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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Trustees oversee critical College issues

Since its inception in 1769, the College's Board of Trustees has encountered many issues that have defined its role and demonstrated the ways in which it has tried to act in the College's best interests.

In the history of the board, there are a number of key Trustee issues -- the Dartmouth College case, coeducation, sex-blind admissions, the board's Committee on Student Affairs and investment in South Africa -- that illustrate the changing focus of the board and the interests it must balance in trying to ensure the long-term well-being of the College.

Robert Kilmarx, who was a member of the Class of 1950 and a Trustee from 1972 to 1982, said the Board of Trustees is the guardian of the long-term well-being of the College.

In fulfilling its charge as guardian, the board has often been forced to balance the College's financial interests with the interests of students, faculty and alumni. Through the years, the board has become more involved with student life and the College's daily workings.

Defining its role

The Dartmouth College case, which Daniel Webster argued in 1818 before the Supreme Court, established the Trustees' role as the governing body of the College that acts in the College's best interest.

Eleazar Wheelock's son, John, became the College's second President upon his father's death. The Board of Trustees, which is supposed to work harmoniously with the president, was originally made up of friends and relatives of Eleazar Wheelock.

Many of those original Trustees had died when John Wheelock became president. The new Board of Trustees was hostile toward the new president and took actions to restrict his duties. The board justified its actions against John Wheelock by saying it was taking his responsibilities "in order to relieve the President from some portion of the burdens which unavoidably devolve upon him."

Ousted from the College by the board, John Wheelock convinced the new governor and state legislature of New Hampshire that the state should take control of the school away from the Trustees and be renamed Dartmouth University.

The Board of Trustees turned to alumnus Daniel Webster, a member of the Class of 1801, to argue its case. The first ruling in 1817 upheld Wheelock's plea that the Trustees were public employees and the College was a public corporation. The College became Dartmouth University.

The rightful Board of Trustees did not regain its original power over the College until the Supreme Court freed the College of state interference in 1819.

The Dartmouth College case confirmed the Board of Trustees' autonomous ruling power over the College.

Since the Dartmouth College case, the Trustees have sought to clarify their role.

Under College President John Kemeny, the board decided that its chair would no longer be the College president, and it would assess the president's performance regularly.

Kilmarx said the board under Kemeny debated what its role should be. They addressed the leadership roles on the board because, traditionally, the president of the College chaired the board. The president therefore had great influence on the board. He would set up the agenda and lead discussion.

"The board certainly was not an independent body in representing all the constituencies of the College" when the College president was the chair of the board, Kilmarx said.

The new format of the board with a non-president chair took form under College President John Sloan Dickey.

"The role of the board really changed under Dickey's term; there was concern over Dickey's reaction to the board's having its own chairman, but it was not a problem at all," he said. "President Dickey recognized it was the proper relationship."

Coeducation and the D-Plan

The Trustees' 1971 coeducation decision forced the board to balance the College's financial interests with those of students, faculty and alumni.

As pressure from students and faculty increased, the board said it would consider admitting women to the College only if coeducation could be achieved without undertaking massive construction of new dormitories and other facilities, Kilmarx said.

"That was the transition period for coeducation which occurred in 1971," Kilmarx said. "I regret that I wasn't on the board in the fall of 1971. I would have liked very much to have been a part of that vote, from what I understand it was somewhat of a divisive debate."

Kilmarx said once the Trustees agreed it would be beneficial to admit women, much of the debate centered around how to increase the number of women on campus without decreasing the number of males.

The alumni worried that coeducation would lead to fewer men admitted.

David Weber '50 a former Trustee from 1971 to 1980 said, "alumni opinion provides a certain kind of resistance to dramatic change, but only to a very general level is that true."

Weber said the Trustees can also shape alumni opinion and the Board is not just restrained by it.

The board decided that ideally future classes would consist of the same number of men already on campus, 3,000, and coeducation would bring an additional 1,000 women.

"The board immediately recognized they were in a crunch," Kilmarx said. "The plan required several more dorms at huge expense or [the College would have] to reduce the number of men."

"The alumni said the latter would be totally unacceptable and be very divisive," he said. "For a while we thought we had an unsolvable dilemma."

Kilmarx said "almost overnight President Kemeny came forward with a solution. We had to get a quarter of those students off the campus all the time."

The D-Plan allowed the College to accept 33 percent more students without having to build more beds.

Mirroring the student body

As coeducation changed the face of the College's student body, the Trustees attempted to mirror this change.

"Here was a College with women as students and faculty and employees that needed to be represented on the board," Kilmarx said.

Kilmarx said the board discussed the importance of having a female member because the student body had significant female representation.

He said the board wanted to have an alumna serve but sufficient time had not passed for females to graduate from the College and gain the necessary experience in the professional world. The Board also discussed the possibility of having a female student serve as a Trustee, but that idea was not acceptable to many of the members. The Trustees were reluctant to wait until an alumna was eligible to serve on the Board. There was an immediate need for female representation so a solution was necessary.

A compromise was reached. Sally Freshette Maynard, a widow of a Dartmouth alumnus, was elected to the Board of Trustees in 1979.

