Why the Board’s changes are fundamentally unhealthy for Dartmouth

AoA blitzed this to Alumni this morning.

FROM THE DARTMOUTH ASSOCIATION OF ALUMNI:

An explanation of the Board’s changes, and why they are fundamentally
unhealthy for Dartmouth.

As most of the Dartmouth community knows, the Board of Trustees passed
several significant changes affecting Board size, structure and
selection at its September 7th meeting. These changes were recommended
by the Board’s Governance Committee, which presented its Final Report to
the Board the week before its meeting.

At first blush, this seems quite proper and laudable. However, a
closer examination of the Governance Committee’s approach and
recommendations, and the Board’s actions reveal some very troubling
issues. The Governance Committee clearly sought out opinions and views
that matched their own, and studiously ignored input from those who
disagreed with their preconceived notions. Each of its members
unabashedly favored the proposed (and defeated) new constitution of
2006. Many of the recommendations of the Governance Committee echoed
the changes proposed in that constitution, which a clear majority of
alumni rejected. Furthermore, the Executive Committee of the
Association of Alumni — the only directly-elected representative body
of all alumni – also voiced its clear opposition to many of these
changes. Not only did the Governance Committee fail to consult with
the Executive Committee as it put together its Final Report, but when
the EC requested a meeting with the GC at the 11th hour, the GC still
refused to tell the EC what it was recommending to the Board. The
Governance Committee also declined to include the EC’s survey results
(which again clearly showed the public rejection of many of the GC’s
presumed recommendations) in its Final Report to the Board. The GC
would only consent to include the EC’s own letter, explaining the
results of its survey, in the packet that was sent to the Board.

Still, the Trustees did receive these results, and were certainly able
to consider them before they took action on September 7. The Board
also received many individual submissions from alumni, weighing in on
the issues up for consideration. Regardless of what the GC recommended
to the Board, it was the Board of Trustees that dismissed alumni
concerns and wishes, and instead decided to strip away much of the
alumni’s historic role in governance of the College.

The Board of Trustees has issued a statement, and followed up that
statement with a considerable public relations effort, explaining its
actions. But we contend that the explanation itself was misleading and
the representations of benefits were disingenuous.

We feel that the alumni, indeed the entire Dartmouth community, deserve
a clear, honest description of the changes passed by the Board, and what
those changes portend for the College. Thus, we set forth such a
description below.

1. Increase the size of the Board of Trustees. In his official letter
to the Dartmouth community, Board of Trustees President Ed Haldeman
describes the change that increased the size of the board thus: “expand
the board by adding more alumni to better meet the needs of the
college.” But what the Board actually did was abandon the balance
between alumni-elected Trustees and administration-appointed “Charter”
Trustees. Rather than the historic balance of 8 alumni-elected
Trustees, and 8 appointed “Charter” Trustees, the Board left the number
of alumni-elected Trustees at 8, but doubled the number of
non-alumni-elected Charter Trustees. Much like FDR’s notorious Supreme
Court manipulation, the Board of Trustees have “packed the court.” By
reducing the percentage of alumni-elected Trustees from 50% (a level it
has been at since 1891), to 33%, the Board has guaranteed that
alumni-elected Trustees (and viewpoints) will always be in the
minority.

Haldeman’s letter also claimed the “expansion” would “ensure” that the
Board “has the broad range of backgrounds, skills, expertise, and
fundraising capabilities needed to steward an institution of
Dartmouth’s scope and complexity.” A larger board may, indeed, add new
skills and expertise – but it is absolutely untrue that this requires
robbing alumni of their voting rights. In fact, a study of the
alumni-elected Trustees reveals a much broader range of skills,
background, and expertise than the charter Trustees. If history is any
guide, if current make-up is any indication, the new board will be more
homogenous, not less.

Haldeman also says that the new rules passed by the Board will “give
the Board more flexibility to select Trustees who offer the specific
talents and experiences that the College needs, which elections don’t
ensure.” This vague “flexibility” is really the flexibility to ignore
elections. This may sound melodramatic, but it is sadly quite accurate.
The Board has decided it does not like the folks that the alumni are
electing, so they are simply doubling the number of Trustees they can
choose themselves, without any elections whatsoever. This is a very
serious abrogation – a true assault on democracy for all alumni.

2. Mr. Haldeman’s second point was that the changes passed would
“preserve alumni democracy by retaining alumni Trustee elections.”
This would be laughably misleading, if it were not also deeply
worrisome in what it seems to imply. Yes, the Board “preserved”
alumni’s right to elect 8 Trustees. But, as we have seen, it also
doubled the number of Charter Trustees, thus effectively and
permanently keeping alumni-elected Trustees in the minority. Even more
troubling is the fact that the Board lists this as a privilege. We are
very concerned that the Board of Trustees is paving the way for a
future total elimination of alumni-elected Trustees, laying the
groundwork now by framing such elections as a special privilege, not a
clear and inalienable right. Haldeman goes on to say Dartmouth has the
highest proportion of alumni-elected Trustees. Yes (at least, we did
before that proportion was slashed in half), but that is one of the
signature qualities of Dartmouth governance, one of the differences
that has made Dartmouth great, that has kept a respect for tradition
and alumni concerns, that has reined in rash or ill-conceived changes
to the fundamental and unique Dartmouth culture and experience.
Dartmouth has long been held up and admired for this strong alumni
role, and instead the Board has sought to “dumb down” our governance to
match other, less successful models, and ones that were never created
for Dartmouth herself.

