Politics & Policy

Double-Secret Probation

As conservative alumni win elections, a college administration moves to make elections disappear.

Some say the fictional Faber College of Animal House was loosely based on New Hampshire’s own Dartmouth College. Aficionados of the movie will remember Dean Wormer threatening the boys of the Delta Tau Chi house with the ominous “double-secret probation.”

Today, some real-life Dartmouth renegades again find themselves the target of a zealous administration — on their own version of double-secret probation.

Instead of fraternity rapscallions, though, Dartmouth’s administration has struck out against some of its own administration and alumni, part of an ongoing saga of political turmoil affecting the bucolic Ivy League school.

Since 2004, petition candidates to Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees — – that is, candidates not pre-selected by the Alumni Council of the college — have won highly-contested elections on platforms of “conservative” themes of retaking control of the college for the alumni, abating speech codes on campus, and improving administration governance.

This past spring, events came to a head in the latest round of alumni voting. Dartmouth alumni elected the fourth petition trustee in nearly as many years, after rejecting last fall a proposed constitutional overhaul that would have made the candidacies of the petitioners exceedingly difficult.

After the spring trustee election, the political drama recommenced. Outgoing chairman of the board Bill Neukom announced at a meeting of the Alumni Council at the end of May that a committee within the Board of Trustees had undertaken an effort to “reform” the governance process — a euphemism the administration-backed trustees have often used to mean precluding petition candidates. The findings of the reform committee were to be presented to the Board at its June 9 meeting.

“These guys are losing elections,” says Joseph Asch, a 1979 graduate of the College who challenged Neukom at the meeting. “Now they want to change the rules, when they really should be changing the way the school is governed.”

Worrying that the democracy in trustee elections might be in danger, Dartmouth’s Association of Alumni sent a letter to the Board of Trustees, warning the board not to abrogate the 1891 agreement that established alumni elections to the board. The signers of the letter included all the officers and members of the executive committee of the Association of Alumni; the only dissenting member was secretary-treasurer David Spalding, who is also the Dartmouth administration’s vice president for alumni relations.

The administration waved off its scheduled presentation in June, but still intends to present its findings this fall, where it could theoretically force through any reform it wishes. This worries many of the petition candidates, both on the Board of Trustees and in the Association of Alumni leadership.

“What is at stake is the identity of Dartmouth itself,” says trustee Todd Zywicki. “The reason why Dartmouth has remained committed to undergraduate education is because of this long-standing tradition of having the alumni elect the board.”

Those supportive of petition candidates have faced reprisals. When the Association of Alumni sent out its letter, the Dartmouth administration began to refuse the organization access to college databases of mailing addresses.

Ultimately, Frank Gado, the second vice president of the association, offered up his own money and generated his own mailing list for the letter.

“They threatened litigation, which is out-and-out an attempt to intimidate us,” Gado says. “If they decide to sue me, they sue me. I don’t care if I have to go to jail, I’m not divulging where I got the list.”

The president of Dartmouth College, James Wright, refused to comment for this story. Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ed Haldeman also refused, as did the three trustees — Michael Chu, Christine Buckland, and John Donahoe — who are members of the Governance Committee that decides any election “reforms.”

Joe Malchow, a rising senior at Dartmouth, authors the popular news source Dartblog. “What’s at stake is who takes the helm of Dartmouth College,” says Malchow. “Is it the stakeholders, or various self-interested administrators and bureaucrats?” Malchow has welcomed the impact of the petition candidates, saying their presence — even as a minority — has been to open up debate and put enough pressure on the administration to back off of more controversial proposals.

Emily Ghods-Esfahani is a rising junior at Darmouth, where she is the summer editor in chief of The Dartmouth Review and has covered the alumni battles extensively. “There are two visions when people think of the direction of the college,” she says. “Do we want to keep it what it was — a smaller liberal arts college — or make it be like a larger research university, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale?”

Looking ahead to September’s meeting, where the new Governance Committee proposal will be unveiled, trustee T. J. Rodgers is not sure what to expect. “I wont find out until days before the meeting what they’ll want to change, if anything,” Rodgers says. “The one thing that I’m concerned about is that they will impair or eliminate the alumni–trustee democracy that exists at Dartmouth,” he adds. Rodgers worries that the size of the board might be expanded, but with a new, smaller “executive board” within the group, vested with all the power. In Rodgers’ words, it would be the equivalent of a “politburo” running Dartmouth.

“Clearly, the alumni have spoken loudly in the past five elections,” says Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Any efforts to thwart or undermine the thoughtful input of alumni would be at the institution’s own peril.” The petition trustees, Neal says, have had a significant impact in tackling political correctness and bureaucratic bloat at Dartmouth.

Moving towards the board’s meeting this weekend, all eyes are on Dartmouth, to see whether those efforts to curb the excesses in higher education will be able to continue.

–Michael O’Brien was the Collegiate Network summer intern for National Review this summer.

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