The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Elusive ‘Dartmouth University’

Dartmouth Campus (Photo via @dartmouth, Madeline Chisholm)

The new issue of Vanity Fair has an article about the Sackler family’s involvement with opioids that contains the following sentence: “ ‘The importance of the standards cannot be underestimated,’ says Brian Sites, M.D., director of acute-pain service at Dartmouth University’s school of medicine.” I think Dr. Sites means “must not” instead of “cannot,” but that’s not what I’m posting about today. The error I want to correct is Vanity Fair‘s reference to “Dartmouth University,” which does not exist; it should be “Dartmouth College.”

In pointing out this solecism, I am not just being pedantic, because it involves an important legal principle that marks its bicentennial this year. In 1815 the state of New Hampshire had a dispute with Dartmouth, so it unilaterally rewrote the college’s charter, reconstituted it under the name Dartmouth University, installed a new board of trustees, and occupied most of the college’s buildings. The real Dartmouth objected, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, representing the original college, made his famous remark that Dartmouth “is a small college, and yet there are those who love it.”

The state argued that since education was a state responsibility, it could revise the college’s old charter (dated 1769) to meet the needs of the present day. But in 1819 the Court ruled, by a 5–1 margin, that the takeover was barred by the Constitution, which prohibits any law that “impairs the obligation of contracts” (the contract in this case being the college’s charter). The case has stood ever since as a restraint on government interference in the affairs of nonprofits and is regularly cited in cases such as Citizens United.

With its four graduate divisions and 6,000-plus students, Dartmouth is no longer “a small college” but a major university. Yet despite a strong nationwide trend to the contrary, it will never change its name to Dartmouth University, for these historical reasons.

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