Monday, September 10, 2007

Oceania in New Hampshire?

We recently discussed a proposed attempt to "reform" the governance of Dartmouth College, an elite US educational institution and home to a well-regarded medical school. As noted earlier, Dartmouth is unusual in that it allows almost half of its board of trustees to be elected by alumni. Furthermore, it allows candidates to be nominated by petition of the alumni. Many US colleges and universities' boards are entirely self-appointed. Those that allow elections usually restrict these to a few seats, and usually only permit candidates chosen by the board, university administration, or their agents. Thus, the top leadership of most US higher educational institutions is mostly self-appointed. Dartmouth was a partial exception to this pattern.

Now the Dartmouth board has decided to become more like its peers. The board just announced that it will expand its membership by eight. All the new members will be chosen by the current board. None will be elected. (See Dartmouth press release here.)

This is a setback for a nascent movement to make the governance of academic institutions more representative, accountable, and transparent.

What may be most notable about the current dispute at Dartmouth is how it has thrown some light onto the thinking of those who have been made uncomfortable by the college's modicum of democratic governance. At most colleges and universities, the leadership does not need to attempt to justify its power. When some Dartmouth leaders were forced to do so, the results were Orwellian.

First consider some assertions by the current Chairman of the Board, Charles E. Haldeman Jr, in a letter to alumni here.

  • "The changes we are making preserve alumni democracy at Dartmouth by keeping eight alumni-nominated trustees. They expand the board with eight additional charter trustees...."
  • "We are maintaining alumni trustee elections at their current level...."
But rather than making up 44% of the board, now the elected trustees will make up 31%. That clearly reduces the power and influence of the elected trustees, while increasing the power and influence of trustees appointed by other trustees. The current changes obviously reduce rather than preserve alumni democracy.

Then there was this,

  • "We are expanding the Board from 18 to 26 to ensure it has the broad range of backgrounds, skills, expertise, and fundraising capabilities needed to steward an institution of Dartmouth's scope and complexity."
  • "We also are giving the Board more flexibility to select trustees who offer the specific talents and experiences that the College needs, which elections don't ensure."
  • "A larger group of trustees representing even more diverse backgrounds will help us enhance board engagement with key areas of the college."
But up to now, having the board appoint its own new members did not ensure that these appointed members would have "diverse backgrounds" or a "a broad range of backgrounds, skills, expertise." Of the current eight board appointed trustees:

  • 6 are executives of investment or financial services firms,
  • 1 is an executive of an advertising agency, and
  • 1 is an academic physician.

Of the four alumni trustees who were not nominated by petition:

  • 1 is an executive in an investment of financial services firm,
  • 2 are a former or current executives of e-commerce firms, and
  • 1 is a lawyer.

(See board membership here.)

Since in the past the board has used its power to select new members with homogeneous backgrounds, skills, and expertise, Chairman Haldeman's assertion that allowing it to select even more members would produce the opposite result makes no sense.

So Haldeman made two bald assertions that seem contradicted by facts. Orwell would have understood. In 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, wrote that "freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four." The power of Big Brother and the Inner Party was to make two plus two equal to five.

Chairman Haldeman also revealed his intolerance for "divisiveness," that is, disagreement with him and the rest of the self-appointed Dartmouth leadership.

  • "Dartmouth's trustee elections have become increasingly politicized, costly, and divisive."
  • "But some of the recent rhetoric in this debate has become so harsh and divisive it is now doing harm to Dartmouth. "
  • "Given the divisiveness of recent elections we did not believe that having more elections would be good for Dartmouth."
Apparently, Chairman Haldeman seems to believe that someone who disagrees with him is "divisive." Furthermore, he also believes that such "divisiveness" is bad for Dartmouth. The implication therefore is that anyone who disagrees with the Chairman is "doing harm to Dartmouth." Thus, Chairman Haldeman expects the orthodoxy of goodthinkers, even if this means, as Orwell put it, "a loyal willingness to say that is black is white when Party discipline demands this."

A final Orwellian theme emerged in a New York Times article about the run-up to Chairman Haldeman's assertion of power,

  • "Now there is debate about whether all this democracy is such a good thing. Some in the administration, and some alumni, see the petition trustees as a throwback to the more conservative Dartmouth ethos of years ago, bent on undoing the liberalization of the campus ...."
Orwell would have recognized the notion that to defend "liberalization," one should attack liberal democracy. This is akin to one of the Party's slogan's, "freedom is slavery." Here is his explanation,

Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the Party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts.

