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Voting? Yes. Democracy? Not at all.

Do the battles at Dartmouth (also available here) over trustee elections have any relevance to Williams?

Now those passions for the Ivy League institution have it embroiled in a new and bitter battle over its board, this time pitting alumni critical of the college against loyalists who have risen through the ranks of the Alumni Association.

The fracas has drawn the attention of conservative bloggers and publications all over the country.

It began when candidates for the governing board of trustees endorsed by the Alumni Association were unexpectedly defeated two years in a row by outsiders who got on the ballot by petition. The outsiders accused the college administration of sacrificing free speech to political correctness and of abandoning Dartmouth’s historical focus on undergraduates to turn it into a “junior varsity Harvard.”

Currently, such a dispute is irrelevant for Williams since outsiders have no way of appearing on the ballot. If the nominating committee doesn’t pick you, then it doesn’t matter if 90% of the alumni would vote for you. And who picks the nominating committee? The permanent staff of the Society of Alumni. Outsiders and troublemakers need not apply. (For the record, I have applied to both the nominating committee and the Executive Committee (which is chosen by the nominating committee) this year. We will see what happens.) More excerpts and comments below.

Now the officers of the Dartmouth Alumni Association have canceled a coming vote for new executive officers and are proposing a constitution with new rules for how candidates get on the ballot. Critics say the effort is intended to block outsiders from gaining yet more seats.

Conservative publications and blogs that accuse academia of a liberal bias have lionized the three insurgents at Dartmouth and are tearing into the proposed constitution. The blog of one student, Joseph Malchow, describes the process of drafting the constitution in a “Timeline of Dirty Tricks.”

But supporters of the constitution say the effort began well before the outsiders’ triumph and was spurred by simmering alumni discontent and a steep decline, until recently, in alumni donations to the college since the 1980’s.

We have mentioned this controversy on EphBlog. See here for seemingly endless commentary.

Dartmouth is not the only private college where dissidents are trying to get a foothold on the governing board through alumni elections. The unfolding controversy is being watched closely by other universities.

“The old way of doing business, where people get their degree, lead their lives and the only source of information about their institution is the alumni magazine, that’s just gone,” said Peter Robinson, Dartmouth class of ’79, a speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan and a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, who was one of the insurgents who won election to the board last year.

Conservative alumni at Colgate University and Hamilton College in upstate New York have also tried to reach the board as petition candidates, so far unsuccessfully.

I am unaware of any such efforts at Williams, now or in the past. Trustees have told me stories about various alums who have harped on different topics to them directly over the years. Does anyone know of any organized opposition to the powers-that-be at the Society of Alumni now or in the past? A good example of alumni organization concerns the fight to preserve fraternities, led by the Williams Alumni Action Committee. See this excellent Willipedia entry for more history and source documents.

“What we’re seeing at Dartmouth, Colgate and Hamilton are alumni who are profoundly troubled by the direction of those institutions,” said Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council for Trustees and Alumni, a group whose founders in 1995 included Lynne Cheney and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut. “It’s time for those looking in from the outside to provide some input.”

I don’t know any knowledgeable Williams alumni who would describe themselves as “profoundly troubled.” Do you? We all have our complaints and quibbles, but, fundamentally, Williams is on the right track.

For all the ideological fervor in the blogs, Mr. Rodgers, the first outside candidate who won, said he was irritated by groups and publications that portrayed the controversy as a left-right battle. He said his primary concerns were increasing the budget for teacher salaries and preserving the primacy of Dartmouth’s role as an undergraduate institution.

If I ever participated in such a campaign at Williams, I would feel the same. Almost all the issues over which knowledgeable people differ with regard to Williams do not fall neatly within a left-versus-right political framework.

The proposed constitution would permit Internet voting for officers of the Alumni Association and allow alumni to elect directly half of the members of committees that nominate trustee candidates. It would also change the rules for petition candidates and, perhaps most important for both sides, the timing.

Currently, petition candidates can declare their candidacies after the Alumni Association has announced its official slate. The new rules would reverse that, so the Alumni Association would know of any outside challengers before selecting its candidates.

Mr. Daukas said the current system put the official candidates at a disadvantage because they did not know whether they would face outside challengers at all or who they might be.

Editors of the on-campus Dartmouth Review and The Dartmouth Free Press, conservative and liberal publications that seldom agree, called the new constitution “a slap in the face to open democracy” that “makes a mockery of the spirit of dissent and free speech.”

Mr. Robinson agreed. “This is as much a reform as when Joseph Stalin decided to hold elections in Eastern Europe,” he said. “Voting? Yes. Democracy? Not at all.”

Would Williams be better off with a more open process? I think so. It certainly couldn’t hurt the low level (15-20%) of voter turnout in alumni elections.

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#1 Pingback By Dartmouth Constitution » EphBlog On February 23, 2008 @ 10:55 am

[…] The changes that would have made it a lot harder for non-insider candidates to be elected trustee at Dartmouth were rejected. See previous EphBlog coverage here and here. […]