By Joe Malchow
Given their common characteristics it's often difficult for a person of even superior discernment to tell, from a slight distance, the difference between an accomplished university bureaucrat and a robust brick wall. Both seem witlessly to beg for the wrecking ball. The nation's nine colonial colleges---not to mention the hundreds founded since---are thronged with administrative employees whose job it is to justify the outsized administration of the college or university that employs them. On the whole, these congeries of deans report that things are not going very well, that manifold "issues" of tremendous consequence beg resolution, and that, darn it, they just need more manpower. They recommend more deans.
And they are generously obliged on that score. The fact that, on the margin, American colleges now privilege the task of thickening the ranks of bureaucrats over that of educating their students is one reason that alumni---whose gifts are the lifeblood of the colonial institutions, at least---are in "revolt" mode, to use The Wall Street Journal's word. At the front of the fight, facing across the wind-swept college green the marshaled deanery, are the students and alumni of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Reacting to all manner of absurdities---such as the fact that from 2001 to 2006, Dartmouth added twice as many administrators as faculty members---Dartmouth alumni have voted in, four times in a row since 2004, activist trustees who pledged to hold the College's executives to account. At most publicly traded companies the election by the shareholders of an activist board-member cues, if not a resignation, then at least an episode of doleful reckoning on the part of the chief executive. At Dartmouth, the election of four independent trustees resulted in ever more pitched protests from the cocksure deanery; like any bureaucracy, it had become so thoroughly insulated from external inquiry that the notion of it having erred was imponderable.
After the fourth independent trustee was elected in May of 2007, the rubber-stamp set decided to attenuate the fractious independents by "packing" Dartmouth's board. Traditionally half alumni-elected and half self-appointed, the Board under a September 2007 plan would become two-thirds self-appointed and one-third elected - in consequence castrating the elected minority.
The Dartmouth Association of Alumni, which conducts trustee elections and which bargained successfully in 1891 for the half-elected arrangement, immediately filed suit to forestall the abrogation of its contract with the Board of Trustees. It is this lawsuit whose fate was decided earlier two weeks ago.
Alas, this fledgling reformation, previously unseen in American academe, may now have rustled back to ground. On June 10 Dartmouth alumni voted for new Association of Alumni leaders who have pledged to end the lawsuit. Democratic elections will not continue untrammeled. The vote followed a months-long campaign in which one slate of candidates endorsed "parity"---the notion of equal numbers of elected and appointed trustees---and another slate endorsed nothing more than dismissing the Association's attorney and withdrawing its complaint. This latter slate proved victorious, though for no reason other than its insistence that the lawsuit was distracting the College from its core mission. (A regular tragedy, of course: it is the very stakeholder activism the lawsuit sought to preserve that returned Dartmouth at long last to its core mission.) The anti-lawsuit slate members kept their own support for what has been termed "the Board-packing plan" silent, since according to a poll 92% of alumni oppose the scheme. Running by stealth---hired public relations professionals ran their campaign; an erstwhile Mitt Romney pollster conducted nationwide internal polling on their behalf---this cabal slotted themselves in and are now preparing to withdraw the complaint against the trustees.
Their victory is an empty one. Empty in the sense that four years of earnest ad rem argumentation on the part of reformers was thwarted not on the merits, but on procedure; empty in the fact that Dartmouth's establishment did little more than tucker out the outsiders. It was ultimately, as ever, the ability of bureaucrats to wait in brick-hard silence---not their powers of suasion---which won the day.
Each of Dartmouth's four petitioners---Silicon Valley businessman T.J. Rodgers, writer Peter Robinson, and law professors Stephen Smith and Todd Zywicki---won free and open elections by writing simple letters to the alumni body detailing, by prose and by statistic, what needed to be fixed at Dartmouth. They undertook to provide alumni with data beyond what they received in periodic glossies distributed by the school's gangling public relations apparatus. Not since William F. Buckley slipped New Haven's halls and wrote his first book has a college president suffered such an exhaustive public performance evaluation as at Dartmouth College. For their part, the other trustees consider that their responsibilities do not proceed past the consumption of a lobster dinner and the initialing here and there of whatever documents they find in their briefing binder.
