We have often come back to the example of Dartmouth College, of which Dartmouth Medical School is a significant component. We most recently summarized here an ongoing dispute about the extent that the institution's board of trustees ought to represent the alumni at large, or instead, ought to be a self-elected body not clearly accountable to anyone else. When we first addressed the dispute, we noted that the self-elected, or "charter" members of the board were mostly leaders in finance, and when they succeeded increasing the proportion of self-elected members, the additions were again, mainly from finance.
The latest development at Dartmouth is that the board, whose majority is now self-elected, is going to boot off one of the few members who was elected by the alumni at large after being nominated by petition of alumni. As described in an editorial in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth,
We were dismayed to learn of the Board of Trustees’ decision not to reelect Trustee Todd Zywicki ‘88 for a second term ('Board votes not to reelect Zywicki ‘88,' April 7). Even in the wake of Zywicki’s open letter to the Dartmouth community on Tuesday ('Zywicki ‘88 criticizes Board in open letter,' April 15), the Board has yet to provide the Dartmouth community with a sufficient explanation for the removal.
Since 1990, when the power to reelect alumni trustees was transferred from alumni to the Board itself, reappointment to the Board for a second term has generally been routine; Zywicki is the first trustee in recent history to be denied reelection.
Zywicki said in his letter that comments he made during an address at the John William Pope Center in October 2007 'might have been' one of the reasons behind the Board’s decision. In the address, Zywicki made a series of controversial and inflammatory statements, including calling former College President James Freedman 'truly evil.'
Assuming that no egregious act remains undisclosed (and there has been no indication that this is the case), Zywicki’s removal disregards the will of the alumni who put him on the Board, and contradicts the democratic manner in which alumni elect trustees.
Dissenting opinions are essential to the operation of any governing body. While Zywicki may have behaved unprofessionally, the public reprimand issued by the Board was sufficient punishment. It is one thing to reprimand a trustee for making statements against the College in a public forum, but to remove dissenting opinions from the boardroom is to undermine the will of the alumni who voted in support of those very views.
Further news coverage in The Dartmouth suggested a flawed process was used to get rid of Zywicki,
Trustee T.J. Rodgers '70, who like Zywicki was nominated to be a candidate for the Board via petition and was successfully reelected at the April meeting, compared the reelection process to a 'witch-hunt trial' and said it was 'an affront to due process' in an e-mail to The Dartmouth.
'[Zywicki] was ejected by a secret vote — he was not allowed to know the vote count or even the reasons behind his ejection,' Rodgers said in the e-mail.
Rodgers added that he believes the decision not to reelect Zywicki was 'an embarrassment for the Board.'
'The effect of Todd’s ejection has been to warn me and any other trustee likely to speak his or her own mind to watch our step,' he said in the e-mail.
Finally, Mr Rogers wrote his own commentary in The Dartmouth,
'Hang one, warn a thousand' says the ancient Chinese proverb. In its April meeting, the Dartmouth Board of Trustees hanged Todd Zywicki '88, thus warning the petition trustees — and any others tempted to express independent views — not to cross the party line. The Board’s action was coldly deliberate. The legal machinery by which it was achieved took two years to construct.
Every 20 years or so, when a majority of the alumni body decides that the College is ignoring a critical problem, it elects petition trustees to promote change. That tradition, a healthy method of governance that sets Dartmouth apart, goes back to 1891, when alumni were formally granted one-half of Dartmouth’s Board seats in return for financing the College.
[After Rogers' election,] Subsequently, the alumni elected three more petition trustees with views similar to mine: Peter Robinson ‘79, Todd Zywicki ‘88 and Stephen Smith ‘88. It was no accident that each of them was a university professor or scholar. The Board Majority, predominantly composed of investment bankers, could have benefitted greatly from the new trustees’ education-first viewpoint, but instead, we were treated as if we were attacking the College. We were actually called a 'radical cabal' trying to 'hijack' the College by the Board member whose seat I had taken. The petition trustees had successfully overcome the penny-ante counterattacks, such as denying us the ability to mail our petitions to alumni to request signatures, and raising the required number of petition signatures, so it came time for the Board Majority to fix the petition trustee 'problem' permanently.
First, the Majority Board members simply declared the right to double their number from eight to 16 without adding an equivalent number of alumni trustees, despite an Association of Alumni poll of 4,000 alumni, who responded in favor of alumni trustee parity, 92 percent to eight percent. Then, the Majority threw its weight and College funds into a campaign to remove the Association leaders who had sued the College for breaking the 1891 Agreement.
In the boardroom, the Majority rewrote the 50 year-old Trustee Oath into an oath of loyalty, which was designed, in part, to limit trustees’ ability to express dissenting viewpoints without the direct threat of being ejected from the Board. And finally — fatally for Todd Zywicki — the Majority installed a formal review process that judged trustees against the new oath on a line-by-line basis.
On the day of his trial, Zywicki was asked if he wanted to make a statement. He apologized again for his Pope Center speech and exited. In order to maintain the confidentiality of board proceedings, I cannot give details. However, I can say from personal knowledge that many of the statements made in that meeting about Todd Zywicki were factually incorrect, but Todd was not there to respond. In my opinion, all of the issues, including his speech, did not rise to the level of negating the votes of the alumni who elected Todd. Despite my objection, the vote — for the only time in my five years on the Board — was secret.
Todd Zywicki’s greatest achievement as a Dartmouth trustee may well be having the personal courage to force the Board Majority to take responsibility for a political lynching.
Since I started writing about the governance of health care organizations, I used the example of Dartmouth (again, really a university with a medical school as a major component) as an example of governance that was more representative and accountable than that of many other health care organizations. Most universities that contain medical schools, for example, do not allow alumni to vote on the membership of more than a few board seats, and most only allow them to vote for alumni candidates hand-picked by the administration, not nominated by alumni petitions. However, since I started writing about Dartmouth, it seems that the self-elected majority of its board has done its best to make the board less representative and less accountable. Furthermore, it seems that some of the board's self-elected members regard anyone who disagrees with them as an enemy of the institution. Thus, their attitude seems to be: "l'universite c'est moi."
However, the duties of boards of trustees include the duty to uphold the institution's mission, not the board members' personal whims.
When I first started writing about these issues, I was surprised to find that the majority of the Dartmouth's boards self-elected, that is, "charter" trustees were from the finance sector. Now, having seen poor, sometimes arrogant, greedy, or even corrupt leadership of that sector bring down the world economy, I ask again whether people brought up in that culture ought to be dominant among the leadership of higher education?