeat the official nominees. A main reason for this must be a widespread impression among alumni voters outside Hanover, indeed hundreds and thousands of miles away, that President Wright has not been doing a good job. I’m close to daily events here, and that impression is far from the truth.

In fact, after the demagogic and divisive tactics of James Freedman, President Wright has brought an era of good feeling and considerable positive achievement. But the petition candidates have sometimes issued complaints about today’s Dartmouth that are contradicted by the facts.

Many of the alumni voters must be unaware of that.

There do remain important things to do, and that task will be interesting, creative and unifying. None of the last four petition candidates mentioned these, and I will return to them in a moment.

The recent changes in governance had two parts: 1) the petition method of electing alumni trustees; and 2) the size of the Board of Trustees. I will address the petition process first.

Clearly, the petition process was seriously flawed:

1. The candidate in effect was self-nominated, requiring only 500
signatures to gain a place on the ballot, a microscopic basis for
nomination relative to the size of the alumni body.

Voters know nothing about the petition candidate except what the
candidate chooses to tell us. (After I voted for one candidate, I found out
more, and regretted my vote.)

Though the petition process has been described as “democratic,” this road to nomination does not resemble democracy. Where else can you get on
a ballot with a handful of signatures?

2. The candidates provided a “platform” as the basis for the candidacy
consisting of things that needed change or are cause for future concern,

a) the criticism by petition candidates about present conditions at
Dartmouth has included class size, availability of professors, excessive
number of administrators, student-professor ratio, the threat to free
speech. Statistics are available that demonstrate these concerns to have
no basis in fact. And I can attest that freedom of speech is no longer
under attack.

Though those complaints have little basis in fact, alumni voting have way of knowing that. In normal democratic elections, such claims would have been challenged in public debate.

The fact that incorrect allegations just sit there unchallenged during a petition election is a serious flaw. In no other “democratic” process would that be true.

IMPORTANT: In future trustee elections incorrect statements about conditions at Dartmouth should be corrected by e-mail to all alumni.

3. Great concern has been expressed by petition candidates that Dartmouth might become a “research university” to the detriment of undergraduate education.

a) Undergraduate professors conduct a great deal of research and
publication. Rather than harming their teaching it enhances it.
Publication is important, and reputation enhances authority. For
example, when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, what Lionel
Trilling said in the classroom was more important because he had
written The Liberal Imagination. Its assumptions provided context and
so even when he was wrong in class, his mistakes mattered..

b) Dartmouth already has first-class graduate programs in business and
medicine. Dartmouth offers good graduate work in the hard sciences. Thus Dartmouth in many respects is already a respectable small University in some fields. But this is not true in the liberal arts.

4. And here is the task for the immediate future on which all alumni can
agree. For Dartmouth to offer graduate degrees in literature, for example,
competitive with Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, a large
financial investment in faculty recruitment would be required.

In a practical sense, what a PhD candidate wants is a professor with the
authority to pick up the phone and get the candidate a serious job
interview. That authority comes from publication. Such a professor will
also provide excellent intellectual guidance.

Dartmouth has been completing major expensive construction projects. The next step should be the construction of a liberal arts faculty of national and even international distinction.

For an endowed chair in, for example, Shakespeare to be named after a donor should be as attractive as a building.

This would not at all imperil undergraduate education. In fact it would enhance it.

There’s nothing wrong with that other small university, Princeton.

5. CONCLUSION

a) The reform of the petition procedure by nominating no more than two
official (Charter) candidates and requiring the winner to have an
absolute majority was a good start.

Voters should be informed by e-mail when false allegations are being
made.

b) The number of trustees on the Board has been increased from 18 to 26, while retaining the number available to petition candidates at eight. Since two trustees are ex officio, eight constituted half of the 18 member Board.

The wisdom of the change can be debated in good faith. Given the incorrect claims made by recent petition candidates it can be justified.
It is also disturbing that this issue has attracted the attention of a politically partisan press. The internal workings of such an institution as Dartmouth should not have a national political coloration.

But – and there always seems to be a “but” in this matter, the agenda of a Board of Trustees seems to be frozen before the meeting even begins. The
only useful item in the extensive treatment of all this in The Wall Street
Journal
was the Joe Rago (congratulation!) interview with trustee T.J. Rodgers, who maintained that the Board meetings are “scripted.” That is,
knew items cannot be placed on the agenda by trustees.

If that is true, it’s fair to ask, “What the hell is going on here?”

I can’t adjudicate that question.

The relevance of the 1891 protocol mandating that 50% of the Board be
elected by alumni vote very likely will be settled in court. Indeed, I understand that preparations are being made for the legal challenge.

We can certainly live with the result, while going ahead to major recruitment for the liberal arts faculty.