Some Thoughts on the Recent Controversy

The recent controversy enveloping Dartmouth College has been extremely vexing for sundry reasons. Amongst them, the disingenuous representation of the Board’s decision to the Dartmouth community is particularly maddening.

The College website conducted a Q&A with Haldeman shortly after the announcement of the changes. One question referenced the “so-called 1891 agreement.” This doesn’t reinforce the idea that the administration is being evenhanded. Haldeman noted that Wright recused himself from deliberations. Does that make Wright a neutral figure? Considering Wright was one of only five people on the Governance Committee, a committee that didn’t have a single petition candidate on it; I’m skeptical.

One more thing about the petition candidates, Haldeman claimed, “The full Board has embraced the petition candidates as trustees – treating them the same way we do any other member of the Board.” That may be true, but looking from the outside in, I’m rather incredulous.

On May 19, of this year, former Chairman of the Board of Trustees Bill Neukom ’64 hinted that the proportion of Alumni Trustees to Charter Trustees would change. Well, the proportion did change, and to me, looking back at Neukom’s comments, it seems like the board acted as if it was a foregone conclusion that the proportion would change. I find it hard, therefore, to take Haldeman seriously when he says, “Over the past three months, the Board’s Governance Committee conducted a thorough review of this issue. We carefully considered input from many alumni. . . .” According to a recent survey, 92 percent of about 4,000 alumni wanted to retain their previous privilege of voting for half of the Board of Trustees (excluding the ex officio members).

“I want to urge everyone who cares about Dartmouth to debate this issue in a reasonable and respectful way.” This declaration from Ed Haldeman ’70, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, came directly after they decided to significantly cut alumni involvement in choosing the makeup of the board.

I guess one question I have is why wasn’t there genuine debate? The trustees could have called for an “advisory vote” of some sort. Setting up an election to get a true sense of what alumni think. Leading up to the vote there would have been debate from both sides, good and bad points made from both sides, a dialogue from both sides. But there was none of this; instead, there was a fiat. Why? I think it’s because the trustees don’t honestly care what alumni think. Despite all of Haldeman’s and Wright’s protestations one thing is clear: they do not trust alumni. They do not want alumni input. They have their own vision of what Dartmouth should be, and it’s not open to interpretation.

There has been a lot of legal debate about the 1891 agreement between the College and the alumni. I’m not a legal scholar. I don’t know if the 1891 agreement has legal standing. In the past, whenever the size of the board has increased it has been proportionally, but I don’t know if that has any legal significance. What I do know is this: From an outside perspective the recent move by the Board of Trustees reeks of cronyism, but more than that it reeks of haughtiness, the absolute knowledge that no matter what decisions they make, they aren’t accountable to anyone.

That’s human nature; when one has an advantage, one exploits it. What makes me sick is all of the sophistry that has accompanied their decision. No one actually believes, for example, that their changes have “made the Board more accessible to alumni.” No matter how they try to spin their decision, most see it simply as a power grab.

I’m not questioning their hearts; I’m sure they are all trying to make Dartmouth the best university in the world. I’m questioning their means. I’m questioning the casuistry. I’m questioning their lack of humility.

What we in the Dartmouth community are now getting a taste of is a self-perpetuating oligarchy. It may be benevolent authoritarian rule, some certainly believe so, or it may just be an exercise in hubristic assuredness; however one chooses to characterize this regime is a matter of personal preference. One thing I know for sure: I can’t wait to get this taste out of my mouth.