Alumni, trustees clash at N.Y. forum

by Hillary Wool | 9/26/07 4:17am

NEW YORK -- Dartmouth trustees and alumni clashed over recent governance changes in a forum-style event Monday evening featuring Board Chairman Ed Haldeman '70 and Trustee Michael Chu '68. The trustees responded to frustration that the increase in the size of the Board and changes to the trustee election process diminish alumni representation. The forum, held at the Roosevelt Hotel, was the first of several alumni events scheduled in cities nationwide for Board members to explain the changes, which recently triggered a frenzy of media coverage and alumni uproar.

The event drew an impassioned crowd of nearly 200 alumni, representing a range of viewpoints, with eruptions of applause following audience members' praise and criticism of the new changes.

While some attendees viewed the event as a step towards improved Board communication, others called it a "facade" and an attempt to "sell an already-made decision."

But as Haldeman said in an opening statement, the group of alumni hadn't gathered with an intent to agree.

Haldeman, the Board's chairman, first provided an overview of the recent changes in governance. Under the new decision, the Board's size will expand from 18 to 26, with the addition of eight charter trustees who are selected by the Board itself. Previously, there had been an equal number of Board-selected and alumni-elected trustees (the other two members are the president of the College and the governor of New Hampshire).

Throughout the evening, alumni contended that the new structure essentially diminishes alumni power, as a smaller share of trustees will be directly elected by alumni.

"The Board is restricting alumni by the only means they have -- elections," Stephen Singer '60 said.

Singer charged that the net result of the reforms would be to limit the election of individuals who are critical of the Board or the College. The last four trustees elected to the Board -- T.J. Rodgers '70, Peter Robinson '79, Todd Zywicki '88 and Stephen Smith '88 -- were nominated by petition rather than by the Alumni Council and were outspoken in criticizing College policies and decisions.

Another change Haldeman discussed was the decrease in the number of candidates the Alumni Council will select to run in each election, from three -- which has been standard since 1990 -- to one or two. Some have argued that slating three Alumni Council candidates to run against what has been one petitioner has given petition candidates an advantage. The previous voting system, which allowed alumni to vote for as few or as many candidates as they wished, will also be replaced by a simpler one-person, one-vote method.

Haldeman emphasized that the right for alumni to petition for nomination is a key aspect of the trustee election process that will be preserved, and that it would be no more restrictive than it was before.

"We are virtually unique in that process," he said.

Throughout the evening, some audience members compared the Board to a child "throwing down the board after losing the game" or "changing the rules of a game when [he] doesn't like the outcome."

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Haldeman rejected such comments for addressing the motivation, rather than the substance, of the Board's decision.

"My hope is that even those who question our motivation would be able to focus on substance and read the entire governance committee report," he said.

Haldeman and Chu maintained that the Board's expansion addressed the competitive disadvantage the College has in comparison to its peer institutions, whose boards have around 40 members on average, and affirmed that Dartmouth would still have one of the highest percentages of alumni-elected trustees among peer institutions. They stated that adding charter trustees would bring a broader skill set, increased funding and a more diverse group of people to the Board, something elections would not necessarily achieve.

"We couldn't bring the same set of skills to deal with a more complex, globalized world -- the capabilities to serve Dartmouth in the future," Haldeman said. "But still, we preserved eight elected trustees."

Haldeman also highlighted the hotly contested, politicized nature of recent trustee elections as an impetus for change.

Recent elections saw candidates spend over $75,000 on their campaigns and national coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other national media venues. Most recently, leaders of the Association of Alumni have been in the headlines with a threatened lawsuit over the governance changes.

Alumni on both sides of the issue, however, agreed that the commotion may have negatively affected Dartmouth's reputation.

"We were worried about Washington coming to Hanover -- about the effect this would have on the most active of the alumni," Haldeman said. "The electoral process had become the enemy, and there were worries that this would have a negative impact on the recruitment of faculty and ultimately that it would impact the recruitment of students."

Cecil Wittson '60 said that altering the balance between alumni and charter trustees was an improper response to the issue of divisiveness, and placed blame on the College rather than the election process itself.

"Divisiveness has been unfortunate -- it's been damaging to the College . . . but I think it's risen out of administrative actions and a flawed system," he said.

The organization of the Board will also be altered, Haldeman said, as three new standing committees will be added, and a new executive committee comprised of all the standing committee chairs will "determine the direction of the Board."

Though Haldeman maintained that the executive committee would not be a powerful group and Chu said that as a non-executive committee trustee he would "make it [his task]" to ensure it is not overly powerful," some attendees pointed out that determining the agenda of the Board was a great power in and of itself.

Dan Lukas '94 questioned this change, noting that no petition trustees will initially serve on the executive committee since none of them currently chairs a standing committee.

While the room was far from consensus on most issues, audience members and the trustees alike acknowledged the issue of poor communication between the Board and alumni. Some alumni said that they felt they had not been heard or valued in the process of drafting the new changes.