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Governance at Dartmouth

September 13, 2007

My alma mater, Dartmouth College, recently changed the way its board of trustees would be elected in a way that disenfranchises alumni and I believe to be harmful to the institution.

The changes are described here, here and here.

I reprint a comment I made to the Association of Alumni site here:

The action by the board of trustees is bad for Dartmouth.

The role of Alumni in electing representatives to the board was an almost unique feature of Dartmouth that differentiated it from other colleges. That has been dramtically changed so as to substantially decrease that role of Alumni. Instead of having having an equal number of trustees chosen by Alumni and the other institutional players, the institutional players will now choose a sizable majority of the trustees.

Inevitably, this will make Dartmouth reflect less of the ideas of Alumni and more of the ideas of the administration and faculty. This leaves the institution in danger of putting the interest of its employees above the interest of its customers– current and future students.

How are the interests current and future students best reflected in the Dartmouth’s governance? The market for higher education obviously will serve as a governor on what the institution does. But that check is imperfect because Dartmouth has a multi-billion dollar endowment that insulates from such market pressures. Alumni are an imperfect proxy for the interests of students because perhaps they too heavily represent old fashioned ideas, but they are at least fairly disinterested. Current faculty and administrators have an interest in the success of the institution, but often what is best for these groups is not best for the institution.

With no perfect proxy, the system of having alumni select half the trustees and institutional interests select half the trustees was pretty good way to arrive at governance that is in the best interest of the institution and its students. Moving away from such a system skews the board’s makeup in a ways that is bad for Dartmouth.

For many years before the rise of the internet it was difficult to organize support for alumni elected trustee candidates other than those that were nominated by the Alumi Council. That has changed recently and has reflected a diversity of viewpoints between the Alumni Council and the actual alumni as four straight petition candidates have been elected.

There have been many allusions to how divisive these elections have been, but I have not observed that. Where is the evidence that contested elections harm the institution? Why is vigorous debate bad? I personally found such debate encouraging as a sign that that people were actually engaged in thinking about Dartmouth. Elections in communist countries were remarkably free of rancor, but that was not so great.

The new governance changes promote a false sense of comity at the expense of having a mix of trustees  that does a poorer job of representing the interests of current and future students.

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