"Although she was not a graduate of the College, she was part of the Dartmouth family," Kilmarx said.

"It was not until I left the board that the first female graduate of the College came on board," he said. "My successor on the board was the first alumna, Anne Fritz Hackett '76."

Currently there are two women on the Board of Trustees -- Susan Dentzer and Kate Stith-Cabranes.

Sex-blind admissions

The Trustees were still dealing with the ramifications of coeducation 10 years later when students again exerted their influence and demanded that the College begin sex-blind admissions.

Until 1980, the admissions process was conducted separately for men and women. No class was allowed to be more than 25 percent female.

The Trustee vote on sex-blind admissions occurred in 1980. Weber said the vote for sex-blind admissions differed from the original coeducation vote in that the Trustees had not agreed upon a way to address the admissions disparity prior to their meeting.

He said the debate over sex-blind admissions was heated. "The meeting was something of a shoot out," he said.

Unlike the 1971 vote, "there was not a consensual position going into the meeting among the Trustees," he said.

But Weber said Trustees acknowledged there was a disparity in the admissions process. Increasingly, academically stronger women were being rejected in favor of less qualified men in order to keep the stipulated gender ratio.

"The [admissions] decisions were illogical, being driven totally by gender and not in the best interests of the College," Weber said. "However, there was a lot of worry from the alumni about Dartmouth's ability to function competitively [athletically] in the Ivy League."

In the end, the board approved an admissions policy of equal access for men and women to begin with the Class of 1984. The Trustees' decision has had long-term ramifications for the College.

Committee on Student Affairs

The creation of a Committee on Student Affairs under Kemeny's presidency was a historical marker in the board's increasing involvement in student life as the College tried to adapt to coeducation.

Kilmarx said the transition was not as easy or quick as the board had initially hoped it would be. Soon after the decision to coeducate, the board established a Committee on Student Affairs, which began during the 1976-1977 academic year.

The committee was formed to address the ongoing issue of how the College could establish "a fuller, more normal student body and a community of men and women," said Kilmarx, who headed the committee from 1976 to 1979.

"Up until this time, the board was primarily concerned with emphasis on funding, academic programs and the College's physical plant," Kilmarx said.

At the time, Kilmarx said the College was a "male community with a total absence of facilities for people other than the male students."

The construction of the Collis Center was prompted by the committee's discussion with students about the need for additional social space, Kilmarx said.

"That was a huge change that came from the crushing needs, awareness, and the new profile of the College," he said.

Kilmarx said the Board of Trustees was more perceptive to students thoughts and ideas during Kemeny's presidency.

"The board sought out ways to receive ideas through forums to address student affairs on campus," Kilmarx said. "That just wasn't window dressing. We took action based on what students told us."

Kilmarx said its emphasis on seeking out student opinion was a mutually productive experience for both the board and the students.

The South Africa Controversy

The vacillations in the Trustees' decisions regarding the College's investments in South Africa show how they have sometimes taken incremental steps when balancing the College's financial interests with those of students, faculty and alumni.

Members of the Dartmouth Community for Divestment erected four 'shanties' on the Green in November of 1985 to protest College investments in South Africa and pressure the Board of Trustees to vote for divestment.

Joshua Stein '88, leader of the DCD, told the Dartmouth in 1985 the purpose of the shanty town was to "pressure College Trustees to divest by the press attention it receives."

The shanties were originally supposed to stay on the Green for three days. But when the Board of Trustees took no immediate action to divest funds from South Africa, the DCD built a third shanty to protest the board's inaction.

The faculty of the arts and sciences passed a resolution supporting the students' demands for divestment.

Weber said the board was put in a difficult position in trying to decide the relative importance of financial and social issues in the interest of the College.

"There was a lot of feeling that [the Board] didn't want to feel as though they were deciding between social justice in South Africa and the financial well being of the College," he said.

Weber said the board is responsible for the long-term financial stability of the College, and any time a non-economic dimension begins to drive the finances of an institution they are automatically suspect.

He also said all the Trustees who opposed divestment also opposed apartheid. Some members of the board felt that financial investment from the United States would do more to promote the abolishment of apartheid than withdrawing it, which is what happened in the end.

"People who were for the social justice issue thought it was so paramount and compelling that it required divestment even if it required some financial sacrifice," Weber said.

In December of 1985, the Trustees said that by the end of 1986 the College would divest from companies that had signed the Sullivan Principles -- a set of guidelines on corporate behavior that ensured a lack of support for apartheid. Despite the promise, the board had not made significant progress towards implementing them.

The Trustees did not vote to fully divest from South Africa until November of 1989 despite several years of protest from students and faculty. The Trustees main concern at this time was to make sure the College was financially sound. Although the student's opinion was important, the Board's first obligation was to insure the financial well being of the College, and that could not be done by pulling out of South Africa too quickly.

The Board of Trustees reversed the divestment decision in November 1993.

"There is evidence that reinvestment and the concomitant economic recovery may be crucial to accelerate and enhance the elimination of apartheid," the investor responsibility committee wrote in the recommendation to the board. "For exactly the same reasons that Dartmouth divested, it is appropriate that Dartmouth now reinvest."