In the fury over these free radicals on the Dartmouth Board, one is liable---beckoned, really---to overlook the substance of the fight. Since 2004, when Dr. Rodgers assumed his seat, the Dartmouth administration, which initially denied each candidates' criticisms, has somnolently confessed and endeavored, lightly, to rectify every one of them. A new Western studies center has just been opened in honor of alumnus Sen. Daniel Webster; the College speech code has been rescinded; the speech and rhetoric department has been reintroduced; the College's stellar government and economics faculties have finally been permitted to hire more professors; insider candidates for top positions are now more likely to be rejected in favor of freer-thinking outsiders; the student disciplinary procedures are under revision; the crusade against student-run fraternities has been surrendered; the hiring of administrators has slowed somewhat; and the effort to sacrifice the quality of undergraduate education at the altar of research has given up its ghost.
There is comedy in it: even though, after each successive petition candidate took his seat in Dartmouth's boardroom, the College administration attempted to change the rules (this covered the previous assay, from 2006) substantive argument trumped procedural whining each time. And at the very apogee of the scrap over the democratic election process, a judge was set to rule on the College's desperate abrogation of a century-old contract enshrining this process. Yet this judge, now, is prevented from weighing in---because the long-vested functionaries at Dartmouth mounted a campaign to prevent him from ruling on the procedural question.
Put another way, the College at every turn plied its muscle at thwarting the election process, not at winning the debates taking place under that process. (Not once since 2004 has an establishment candidate won election to the Board.) When the process was finally thrown into the courts to be adjudged by a professional, the College refused to fight there, too. It intrigued the takeover of the committee which employed the attorney who was pursuing the case, and will now sack him, causing the case to be dismissed. Courage? Intellectual integrity? Conviction? No, the modish academic prefers machination.
This latest episode at Dartmouth is not in toto a rejection of the democratic reformation. Rather it seems little more than an indication that one particular instrument---the legal complaint---is too uncouth to be countenanced by alumni, in what is after all a modestly undertaken effort to improve one's alma mater. The alumni rejected the tactic but reaffirmed the cause; this, their gentle spirit, mustn't be lamented. Along with a menagerie of bad policy, the consistent election of independent directors at Dartmouth has prompted the fading-away of the College's current president, James Wright, who preannounced his resignation after seats occupied by petitioners reached a full quarter of the board. His policies cannot now be taken as cues for his successor, whomever it will be; and that successor ought not, by rights, to encounter an alumni revolution his first day on the job. A certain honeymoon is expected.
One now recognizes that Dartmouth, the smallest and nimblest of the pre-Revolution institutions, shares with its bulkier peers the crust of age---whole offices stocked with hidebound sentinels who prevent the institution from truly connecting with the two constituencies which represent (or threaten to represent) the wider world: alumni and students.
In The New Criterion recently, University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Charles Kors wrote: "A model of higher education that offered a prestigious degree, high admissions standards, a superb and rigorous education, a faculty that was truly and usefully intellectually pluralistic, and a climate of individual rights and responsibilities (joined with rights of voluntary association) would, I believe, sweep the field. No one can afford to build a great university to offer that model, however. For obvious structural and institutional reasons, no one is going to 'seize' a major university for such an experiment..."
Well. The success of four years of serious alumni inquiry seems, if not to have seized, then at least to have touched the heart of Dartmouth College. Who its next president is will determine whether those brick walls at the border are, as one hopes, melting down, and the bloom reflushing the rose.
Joe Malchow is a 2008 graduate of Dartmouth College and a writer based in Northern California. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Far Eastern Economic Review, and National Review Online. In 2004 he founded Dartblog.com, a widely read running commentary on culture, politics, and American higher education.