Dartmouth and Florida State aren’t in this year’s Final Four, but suppose they were.
“Would Dartmouth pull out if we had to play the Seminoles?” asks Stephen Smith, a 1988 Dartmouth alumnus who is running for the college’s board of trustees.
It’s a reasonable question, which Smith says he first heard from a fellow alumnus. In December, Dartmouth hosted a hockey tournament that included the University of North Dakota. A few weeks before the opening face-off, Dartmouth’s athletic director publicly apologized for the “hurt” this event would cause. Unfortunately, she wasn’t talking about hard checks into the boards, but rather UND’s team name, the Fighting Sioux. Indian team names, she said, are “offensive and wrong.”
“It was an embarrassment to Dartmouth,” says Smith. “Athletes just want to compete. Instead, the whole thing was politicized. Rather than trying to win the game, which we lost, we debated the mascot.”
Talking about the incident three months after it happened, he shakes his head in dismay: “There’s a new McCarthyism on campus.”
Smith says he would like to change the atmosphere at Dartmouth. Last fall, he mounted a petition campaign to become eligible for an election that runs from April 1 to May 15. Over the course of nearly seven weeks, Dartmouth alumni will choose a new representative for their alma mater’s board of trustees. If Smith succeeds, he will follow in the footsteps of three other candidates who have won seats by standing in opposition to the Dartmouth administration: T.J. Rodgers (elected in 2004), Peter Robinson (2005), and Todd Zywicki (2005).
Smith’s fate won’t be known until the ballots are counted, but recent trends suggest that Dartmouth alumni are in a mutinous mood. Last year, in another defeat for the administration, they rejected changes to a constitution that governs trustee elections. The school had wanted to make it more difficult for independent candidates to run. The Chronicle of Higher Education described the result as “a major victory for conservative students [and] alumni.”
Smith, who is currently a law professor at the University of Virginia, has the kind of life story that many politicians would envy. Raised by a single mother on welfare in Washington, D.C., he earned scholarships to Catholic schools and graduated from high school at the age of 16. “My mother put me in kindergarten a little early,” he explains.
At Dartmouth, Smith married and became a father — apparently, he does just about everything ahead of schedule. He went on to law school at Virginia. On the day he graduated in 1992, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on his rise from a poor neighborhood in Anacostia. The headline: “D.C. Child Leapt From Depths of Welfare to Top of Law Class.”
Like an Olympic triple jumper, Smith kept on leaping. He clerked for two federal judges: David Sentelle at the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court. Then he went into private practice and in 2000 joined the Virginia faculty. Today he has five children, all boys.
He certainly makes a strong impression: At 6’7”, he looks more like a linebacker than a law professor. “He’s one of the most impressive men I know — smart, thoughtful, independent, and tough,” says Zywicki, who was Smith’s classmate of at both Dartmouth and Virginia. “He’d make a great trustee.”
Smith says he encounters lots of Dartmouth alumni in his classes. “Talking to them, I became concerned about what was happening at the college,” he says. “Since the time I was a student, class sizes have grown. Some are over-enrolled. I’m worried that Dartmouth is straying a bit from its historical mission, which is excellence in undergraduate education.”
This isn’t the first time Smith has run in an election. In 1999, he was the Republican candidate for a seat in the Virginia assembly. “I should have known it was going to be a tough election when I was nominated by acclamation,” he says. He captured 41 percent of the vote in a heavily Democratic, inside-the-Beltway district.
Smith wasn’t always a Republican. “When I was growing up, I was a Democrat, but that’s because everyone around me was a Democrat.” At Dartmouth in 1984, he says he would have cast his first presidential vote for Walter Mondale — except that he wasn’t old enough to vote. By 1988, however, he was volunteering for Vice President George Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
Dartmouth may not be in this year’s Final Four, but in the current trustee election there are four candidates. Three were nominated by the Dartmouth alumni council, which makes them quasi-official representatives of the administration. Smith pursued a spot on the ballot through the roundabout method of petitioning to get on it — a route that requires collecting a minimum of 500 alumni signatures.
“It’s tougher than it sounds,” he says. “There are only about 1,000 graduates in each class and they’re spread across the country.” Then there is a series of arcane rules, such as the one that prohibits signatures in black ink.
Despite these challenges, Smith got his name on the ballot — and the administration is none too pleased. On February 28, Dartmouth President James Wright issued a letter that appeared to take issue with some of Smith’s claims about trends at the college.
On his campaign website, Smith aggressively questions Wright’s record on free speech. In the letter, Wright argued that “free speech is alive and well” on campus.
Last fall, before Smith was on the ballot, Wright seemed to sing a different tune in a letter prompted by the controversy surrounding that notorious hockey game: “There will always be individuals–including some who are members of this community–who empower themselves by disrespecting others.” They are “bullies,” wrote Wright, and they regularly assert “‘free speech’ rights.” Note the sneer quotes.
If Smith wins election to the board of trustees, he’ll take another great leap — and find himself in a venue where his own free speech will sound loud and clear.