Wright tenure coincides with Board controversy

by William Schpero | 9/24/08 4:25am

College President James Wright's

administration witnessed the growth

of organized dissent within the

alumni body, as graduates both supportive

and critical of the College's

direction took a stand online. The

debates between these two groups

have continued to play out in Collegeorganized

town hall meetings, New

York Times advertisements and the

courts of New Hampshire.

Although the recent controversies

grew in scope with the advent

of blogs and online networking,

alumni criticism is not a new phenomenon.

In 1980, John Steel '54 became

the first alumnus to win election to

the Board of Trustees as a petition

candidate. Petition candidates, who

have to collect signatures to be nominated,

have traditionally been more

critical of College decisions than the

candidates who are nominated by the

Alumni Council, one of the College's

two alumni-representative bodies.

In the past, divisive lines have

formed within the alumni body on

the question of the unofficial Indian

mascot and coeducation. During the

Wright administration, alumni criticism

is still common, but has taken

place within a much more organized

and politicized atmosphere. Alumni

have formed third-party groups to

advocate for their causes and have

looked for legal remedies to determine

the direction of the College.

Alumni critical of the College have

also began to seek election to the Association

of Alumni executive committee

and the Board of Trustees.

The Wright administration coincided

with the first period of truly

organized alumni dissent by a small

minority of the College's graduates,

which began in 2004, when T.J.

Rodgers '70, the CEO of the Cypress

Semiconductor Corp., won election

to the Board as a petition candidate.

The next three alumni-elected seats

on the Board also went to petition

candidates, including Peter Robinson

'79, Todd Zywicki '88 and, most

recently, Stephen Smith '88 in 2007.

The campaigns of these four candidates

were defined by statements

critical of College policies, specifically

those regarding class size, the

hiring of new faculty and the extent

to which there is an emphasis on

research.

"What happened with [Rodgers]

was not organized activity," Zywicki

said. "What happened was the internet

and new communications made

possible the option of petition candidates,

who would have the ability

to contact alumni and be heard in a

direct manner."

The internet allowed the candidates

to "go around the controls on

information that had kept that down

for so long," Zywicki explained, refer-ring to past elections in which the

College was the sole body involved in

facilitating communicating between

the candidates and alumni.

Many of these recent elections

included intense lobbying efforts by

mail and online, as well as extensive

spending on election campaigns. In

Smith's election, the top candidates

were alleged to have spent over

$75,000 in their campaigns.

Following Zywicki's election,

alumni, in some cases allegedly

suppor ted by members of the

administration, made two attempts

to change the system of alumni

governance at the College and the

nature of trustee elections through

the ratification of new alumni constitutions.

Graduates of the College

formed Dartmouth Alumni for Open

Governance, among other interest

groups, to lobby during these legislative

efforts.

"T.J. Rodgers figured out the math

and took advantage of, fair enough,

the rules of engagement and got

himself elected as a petition candidate,"

former Board Chairman Bill

Neukom '64 said in a past interview

with The Dartmouth. "That raised

enough concern in some circles

where people were considering

whether that process was a fair

assessment of the opinion of most

alumni."

The more recent attempt to pass

a new constitution, in 2006, would

have merged the Association of

Alumni and the Alumni Council. In

addition, petition candidates would

have been required to announce their

candidacies prior to the announcement

of the candidates nominated

by the Council, which some argued

would have put petition candidates

at a disadvantage.

The constitution was defeated,

failing to garner the two-thirds necessary

for passage.

With the failure of the constitution

and the success of four petition candidates

critical of many of the Wright's

policies, alumni commented privately

that the College and those supportive

of its administration were placed in

an untenable position -- the trustee

election process put pro-College

policy candidates at a disadvantage

and more petition candidates would

likely win. Still, any effort to change

the system, it was assumed, would

lead to widespread criticism.