Thus, the controversy about the administration's packing of Dartmouth's board of trustees brought out the Orwellian set of contradictions that those in power used to justify their actions. Although I fear the immediate future of Dartmouth's governance does not include much representativeness, transparency, and accountability, I believe there is a pronounced silver lining in these events.

First, those with loyalty to Dartmouth will realize that the college is not a province of Oceania, and Chairman Haldeman does not have the backing of the Inner Party nor the power of Big Brother. Although there may be no dissent permitted at the moment on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, the Dartmouth Association of Alumni, purporting to represent 68,000 alumni, condemned the illiberal new way Dartmouth is to be governed. If a good fraction of alumni are stirred to action, they could exert sufficient influence to ensure that Dartmouth will never come any closer to being an outpost of Oceania.

Second, this episode may make alumni worry whether whether the endlessly upbeat missives from their institutions conceal a leadership closer to Ingsoc than Mister Chips. When alumni (and students, faculty, and parents) start to question how much power academic leaders have, and what they are doing with that power, universities may be tempted to teach more about 1984, and emulate it less.

Finally, in case this seems too remote from the issues we usually address on Health Care Renewal... Every US medical school is part of a larger college or university. All US academic medical centers and teaching hospitals are tied to US medical schools. Thus all of US academic medicine, and thus a good chunk of US health care, is tied to American universities. Many of these universities have governance that may be as Orwellian as that of Dartmouth. (For some examples, see the web-site of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.) Such governance cannot help but have a major deleterious impact on health care. If this impact seems obscure, it is because we have not been looking for it.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article--keep shining the light. Until the Orwellian aspect surrounding most forms of governance (government) become known, business-as-usual rules the day. Few recognize the power wielded by elite educational institutions; when their powerful leaders seek--above all else--to maintain their power, the good things that "trickle down" to the students, faculty & staff are usually only "incidental side-effects."
--Melody

MedInformaticsMD said...

In my personal case, academic totalitarianism and amorality delayed electronic medical records for the citizens of New Haven by several years. The only silver liningis that the citizens of Delaware were the beneficiaries: link.

There is excellent coverage of the Dartmouth controversy over at Power Line Blog. Its authors are alumni.

My only question is: how did anyone expect Dartmouth's administration to NOT do what they did?

Anonymous said...

Bravo for such insightful analysis. In addition to the PowerLine bloggers, the Committee to Save Dartmouth is running an excellent string of commentary here.

Aubrey Blumsohn said...

Looking from across the pond, the University politics are a little beyond me but the name Norman McCulloch Jr (a previous chairman of the board of trustees of Dartmouth comes up on my radar in a different context. Presumably the same Norman McCulloch Jr was the President of the company Microfibres.

Microfibres does not have a shining track record in the realms of academic integrity ......
See the case of David Kern, here.

So I wonder, what exactly is a trustee, and is there a job description?

Anonymous said...

You should stick to medicine and leave government and corporate organization to people with passing knowledge of either topic.

For starters, the two topics are different. You seem unaware of the distinction. For any act to be "Orwellian," it must by definition be carried out by a government. If you contract with a private individual to spy on you or speak to you in 1984 terms, neither you nor your partner is doing anything wrongly "Orwellian."

A private corporation is not a government. A private corporation such as Dartmouth does not owe you or alumni an explanation for its actions. Dartmouth did not have to put out the thorough explanation that it did, and its report need not be evaluated as anything more than gratuitous public relations. The legitimacy (let alone wisdom) of Dartmouth's decision is completely independent of whatever statements it decides to release to the press.

What evidence do you have for the statement that "This is a setback for a nascent movement to make the governance of academic institutions more representative, accountable, and transparent"? Is this "movement" widely known?

Roy M. Poses MD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roy M. Poses MD said...

I have left the previous comment (by an anonymous author, starting with "you should stick to medicine") up as an example of the sorts of arguments offered by those defending the Dartmouth leadership. (I normally will not allow the posting of ad hominem attacks, but this one was one me.)

"Orwellian" usually refers specifically to George Orwell's 1984, and hence, as a literary illusion, I don't believe has been patented. Who says that "Orwellian" can only refer to government actions?

Dartmouth College may be a private corporation, but in my humble opinion, clearly owes some obligations to its alumni, whose degrees have value based on the College's reputation, and who generally paid a pretty penny for the education that lead to those degrees.

