McDavid: Democratic Decisions

by Michael McDavid | 11/4/14 8:23pm

In the midst of the heated Greek life debate, one question remains largely unaddressed. Who, ultimately, will make these decisions? Who has the authority to decide monumental issues like the abolition of Greek life? Dartmouth, like most colleges, relies on the members of its Board of Trustees to make consequential decisions. Given their enormous influence on College policy, the method by which trustees are elected to the Board should be made more democratic.

Each Board member invariably brings years of experience in academia, the business world or other spheres to the table. However, the election process is startlingly undemocratic. The Board consists of: the New Hampshire State Governor (ex officio) and the College President, eight alumni trustees and 16 charter trustees. The Board nominates and elects new “charter trustees.”

When there is a vacant alumni seat, all alumni are notified by the Association of Alumni. They are invited to send names to the Alumni Council, which then proposes no more than two candidates for each position. But, after the council’s announcement, candidates can also petition to be put on the ballot. These petitions require 500 signatures from eligible voters. All eligible alumni then vote on the council’s two candidates and any successful petition candidates. Over the past decade, several petition candidates have won alumni seats.

In a contentious move that many saw as a response to the increasing success of petitioners, the Board added eight new charter seats in 2007. Right or wrong, the Board diluted the power of the alumni to elect College leadership, thus making the election process far less democratic.

There are any number of good arguments against allowing for a completely democratic process. For one, alumni are spread all over the globe and may not understand the campus climate. Alumni would also undoubtedly be an agent of inertia. As the College seeks to stay relevant and up-to-date in an increasingly competitive educational environment, we can little afford a large proportion of the trustees bent on maintaining the way things were when they were students. That said, we can find a mechanism to enfranchise a greater proportion of the Dartmouth community, making the process more democratic without opening the floodgates.

I propose creating four Young Alumni Trustee seats, mirroring the board at Princeton University. At Princeton, one member of the graduating senior class each year is elected by the junior class, the senior class and the two most recent graduating classes. According to the Alumni Association of Princeton, the positions were created to “ensure that the Board would always include four members with recent experience as undergraduates,” thereby ensuring perspectives and actions based on the “needs, concerns and interests” relevant to current Princeton students. They are also on the board to represent Princeton as a whole, enjoying all the same privileges, responsibilities and duties as any traditional trustee seat.

Such a change would bring myriad virtues. Young alumni seats guarantee voices on the Board with practical, realistic understandings of how significant issues play out among today’s student body. It would create trustees who are directly accountable to an informed and engaged student populace. While the move would empower young alumni and older undergraduates, it would not open the voting up to younger undergraduates, a larger proportion of whom might not yet completely grasp complex College issues. It also would set a precedent of alumni trustee voting, producing more engaged alumni who are likelier to vote in subsequent alumni trustee elections.

We must realize that most crucial decision-making power at Dartmouth is vested in the Board of Trustees and the College President, whom the Board selects. We can write opinion columns, the faculty can voice their opinions in a vote — but the Board of Trustees makes the ultimate decisions. This is not necessarily to say that the Board is making bad decisions or not acting in the College’s best interest. It is merely to say that good governance comes when constituents have the means to hold their representatives accountable, which is best found in democratic processes. By creating young alumni seats on the Board of Trustees, Dartmouth would create a form of responsible yet more democratic decision-making.