Only Rubber-Stamps and Jellyfish Need Apply

When he ran for a position on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees in 2005, Todd Zywicki made this statement:

    I believe that Dartmouth has drifted from its core mission in recent years. If I win your trust, I will work to recommit Dartmouth to its traditional mission of undergraduate education and the development of well-rounded students. I will work to increase the accountability and transparency of College governance and communication with Dartmouth students, parents, alumni, and faculty. Finally, I will work to insure that the College’s financial priorities reflect its core mission, and are not diverted to administrative bureaucracy and noneducational purposes.

Zywicki, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate and now a professor at George Mason University Law School, was elected to the Board, defeating a candidate favored by the administration. Zywicki, along with three other outsider (or “petition”) candidates who have been elected to the Dartmouth board in recent years, was not the sort of trustee college presidents love; he was not one to simply rubber-stamp whatever the administration wanted to do. Worse yet, he actually had ideas of his own on how the school should be run.

Last week, with no public discussion or explanation, a majority of the Board voted to deny Zywicki a second term, thus plucking a thorn from the overly-sensitive hide of the college’s administration. (Professor Zywicki’s statement is here.)

To understand what’s been going on at Dartmouth—and the battle between the forces of the status quo and of critics goes far beyond just the ouster of Zywicki—you must realize that most college presidents take a sort of Louis the Fourteenth view of their power and prerogatives. They think they know best and don’t want to be challenged. Often they have enough support among loyalist insiders that they can neutralize or even eliminate those who don’t bow or curtsey with enthusiasm.

Annoyed at the repeated success of petition candidates, in 2006 the Dartmouth administration attempted to change the rules to make it more difficult for such candidates to win, but they had to submit that proposal to a referendum of the alumni and it lost hands-down.

Rather than accept defeat and agree to work with critics, Dartmouth’s president, James Wright (who will retire this June) pushed though a different power-enhancing change in September 2007. Reminiscent of FDR’s infamous “court packing” plan, Dartmouth decided to increased the size of its board by eight, all of them to be chosen by the Board itself. Formerly, 8 out of 18 trustees were elected by the alumni, but now it will be only 8 out of 26. FDR’s plan was defeated, but the Dartmouth regime got its way. Power will be centralized and the influence of dissident trustees reduced to mere symbolism.

That high-handed approach to governance caused the Wall Street Journal to editorialize , “At least this fracas strips bare the pretense that alumni have any college role beyond writing checks. Dartmouth’s reigning lords no doubt believe they can ride out any lawsuits or alumni anger that arise from their power play, and they may be right.”

With control now firmly in the grasp of the administration and its trustee allies, why bother with the symbolic execution of one of the leading “rebels”? Dartmouth’s board did not oust two other “outsider” trustees whose terms were expiring (T. J. Rodgers and Peter Robinson), so why the firing squad for Zywicki?

The answer most likely (and again, the Board’s actions were taken in secret) is that Zywicki had shown the audacity to criticize the school and especially former president James Freedman at a Pope Center conference in 2007. Thus, making an example of him would be both useful and satisfying.

Message to the remaining critics: “Accept your powerless status and keep quiet.”

Dartmouth is a rather small school with an illustrious history. It figures in one of Chief Justice Marshall’s most famous cases, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, where the Court rebuffed an effort by the State of New Hampshire to exert control over a private institution. Daniel Webster, perhaps the college’s most famous alumnus, argued the case for maintaining the school’s independence.

It is still independent of the State of New Hampshire, but now suffers from the heavy hand of a firmly entrenched group of educrats who don’t want to be distracted by talk about reforming the curriculum, dropping the “diversity” mania, protecting student free speech, or other strange ideas.

Back in 1996, another of the “outsider” trustees, T. J. Rodgers, made headlines when he refused to go along with a demand that he make the board of his company (Cypress Semiconductor) more “diverse” by naming some women. Rodgers said that he wanted a board with expertise and the gumption to speak up when it thought he was making a mistake. That attitude is not common in the business world, but you almost never find it in academe. Overwhelmingly, college and university presidents want to be surrounded by functionaries who will politely nod and go along.

Dartmouth thus points out an irony in our higher education system. While it pays lip service to freedom of inquiry, intellectual openness, critical thinking and so forth, at its highest levels it prefers to run like the old Soviet Politburo.