Anyone who cares about the state of higher education in this country should cast a wary eye upon what is happening just now at Dartmouth College. Since the late nineteenth century, the college has turned to its alumni for nearly half of its board of trustees. This is a democratic innovation that more colleges and universities should embrace. Imagine, letting the people who care about and help pay for an institution actually have a voice in how it is run: What a novel idea! Currently, Dartmouth alumni, 67,000 strong, vote for eight out of eighteen spots on the college’s governing board. In principle, that procedure might be expected to subject the college to welcome outside oversight and accountability. In practice, since alumni candidates have been fielded almost exclusively by the Alumni Council, a body that is de facto a tool of the Dartmouth administration, alumni trustees came bearing the same rubber stamp that most other trustees at most other colleges have wielded. For decades, the Dartmouth administration in effect proposed the candidates they wanted, and the alumni had no choice but to ratify them.

In 2004, however, something unexpected happened. T. J. Rodgers, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, ran and won as a “petition candidate”—one not sanctioned by the Alumni Council. The election of Mr. Rodgers was not a balm to the Dartmouth administration. For one thing, he came to the post without the usual rubber stamp: he betrayed troubling signs of independence and even skepticism about some cherished pieties concerning such things as speech-codes, political correctness, and other items on the menu of left-wing grievance-mongering. But if the election of Mr. Rodgers caused some uneasiness among the powers that be at Dartmouth, the victories of Todd Zywicki and Peter Robinson in succeeding elections instigated something close to panic. Mr. Zywicki is a law professor with conservative leanings; Mr. Robinson is a former Reagan speechwriter who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. These were not at all the sorts of chaps James Wright, Dartmouth’s president, wanted hanging about the henhouse. Why, they might actually ask him to do something about ensuring intellectual diversity and freedom of expression at Dartmouth instead of simply mouthing the party line about such issues.

The election of Messrs. Zywicki and Robinson to the board put the fear of that great but non-gender-or-religiously-specific supreme being, if there is one, into the Dartmouth administration. As an editorial in The Wall Street Journal noted, “A few reformers have achieved a bit of influence, and now the New Hampshire school’s insular establishment is doing everything it can to run them out of Hanover.” The Alumni Council, clearly though not officially at the behest of the administration, went into action and proposed a new constitution that not only would make it much more difficult for such independent candidates to win seats on the Dartmouth board but also would codify political correctness in the constitution by increasing quotas for various minorities and women. The referendum for the new constitution required a two-thirds majority to pass, and the Dartmouth establishment went all-out to woo votes. They engaged the Clinton Group, which one alum describes as “a very old and very expensive Washington, D.C. political black-ops company,” to run an electioneering blitz, cold-calling alumni and filling their mailboxes with letters and flyers advocating “common sense,” i.e., capitulation to the establishment’s demands. The strategy backfired. The constitution was soundly defeated, and the administration was back to square one—actually, not quite to square one, since their cynical and heavy-handed campaign against democracy at Dartmouth succeeded chiefly in alienating many alumni.

Now, between April 1 and the middle of May, Dartmouth alumni have the opportunity to elect another person to the board of trustees. Among the candidates is Stephen Smith, who grew up in inner-city Washington, raised by a single mother. By dint of hard work, determination, and talent, he propelled himself from the world of welfare rolls to the Ivy League (Dartmouth ’88), a clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas, and a professorship at the University of Virginia Law School. The Dartmouth administration has quietly abetted a campaign against Mr. Smith, having it put about in the official college newspaper and elsewhere that he is a puppet of nefarious right-wing interests (read: Robinson, Zywicki & Co.). Mr. Smith responded with a blistering letter of protest:

I have been subjected to innuendo suggesting that I’m somehow a stooge for hidden conservative forces. It is disturbing how quick some are to assume that a black man who comes forward to offer his vision for the College can’t possibly be thinking or speaking for himself.

I am, in fact, a truly independent candidate. No one and no group—liberal, conservative, or otherwise—is controlling or bankrolling my campaign. I wasn’t “recruited” by anyone to run for trustee. The decision to run and the positions I’ve taken are mine and mine alone, and I alone am responsible for my mailings and website. I am running to make certain that alumni have a viable alternative to the candidates hand-picked by the Alumni Council’s nominating committee.

You can find the entire text of Mr. Smith’s letter on his campaign website, www.stephensmithtrustee.com, which is a model of its kind, full of probing questions and thoughtful proposals. We would be interested to learn, for example, President Wright’s own thoughts on Mr. Smith’s essay “Investing in Excellence, Not Bureaucracy,” which reports, inter alia, that at Dartmouth the number of “new administrative positions … was literally double the number of faculty positions added in Arts and Sciences,” and that, because compensation for administrators far outstrips compensation for faculty, “the administration is on a path that rewards administrators at the expense of faculty—and to the detriment of undergraduates.” We should think that Dartmouth alumni, as they finger their checkbooks at annual fund time, would be interested to hear what President Wright has to say about that.

We will be following the course of Mr. Smith’s campaign closely. We have no doubt that the Dartmouth administration will continue its campaign of innuendo and misrepresentation in an effort to defeat a man who ostentatiously embodies the principles of independent-thinking that Dartmouth honors in its rhetoric but abuses in practice. But we suspect—we certainly hope—that Dartmouth alumni, like alumni at many other institutions, have grown weary of supporting the rancid radicalism that has installed itself as the status quo at so many colleges and universities. College faculties and administrations represent an entrenched, sclerotic, and self-perpetuating hegemony. The alumni at Dartmouth are enfranchised to challenge that hegemony. That rare privilege offers them an opportunity not only to spark change at a small college in Hanover, New Hampshire, but also to provide a model for the alumni of other institutions who, increasingly dismayed by what has happened to their alma maters, will gratefully receive the news that genuine change is possible.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 8, on page 1
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