3. Next, Mr. Haldeman gives us “simplify the alumni nomination
process.” Translation: Strip the Association of Alumni and the Alumni
Council of their historic role in running Trustee elections (as our
constitution specifies), and supplant these alumni bodies with the will
and judgment of the Board of Trustees. The new rules would, in fact,
permit only one formal nominee for each open seat, and that person
would be automatically elected unless an opponent presents him/herself.
And then, the Board has given itself broad new powers to heavily
regulate the elections that would result. This change eliminates the
role of the AoA and the Alumni Council until such time as we behave
(presumably stop nominating these pesky petition candidates who refuse
to tow the line), at which point the Board may “consider permitting”
the alumni organizations to resume their administration of the process.
This is a huge change, and a complete abrogation of alumni’s role in
governance and elections.

Also buried in this section of Mr. Haldeman’s report is the
“explanation” that “Dartmouth’s Trustee elections have become
increasingly politiciz
ed, costly and divisive.” This is almost
entirely because the Board and the administration so vehemently oppose
the viewpoints of the petition candidates that they do everything in
their power to defeat them and to defame them during the campaign. We
have heard from every petition candidate of nasty, unethical and
shockingly ad hominem attacks on them, orchestrated by the College and
the Board, during their campaigns. And yet, still, is the solution to
“divisive” elections to simply abandon democracy? Are we comfortable,
as the Dartmouth community, to say that when the debate gets too
heated, we should gag the speakers and run them out of town? This seems
to be the Trustees’ solution.

4. Mr. Haldeman claims that the Board has also passed changes that will
“Improve Direct Board Engagement with Alumni and Other Stakeholders.”
Laudable goal, we agree. But there is no reason to believe that any of
these changes will improve engagement between alumni and the Board. In
fact, from every change the Board has made, it seems quite clear that
they are totally uninterested in what the alumni want or have to say.
We see no reason to expect more engagement with alumni, at least not
the majority views. Haldeman mentions creating new Board committees;
new Board committees are fine, but none of these other, damaging
changes were necessary to create new Board committees.

Most of us might reply that increasing the size of the Board could,
indeed, help create more “engagement” between the Board and alumni,
simply because there are more Trustees with whom to engage, and more
bodies to populate these new committees. But the flaw in that argument
is this: increasing the size of the Board could easily have been
accomplished without robbing alumni of their role in governance – as
easy as doubling the number of BOTH elected and charter Trustees. This
was such an obvious solution, that even Mr. Haldeman could not ignore
it in his letter. His explanation was this: “given the divisiveness
of recent elections, we did not believe that having more elections
would be good for Dartmouth.”

5. Trustees chosen for specific talents. “We also believe,” continues
Mr. Haldeman, “that the board needs more Trustees selected for the
specific talents and experiences they can offer the College, which
elections can’t guarantee.” Why not? Elections — free, clear, with
a full-throated debate and exchange of ideas — are the very best way
to put forth the requirements of a job, and the qualifications of the
candidates. Then, let the voters decide — if you trust them. Which
the Board of Trustees clearly does not. It seems the only guarantee
they are seeking is the guarantee that future Trustees will match their
own description of what and who a Trustee should be and believe. We
find this deeply arrogant as well as terribly ominous for the future of
the College.

One thing Haldeman didn’t even bother to mention in his communication
to the Dartmouth community was the reactivation of a long-dormant
Executive Committee within the Board, using the new additional
Trustees. This is an device to make sure that all the real decisions
are concentrated in a small elite group, hand-picked by the
administration, and excluding all dissenters. We saw a preview of this
with the Governance Committee, which did not include a single petition
candidate, despite the fact that the last four Trustees elected in a
row have been petition candidates. What hope have we, then, that any
petition candidates, that anyone representing the average member of the
Dartmouth community, will ever have a role in College governance again?

In sum, the Executive Committee of the Association of Alumni, as the
only directly-elected body designed to protect alumni interests, feels
very strongly that the changes passed by the Board do severe harm to
the College. We should note that this is the opinion of the majority
of the EC, not the unanimous opinion.

But you need not take our word for it. In the run up to these radical
changes, both the Association and the Board heard from thousands of
impassioned current and former students. They overwhelmingly opposed
any changes made in reaction to elections whose results displeased a
small number of people in Parkhurst and on the Board.

Senior Tatyana Liskovich recently penned a letter in The Dartmouth
Independent call “Democracy Goes Down Swinging.” You can read the whole
letter here:

but let us end this email by quoting Tatyana:

“There is nothing wrong with financially supporting your alma mater and
then having an interest in how that school is run, in fact that is the
principle on which alumni participation is anchored. Until now,
Dartmouth College has been commendably unique among peer institutions
in the nature of its elected Board, the balance between democratic
participation of alumni providing an independent check against
executive control. This level of investment and post-graduation
involvement is what has made the school not simply a four-year
study-drink-study hurrah, but a community of which you are a part, for
life. After all, it is ‘a small college…and yet there are those who
love it,’ let us not lose the right to vote our dedication. Not on our
watch.”