The Board's sentiment on this

matter became apparent at a meeting

of the Alumni Council in May 2007,

when Neukom announced that the

jurisdiction of the Board's newly created

governance committee would

include questions of the "size and

composition of the Board."

"The question going forward is

will we be able to generate a capable

list of alumni who will be interested

in running under the current rules,"Rick Routhier '73 Tu'76, chairman

of the Alumni Council's nominating

committee, said to The Dartmouth

at the time. The committee is responsible

for nominating alumni to

run for the Board of Trustees.

Just over one month later, Ed

Haldeman '70, then CEO of Putnam

Investments, became Board chairman

and announced that the trustees'

governance committee would

undertake an extensive study of its

structure and the method of trustee

election.

"The alumni trustee nomination

process has recently taken on the

characteristics of a partisan political

campaign, becoming increasingly contentious, divisive, and costly for

the participants," the governance

committee said in a statement on

June 7, 2007. "Alumni have also

raised questions about the fairness

of the multiple-candidate, approvalvoting

and plurality-winner features

of the process. We believe these issues

must be addressed, lest many

highly qualified alumni be dissuaded

from seeking nomination."

A small group of alumni, opposing

any change to the structure of

the Board, formed "The Committee

to Save Dartmouth," which placed

advertisements in The New York

Times and elsewhere. The Wall

Street Journal editorial board took

a public stand on the matter in September

2007, saying: "But rather

than accept that rebuke and seek

some common ground, the school's

president, James Wright, and his

trustee allies now seem prepared

to overhaul the school's governance

more or less by fiat."

On Sept. 8, the Board announced

it would increase its size to 26, adding

eight trustees not elected by alumni.

In addition, it mandated that the

Alumni Council should nominate one

or two, rather than the three trustee

candidates previously required. The

petition process remained intact.

"I think the Board made a very

measured decision," Wright said

in a recent interview with The

Dartmouth. "Certainly there had

been people who urged far more

dramatic and drastic move, but [the

Board] didn't go in that direction. It

was measured, it was respectful of

the alumni."

In response to the Board's

planned expansion, a majority of

the executive committee of the Association

of Alumni voted in October

2007 to sue the College to legally bar

Dartmouth from ending parity on

the Board between the number of

alumni-elected and Board-selected

trustees.

The central debate of the lawsuit

concerned an 1891 Board resolution

that some believe requires the

College to have an equal number of

charter and alumni-elected trustees.

Though the resolution does not

mention parity with respect to the

number of alumni-elected trustees

and charter trustees, the addition

of five alumni-elected trustees at

the time of the agreement gave the

Board as many alumni trustees as

charter trustees. The 1891 creation

of this balance, and its century-long

perpetuation, has prompted some

current alumni to contend that the

College is bound to that balance.

From a legal standpoint, at issue

is whether the resolution calls for

parity and whether the resolution

is, in fact, a contractual agreement

that the College must respect.

The four petition candidates filed

an amicus brief in support of the

Association's suit. While the Board

has traditionally done little to stymie

internal dissent, it did vote in January

2007 to reprimand Zywicki after

he called former College President

James Freedman "truly evil" in an

address before a higher-education

think tank.

Many College observers saw

the lawsuit as an attempt by outside

organizations, many with conservative

roots, to influence the direction

of the College.

In a March 2007 inquiry, The

Dartmouth found that The Center

for Excellence in Higher Education,

a conservative Indiana-based

think tank, collected contributions

from alumni, which were then

given to The Hanover Institute, a

non-profit organization founded by

John MacGovern '80. The Institute,

which has often supported causes

critical of the College, then provided

the funds to the Association's legal

team in Washington, D.C.

Another organization with conservative

ties, DonorsTrust in Washington,

D.C., was also involved.

While the suit had been scheduled

for trial this November, the

Association withdrew it in June after

candidates opposing the legal action

won election to all 11 of the organization's

leadership positions.

On Sept. 5, the Board went ahead

with its planned expansion, adding

five of the eight new trustees.