I believe that Dartmouth is also a federally recognized not-for-profit (indeed, according to Guidestar, its Trustees are listed as a 501(c)3.) As such, I will leave it up to lawyers and the IRS what its obligations to report honestly about governmance actions are.

For more information about the "nascent movement," see the websites of ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni:
http://www.goacta.org/flashindex.html
and of the National Association of Scholars, NAS:
http://www.nas.org/

Anonymous said...

Dr. Poses,

You can use "Orwellian" to refer to anything you think is relevant. You are misleading your readers if you use it to describe a private corporation. Some of your readers, unlike you, might not be aware that Dartmouth, like other private corporations, is not subject to any duty to uphold the Constitution, obey due process rights, uphold the First Amendment, or refrain from doing anything you would consider "Orwellian." It is not subject to those duties because it, just like you or any other private citizen, is not capable of violating those duties.

Dartmouth's status as a nonprofit does not give it any particular duties to its alumni. Why would you think it does? Through your website, you profess to know something about corporate accountability, but this writing does not give a reason to justify your "humble opinion" that Dartmouth "clearly owes some obligations to its alumni." It is not "clear" at all why any legal obligation would exist, and indeed the ordinary observer would assume the opposite – that no board owes its corporate duties to anyone but the corporation. Can you explain what led to your way of thinking?

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Methinks the anonymous commenter above is trying to confuse things.

First, the latest anonymous comments seem quite off the point of what I wrote on the blog.

Second, the commenter's latest argument was of the straw-man variety. I originally argued that the Dartmouth board has "obligations" to its alumni, by which I meant "responsibilities" not to cheapen the value of their degrees by not forsaking the institution's fundamental academic mission. I was not talking about "legal obligations."

Anonymous said...

If, in a discussion of a supposed movement toward corporate accountability, the word "obligation" does not mean legal obligation but means instead an unenforceable (not to mention off-topic) "responsibility" not to cheapen degrees, I'd say somebody's being a little Orwellian.

Can you explain what you meant by all of the important terms in your post? What did you mean by "democracy"? Please explain why you think "democracy" is relevant to a private corporation, if you mean the same thing most people do when they use it.

And do you really think that "responsibility" exists if it cannot be enforced? If the value of the degree really were reduced enough to harm someone, then he would sue Dartmouth to force it to uphold its "responsibility" not to cheapen the degree. That seems unlikely. Are you trying to confuse this issue too?

And where did you get the idea that a school has a "responsibility" not to cheapen its degrees? Did the Ministry of Information put out this idea so that physicians would have something to talk about when they pretended to know the most fundamental precepts of corporate governance (or of governments, for that matter)?

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Our anonymous commentator (who I assume is responsible for all three anonymous comments above) gets more and more confusing.

I presume his or her first paragraph is just sarcasm.

If he or she truly doesn't understand any of the language I used in the original post, then we are not going to get very far. Further, note that the phrase "preserve alumni democracy" was used by the current Chair of the Dartmouth College board. I merely quoted him.

Of course one can have ethical or moral responsibilities that can't be enforced by law.

Mr or Ms Anonymous implies what he or she stated directly in his or her previous comment, that "no board owes its corporate duties to anyone but the corporation."

That may not be strictly true for boards of not-for-profit corporations. The principles of governance of these organizations are different from those of either privately held or public for-profit corporations. It may be true that the board of a privately held for-profit, which directly represents the corporation's owners, is only responsible to itself, and the law.

On the other hand,board members of not-for-profit corporations have three main duties, the duty of care (to be competent and prudent); the duty of loyalty (to put the needs of the organization first when making decisions about the organization); and crucially, the duty of obedience (to be faithful to the organization's mission). See for example, http://www.boardsource.org/Knowledge.asp?ID=3.364

The duty of obedience may mandate responsibilities to people outside of the board, according to the organization's mission.

For example, Dartmouth's own official mission statement (see:
http://www.dartmouth.edu/home/about/mission.html
includes in its statement of "core values",

"Dartmouth fosters lasting bonds among faculty, staff, and students, which encourage a culture of integrity, self-reliance, and collegiality...."

This value seems to suggest some responsibility to alumni (and faculty, staff, and current students.)

It seems to me that were the board to reduce the proportion of elected alumni representatives on its roster, it would violate that stated core value, and hence would violate the board's duty of loyalty.

Finally, on Health Care Renewal, we have allowed anonymous comments mainly to protect commentators who might state opinions that contradict the accepted dogma at their own organizations.

