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The Dartmouth
February 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

A Failed Constitution

If you were faced with a difficult new task, say, writing a constitution, how would you proceed?

As a well-educated person, you would certainly immerse yourself in history, reading about different forms of government and their success over the years. You would also review other constitutions, and finally you'd consult with experts who have the benefit of years of learning and experience in this field.

Or maybe you wouldn't. If you are a member of the Alumni Governance Task Force (AGTF), you'd attack the problem erratically, trying to solve "problems" that have been expressed over the years by a number of people. Of course, there are no hard statistics on how many alumni are worried about these problems, just the fact that a few of Dartmouth's 63,000 alumni have raised them as concerns.

Add to this mix a mistrust of those crazy alums "out there," who might just do anything, like, well, "change the school color to pink" (as several of the AGTF's members worried openly to me in a meeting on October 12), and you have the recipe that led to the currently proposed 6,562-word AGTF constitution, the proverbial camel that is a horse designed by a committee.

AGTF Problem 1: Not enough democracy. At present any alum who gathers 50 signatures may run for President of the Association of Alumni, but only those alums in Hanover for the annual meeting can vote.

AGTF Solution: Let everyone vote over the Internet and by other methods (all-media voting). That's good. But the proposed constitution also changes the rules so that only people who are already in the Alumni Council (to be called the "Assembly") can run for President. The AGTF loudly calls this improved democracy.

AGTF Problem 2: Not enough democracy, again. At present, official trustee candidates are nominated by a small group chosen from the Alumni Council.

AGTF SOLUTION: Allow all-media voting for only half of the members of the nominating committee; once again, the rest of the committee will come from -- take a guess -- the Alumni Council. The same applies for all the other committees set up by the constitution.

AGTF Problem 3: A few alumni have complained that the existing method of voting for alumni trustees, called approval voting, is confusing to them. How many, exactly? Nobody knows.

AGTF Solution: Rather than do your homework, comparing voting methods with the help of scholars in the field, and seeing that an insignificant level of confusion is the only weakness of approval voting, you should instead rush off and choose another type of voting with many more, but different, weaknesses. And hope that nobody notices that this alternative method of voting might... ahem... have changed the result of the last trustee elections.

AGTF Problem 4: Members of the Alumni Council, while admired for their energetic service to Dartmouth, are widely criticized for their passive attitude toward the Administration. They are not a reflection of alumni sentiment, as the recent trustee elections have shown.

AGTF Solution: Set up a committee to interface with the Trustees and Administration, and give it a patina of democracy by allowing some of its members to be elected. But make sure that sixty percent of its members come from the Alumni Council, the same old-boys group that has done such a poor job of representing alumni in the past (Is a pattern becoming evident here?).

Moreover, though your own nine-person AGTF committee has proved unwieldy and inefficient, put a whopping fifteen people on this new Alumni Liaison Board, guaranteeing its inability to speak to the Administration with a clear and unified voice.

The same themes continue to find expression in other AGTF actions: the new board of the Association of Alumni and the AGTF recently proposed to convene a special February meeting to amend the existing constitution. The change would allow all-media voting to ratify the new constitution by a two-thirds majority, down from three-quarters.

Significantly, despite multiple statements in support of democracy, this special meeting would not move to allow all-media voting in future Association of Alumni elections. Although this latter change has been repeatedly promised, alas, it is not on the table.

Why? For the simple reason that if the alumni fail to ratify the proposed constitution, the current leadership is afraid of what might happen if all alumni could vote at the next general election.

Quite obviously, this insider group supports democracy only when it knows the outcome of voting in advance, either because it can fill a room in Hanover with loyalists, or because it ensures that only its own candidates will be able to run for office.

To be blunt, this new constitution is a mess. It is just democratic enough to pass the straight-face test, but not democratic enough to allow a real expression of alumni concerns. Its only selling point is that some nice folks have worked long and hard on it.

In fact, this lengthy constitution resembles Europe's recently rejected constitution much more than the inspired document that guides the United States of America.

The proposed constitution should be thrown out now, before it is summarily rejected by alumni voters in open voting. Then, a free election for the leadership of the Association should be held among all alums, not just those carefully assembled in Hanover. That day will mark the start of democracy at Dartmouth.