Alumni sue over Initiative

by Jennifer Thomas | 6/27/01 5:00am

The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently agreed to review and possibly revive a previously dismissed lawsuit regarding the Student Life Initiative brought against the College by a group of seven alumni.

Underscoring the sometimes stark differences between Dartmouth's past and present, the suit alleges that the Board of Trustees misled alumni during its 1991-1996 capital campaign, "Will to Excel." Specifically, the litigants claim that the Trustees conspired to keep secret the SLI and a covert plot to eradicate the Greek system.

According to plaintiff William Tell '57, the $568 million amassed by the College during the most successful fundraising campaign in Dartmouth's history is now being spent on a cause -- the SLI -- that is a sharp departure from more general spending proposals presented during the campaign.

However, the suit, filed in mid-1999 by Tell, James Godsman '62, William Hutchinson '52, Paul Canada '50, Robert Fuller '80, Jack Maloney '87 and Matt Brzica '93, never saw its day in court. When it came up for superior review in September, 2000, Judge Edward Fitzgerald ruled that the alumni did not provide "even a scintilla of evidence" to support their claims, and the suit was dismissed.

At that time, the College motioned to penalize the plaintiffs for filing a "frivolous" lawsuit, which, if granted, will require the plaintiffs to pay all attorneys' fees and possibly an additional $1,000 fine, according to College Council Sean Gorman.

Unfazed, the litigants appealed the decision, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court just agreed to review the evidence. The court, which itself includes two Dartmouth alumni, could still send the case back to the original court for a formal hearing.

"To us this was sending a signal that [the Supreme Court] agreed with our view that this is an important issue and that it had not been fairly handled in the lower court," Tell explained.

In contrast, both Gorman and Alumni Council Chair Missy Attridge '77 said they both question the appropriateness of spending College resources towards the defense of such a lawsuit.

"It's unfortunate, it's expensive and it's distracting from other worthwhile pursuits," Gorman said of the case, adding that this is the third lawsuit that Tell has brought against the College in the past ten years. "This is not exactly a new thing from the College's standpoint."

"I think that time and energy would be better spent, for example, coming up with specific ways to implement the Student Life Initiative, rather than dealing with ancillary issues," Attridge explained.

Yet despite repeated accusations of frivolousness, Tell assured The Dartmouth that litigation against one's alma mater is not a step to be taken lightly.

"You have to feel something is really seriously wrong," he said.Godsman, a co-plaintiff and former member of the recently derecognized Phi Delta Alpha fraternity, explained that, unaware of the imminent arrival of the SLI, he made significant financial donations to the campaign.

"But frankly, had I known that [the SLI] was taking place, I wouldn't have," he said.

According to Godsman, the Trustees' alleged attempt to conceal the SLI during the capital campaign highlights larger possible problems in alumni relations.

"It's a matter of principle," he said. "What we're saying here is that there should be free and open disclosure and dialogue with alumni."

Tell said that he believes Dartmouth's previously strong sense of alumni loyalty has suddenly "dissipated and drained" since the advent of the SLI.

In addition to attacking the fundraising process, the litigants also took issue with the historically controversial goals of the SLI itself.

"I do not believe that the most productive use that Dartmouth can use its money for is to eliminate the Greek system," Tell, a former member of the no longer existent Sigma Chi fraternity, said.

Godsman echoed Tell's sentiment.

"I just think it's a damn shame that the fraternities and sororities are shut down," he said.

However, Gorman derided the plaintiffs' accusations of a secret plot to rid the College of its Greek societies as an unfounded "conspiracy theory." Indeed, all but two of the 27 College-recognized fraternities and sororities are still on campus at the announcement of the SLI still remain today.

Although Attridge declined to comment on the specifics of the case, she did praise the efforts of the Board of Trustees.

"I think that the Student Life Initiative has very laudable goals and I think they are trying to map out how to reach those goals and it's not going to happen overnight," Attridge said.