Dartmouth College has long had an unusual governance structure in which half of the seats on the school’s Board of Trustees are reserved for “alumni trustees,” who are democratically elected by their fellow alumni. For much of the school’s history, when there was an alumni-trustee vacancy on the board, the remaining trustees would handpick a replacement candidate, who typically ran unopposed; the alumni association “election” was all but a formality.

This all changed in 2004, when Silicon Valley pioneer and Dartmouth alum TJ Rodgers (disclosure: a client of mine) gained enough signatures to get on the ballot, financed his own campaign, ran against the establishment-favored candidate, and, remarkably, won. Rodgers’s platform of improving undergraduate education and honoring students’ rights struck a nerve with his fellow alumni. Three other dissidents have since run on a similar platform in subsequent years, each time winning by a wide margin over the institutionally favored candidates.

Chair of the Board Ed Haldeman and his supporters have wielded the so-called trustees’ oath in an effort to muzzle the outspoken alumni trustees. One such alumni trustee, Professor Todd Zywicki of the George Mason University Law School, was publicly taken to task in a letter sent out to all alumni by the board, for delivering a speech in which he criticized Dartmouth’s leadership. Haldeman and his cohorts wrote in a statement on the board’s Web site that Zywicki “violated his responsibilities as a trustee of Dartmouth College, which includes acting in the best overall interests of Dartmouth and representing Dartmouth positively in words and deeds.” Similarly, the board has criticized Rodgers for sitting for news media interviews and discussing Dartmouth with considerable frankness.

The issue at Dartmouth appears to be whether a trustee, elected by alumni, does his duty when he offers constructive criticism of the university, or whether he must toe the company line, speak nothing but praise of the institution and its governance, and never hurt the financial statement. Stay tuned on this one.

With thanks to Jan Wolfe for his invaluable assistance.

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