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...."
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."
- 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."
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 ...."
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.