University Governance: Will Dartmouth Become Shutmouth?

Poor Dartmouth College. Having opted back in the nineteenth century to allow its alumni to choose half of its governing board, it is now stuck with the consequences: four successive trustee elections lost to insurgents and an administration plan to hobble future insurgent nominations scotched for good measure.

So what to do? Well, since this is the Ivy League, why not try some reinvention of democratic theory? Grant that an insurgent with a majority must be seated. But stipulate that once seated he can no longer publicly oppose. He is, after all, now a college fiduciary, and fiduciaries must protect the college's good name. Raise a sign over the meeting room door, "give up voice all ye who enter here."

This, at least, seems to be the regime now about to be imposed on one Dartmouth trustee, NAS member Todd Zywicki, a George Mason Law Professor elected as a dissident to college's board back in 2005. In October, Zywicki spoke at a conference sponsored by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (I was on the program as well), at which he gave an account of the descent into political correctness at Dartmouth that had spurred his candidacy. His take on the general state of American academic culture was equally downbeat. To be sure, there was occasional hyperbole, but Dartmouth had opened itself to the political process and -- just give a listen to our current presidential wannabes -- hyperbole is politics' meat and potatoes. Zywicki surely stumbled in calling one of Dartmouth's former presidents, the late James Freedman, a chief architect of Dartmouth's PC system, an "evil man." Freedman's sins, doing, with but a bit more relish, what so many of his confreres were also doing elsewhere, were -- pace Arendt -- too banal to count as evil. Zywicki overspoke, and has apologized both to the college and Freedman's family for so doing. Beyond that, his talk was an extension of the discourse that had won him his trusteeship.

So now let the debate continue. Isn't that the democratic way? Yet there are menaces abroad about Zywicki's being sanctioned, perhaps even expelled from the board. And for what? For being what he's always been, what Dartmouth's alumni saw in him when they cast their votes, a critic, a vociferous critic, and apparently an all-too-effective critic in having wrested a seat at power's table.

There's a difference between democracy, which involves opposition both inside and outside governing entities, and democratic centralism, a Bolshevik twist that dissident officials must bow to the controlling clique. Is this the innovation that Dartmouth now wishes to introduce into the American conception of how representative governance works?

Stephen H Balch

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May 1, 2017


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