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Trustees battle for control of Dartmouth College board

By A. James Memmott

May 31, 2008 at 5:15pm

A long-running struggle over control of the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees that has drawn national interest could reach some resolution next week.

At stake is a system that allows alumni to elect almost half the membership of the board of trustees.

The current board has proposed a change that would give more power to appointed members and take away power from the alumni-elected members.

The election now going on to choose Dartmouth Association of Alumni committee officers and members could have a direct impact on the issue. That voting ends June 5.

Ordinarily, a battle over college governance would be a local matter. But given the prominence of Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., the issue has become high profile.

Conservative writers, most recently former George W. Bush speechwriter William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal, see the quarrel at Dartmouth as a microcosm of larger issues affecting higher education.

To McGurn and others, the debate is not only about preserving alumni involvement in a college’s affairs. In addition, it’s about preserving values such as free speech on campus.

On the other side, supporters of the current board of trustees say that Dartmouth has become a better, more diverse place in the past few decades and that opponents of the board plan are trying to restore a day that’s rightly gone.

At the heart of the controversy is an 1891 agreement that established the membership of the board of trustees.

Under that agreement, the board elects eight of its 18 members. They’re known as “chartered” trustees. The alumni also elect eight board members.

Two other members - the president of the college and the governor of New Hampshire - serve by reason of their office.

In 2004, T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductors and a 1970 graduate of Dartmouth, staged a petition drive to get on the alumni ballot for trustees.

He won election, as did three later petition candidates, Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan; Todd Zywicki, a professor at George Mason University School of Law; and Stephen F. Smith, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

On his blog, Smith, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate who clerked for Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said he was running for several reasons.

He wanted “to rededicate Dartmouth to undergraduate education.” Opposed to “bureaucratic bloat,” he also wanted to ensure free speech and “rejuvenate the athletics program.”

Following Smith’s election, the board of trustees proposed in September 2007 to add eight appointed trustees to the board, bringing their number to 16. The number of elected trustees would remain at eight.

A month later, the Association of Alumni of Dartmouth College sued the board over the plan, saying it violated the 1891 agreement.

The current election for association officers and committee members has become, in McGurn’s words, “a referendum” on the board’s plan.

One slate of candidates would abandon the lawsuit and thereby allow the change in board alignment. The other slate of candidates would proceed with the lawsuit.

John H. Mathias Jr., a Chicago lawyer who graduated from Dartmouth in 1969, leads the anti-lawsuit group. “Financial support for this divisive lawsuit comes from anonymous outside interests having hidden agendas,” he writes in his candidate statement.

J. Michael Murphy, Dartmouth class of 1961 and a recycling industry executive, backs the lawsuit. “I pledge to support all reasonable efforts to prevent Trustees from destroying alumni democracy,” he writes in his statement.

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