Trustees file court brief against College

by William Schpero | 12/15/07 8:48pm

Over the last several years, the court of public opinion has been the petition trustees' choice forum in which to oppose decisions made by Dartmouth's leadership, but now they have moved their cause to a court of law.

Last week, T.J. Rodgers '70, Peter Robinson '79, Todd Zywicki '88 and Stephen Smith '88, who sit on the College's board and who originally opposed the College's September changes to the board's structure, filed a brief in support of the Association of Alumni's legal effort against the College.

This effort comes despite Board Chairman Ed Haldeman '70's request that the trustees keep their differences inside the boardroom. After the board voted to add eight charter seats to its ranks in September, ending more than a century of parity between alumni-elected and board-selected trustees, Haldeman told The Dartmouth that he hoped this board would act publicly unified, as the 1972 board had after its controversial passage of coeducation.

The four trustees won election on similar promises of change and were outspokenly critical of College policies. None of them responded to repeated requests from The Dartmouth for an interview.

The trustees jointly filed an "amicus brief" on Dec. 7 in support of the Association of Alumni, which has filed suit against the College in an attempt principally to bar the board from adding eight trustees not elected by alumni. If the suit is successful, it will ensure that the number of alumni and charter trustees remains equal.

The brief is similar to past documents filed by the association in the suit in that it outlines its version of the history of the current controversy. It argues that the College entered into an 1891 "agreement" with alumni, whereby "alumni agreed to resume their generous financial support for the College in exchange for equal representation on the Board of Trustees."

The brief is different from past association filings in that it argues that equal representation for alumni-elected board members is necessary not simply because of any legal requirement, but also for the betterment of the College.

"As a result of recent elections, positive reforms have been made at Dartmouth," the brief states, in reference to the election of Rodgers, Robinson, Zywicki and Smith. The brief adds later, "By virtue of alumni's equal share in the governance of the College, Dartmouth is in the strongest position in its history."

The four trustees argue that the board's effort to change Dartmouth's governance system undermines any positive effect that may come from equal alumni representation on the Board of Trustees.

"The board's decision was not only unlawful but flatly contrary to the best interests of Dartmouth," the brief states.

The amicus brief, with a few minor exceptions, is the first time these four trustees have made a statement publicly about the lawsuit or the changes since the board's September decision. Smith, in a November interview with The Dartmouth, refused to comment on the pending legal action.

The four trustees' stance on the issue became clear this summer following a joint letter they sent to alumni protesting the board's reform effort. Several of the trustees were also involved in organizations that worked to actively oppose the board by placing advertisements in major national newspapers.

While Haldeman said in a statement that it was "healthy for there to be varying views among trustees," he said such differences should be addressed within the boardroom.

"It is counterproductive and harmful to Dartmouth and its students for trustees who disagree with decisions made by a majority of the Board to resort to the courts in an attempt to overrule those decisions," Haldeman said. "The amicus brief filed by trustees focuses primarily on disagreements over a board decision and contains very little legal discussion of any kind. The Board remains confident that there is no legal merit whatsoever to the suit filed against the College, and the Board is equally confident that the College's position will ultimately be upheld."