Phi Beta Cons

The Battle Continues at Dartmouth

As Joe wrote earlier this month, there is a lot going on up at Dartmouth, and even if the words “campus governance” make you want to doze off, you should care. Here is how ACTA describes the situation in a brand-new press release:

On May 24, the leaders of the [Dartmouth Association of Alumni] announced that they were “postponing” the group’s scheduled October 15 annual meeting—and thereby the elections for their own offices. ACTA protested in a June 1 letter, which resulted in media coverage  in the Boston Globe and New Hampshire Union Leader, as well as on talk radio and many weblogs.

The Association of Alumni responded to ACTA’s letter on June 15, but failed to answer any of ACTA’s substantive criticisms. The group’s executive committee claims that its constitution gives it “the right to set the meeting date, and to change it if required.” But the group’s “Guidelines for Conduct of Meetings” clarify that “the executive committee shall set the date for the Association’s next annual meeting” not whenever it wants, but “at each annual meeting.” As ACTA’s letter pointed out, “there are no provisions for a unilateral decision to postpone the meeting date” to some indefinite time in the future.


Why should you care? Well, take a look at ACTA’s recent testimony before the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. There we argued that:


For too long, constituencies such as alumni and trustees have been expected to remain outside the walls of the ivory tower, particularly when it comes to issues of academic quality and accountability. There are those inside the academy who studiously believe they should have absolute autonomy. For them, the role of trustees and alumni is to provide support—period.
The logic behind the tradition is deceptively simple. Academic decisions should be made on academic grounds—hence they should be made by academics. But as we at ACTA have attempted to outline, current conditions in the academy urgently call for outside scrutiny.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni was launched a decade ago to focus on those conditions and to mobilize thoughtful alumni and trustees on behalf of rigorous general education, good teaching, high standards, low tuition and academic freedom. Alumni and trustees know and understand that, to remain competitive, our institutions of higher learning must remain focused on academic standards, academic excellence and transparency. And they are alarmed by what they see. They are troubled by rising costs, a diffuse and “dumbed down” curriculum, and lack of accountability. They are seeking appropriate oversight of an educational system that relies on their support, while vigorously rejecting their input.

Most institutions—and their internal constituencies—need checks and balances, and higher education is no exception. That is why robust alumni governance—open to diverse perspectives—is so important. (It’s not, as Joe has politely reminded the Associated Press, a left-right issue.) And the clear impetus behind this election “postponement” at Dartmouth is to pass a new constitution for alumni governance that would eviscerate the petition trustee mechanism and try to diminish input from thoughtful and informed alumni. Erin O’Connor has explained why this is the case on ACTA’s blog.

 

Petition-trustee races, of course, have been the principal vehicle for reform for alumni concerned about academic quality and academic freedom—witness the election of Dartmouth trustees of T.J. Rodgers in 2004 and Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki in 2005, and the subsequent repeal of Dartmouth’s speech code.

 

Those in favor of the status quo are feeling threatened. They mean to win—and in the process, as Anne points out in ACTA’s press release, discourage diverse voices on the board of this very important college. Those of us who want reform, openness, and a commitment to excellence in higher ed should be just as serious as they are about turning back this advance. It is crucial.

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