The anonymous commentator to whom I have responded seems to represent the party line of the Dartmouth board and administration, and hence is not obviously in need of such protection.

Therefore, if he or she wishes to keep this discussion going, I ask that he or she make his or her identity clear.

Dartmouth Alumnus said...

There are no "elected alumni representatives" on Dartmouth's board. The board elects all of its own members, except for the ex-officio seats of the president and governor.

Any board owes its duty of loyalty to the corporation, not to any external constituency or abstract "core value." So it would not be correct to say that "were the board to reduce the proportion of elected alumni representatives on its roster, it would violate that stated core value, and hence would violate the board's duty of loyalty."

The board's recent report uses language that is Orwellian in the loosest sense only. Because the board has no power over alumni or any obligation to explain its decisions to them, its statements would be better described as "public relations." An "Orwellian" government has actual citizens and obligations to them.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Re the anonymous comments by "Dartmouth alumnus"

- If there are no elected representatives on the board, what was the point of having elections, e.g., those that Zywicki, etc, won?

- The ethical responsibilities of not-for-profit boards are not identical to those of the boards of public for-profit corporations, as far as I know. The board of a not-for-profit owes a duty of obedience to the organization's mission. This mission might include serving particular constituencies.
See:
http://www.boardsource.org/Knowledge.asp?ID=3.364

Anonymous said...

Dr. Poses asks "If there are no elected representatives on the board, what was the point of having elections"?

The terminology can indeed be confusing. The Board elects all of its own members by majority vote and always has, as its charter requires (except for the two ex-officio members). The Board takes each nominee from one of two sources: a Board committee or the alumni.

The "election" that Zywicki won was a poll conducted by the alumni association to determine which person it would nominate as an alumni trustee for the Board to elect. So this balloting was conducted by an independent, unincorporated association, not by the Board of Trustees. To answer your question, the Board would probably grumble there was little point to having the election, while the alumni would say it is the fairest way they know to choose their nominee, although the particulars of the balloting process have been and continue to be in flux.

No trustee is a "representative" of any constituency within Dartmouth. A trustee's duty of loyalty is owed to the corporation as a whole, in compliance with the general law of nonprofits. Dartmouth's Board has said so specifically in its bylaws as well, since it requires each member to pledge to "Represent Dartmouth positively in words and deeds, particularly and proactively to Dartmouth constituents" and to "Serve Dartmouth as a whole, rather than the interests of any constituency" (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~trustees/governance.html).

The mission of the Dartmouth Board is education, not serving alumni or giving them a forum in which to air their grievances or represent their own interests.

You might be interested to note that Dartmouth's Board recently determined that Zywicki had violated his responsibilities as a trustee and reprimanded him for it (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~trustees/docs/Trustee%20Statement%20on%20Zywicki.pdf). The Board has yet to determine what punishment, if any, is warranted for Zywicki's later violation of his fiduciary duty by filing an amicus curiae brief against the Board (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/features/governance/aoasuit/four_amicus_response.pdf). Maybe these failures are the result of the wrong mindset, or the idea that the institutional mission may be interpreted personally and idiosyncratically rather than by reading its mission statement.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

The comment by "Anonymous" suggests that the Chairman of the Dartmouth board is hypocritical. It was he, as quoted in my original post above, who both described the process of selection of board members as involving "elections," and asserted that the newest board actions would preserve "democracy."

More disturbingly, the commentator seemingly would deny the possibility of any dissent from the views of the majority of the board. His or her implication is that a board member who disagrees with the majority can be cited by the majority as not representing Dartmouth "positively."

He or she apparently believes that the majority of the board can define the institution's mission any way it wants.

So where does that leave a board member who feels that the majority is acting against the mission of the institution? Apparently, nowhere.

Anonymous said...

Dissent inside board meetings would seem to be required, but that does not make dissent (or worse, mean-spirited criticism) acceptable in public. When a board member has promised to represent the board positively and to raise money for it, then publicly calling a deceased board member "a truly evil man" and suggesting that the audience donate to alternative institutions would seem to be neither acceptable private "dissent" nor behavior in compliance with one's promises.

Most board's define the institutional mission based on majority vote. That is democracy at work.

A board member who believes the majority acts against the mission (which did not happen here, since the mission of Dartmouth has never been to encourage alumni to nominate a specific proportion of the board, or to confer special privileges on outside groups such as alumni) then he is bound and obligated to speak up about it at board meetings. Todd Zywicki did that in this case, and the board publicly recognized the general criticism of its decision in its report.