Incest vs. idiocy at Dartmouth ♦
Dartmouth College alumni— at least, the vocal ones— are up in arms because the college has diluted their power to elect the school’s trustees. At most non-profit institutions, the board of trustees is elected by the self-perpetuating board members themselves. But since 1891 Dartmouth had rejected this incestuous arrangement: Instead, only half the Dartmouth board was chosen by the trustees; the other half was elected by the school’s alumni (the college president and the governor of New Hampshire serve ex officio). You might call this policy, “Incest, no; idiocy, yes.”
The dangers of such a board development policy became apparent in recent years when conservative Dartmouth alumni, outraged by politically correct liberal academics, managed to elect four “opposition trustees.” At most non-profits, new trustees are expected to contribute the three W’s (work, wisdom and wealth) or to observe the three G’s (give, get or get off). But these fifth columnists serve a different constituency with a different agenda. It’s sort of like putting a couple of pacifists on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or electing three or four Jews and Muslims to the College of Cardinals. How can a team accomplish anything when its members are working at cross-purposes?
To avoid that sort of paralysis, Dartmouth’s board this month expanded its size from 18 trustees to 26, leaving the alumni in a distinct minority with only their old contingent of eight trustees. The conservative alumni complained that the change was effected surreptitiously (at a weekend retreat!) and undemocratically. “The decision this weekend by Dartmouth’s board to bulldoze that arrangement,” editorialized the Wall Street Journal, “is… breathtaking for its audacity. Elections at Dartmouth were tolerated for 116 years, so long as the alumni were electing rubber stamps as trustees.”
As breathtaking audacities go, the Dartmouth coup pales beside, say, our continuing unpleasantness in Iraq. In any case the Journal’s complaint, it seems to me, overlooks more germane questions: Where is it written that a not-for-profit organization is a democracy? And even if it is, where is it written that a school is best managed by its alumni, as opposed to, say, educators? If the alumni are entitled to a voice in running Dartmouth, shouldn’t the current students and their parents have a voice too?
The logical extensions of this thinking boggle the mind. Should former hospital patients have a voice in electing the hospital’s trustees? What about current patients (assuming they’re not sedated)? Should the Philadelphia Orchestra’s board be elected by its season ticket holders? Its former ticket holders? Why are the former ticket holders more entitled to this privilege than the current ones? If you were a student, or a parent of a student, or a surgical patient, or a music lover, would you want to attend an institution that’s run by people who used to patronize the place a long time ago? If the Broad Street Review had a board (which we will one of these days, if we ever get our act together), should its members be chosen by our former readers?
I trust you see where I’m heading with this argument. The mere fact that you spent time and/or money at an institution in the distant past should not confer upon you any special voice in running the place.
When alumni were banned from campus
Until the 20th Century my own alma mater, Penn, scrupulously prohibited its alumni from using the university’s facilities. Alumni weren’t even permitted on campus, much less given a voice in electing the board. This policy stemmed from a notion that alumni posed a distraction to the business at hand. If they took academics seriously, went the thinking, they’d still be studying or teaching.
Subsequently, of course, Penn and every other school learned to welcome alumni to the campus, the better to pick their pockets. But that basic 19th-Century principle still makes sense: If you’re serious about academics (or medicine, or music, or theater, or damn near anything), alumni are the last people you want to put in charge.
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