Alumnus interruptus

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  November 16, 2006

The administration, to its credit, reacted by eliminating the speech restrictions, but supporters of the status quo had fits of apoplexy over the idea that alums should have as much power as Rodgers and his allies had gained — through democratic means. The administration-friendly alumni organization immediately tried to ram through modifications of the electoral system. It was clear to anyone following the saga that the proposed new constitution sought to make it more difficult for dissident challengers to join the board. And yet an alumni association spokesperson, in a brazen display of Orwellian doublespeak, maintained that the proposed new constitution “significantly improves the democratic processes of electing alumni trustees” and would create a “vastly stronger alumni organization.”

Signaling their independence, Dartmouth alums, who collectively have the power to change the board’s electoral system, voted down the proposal 51-49 percent, a stunning defeat for the entrenched powers that previously could count on a supine alumni body to approve whatever administration-friendly decisions were handed down. Merle Adelman, first vice-president of the established alumni association, tried put the best face on the affair by telling Inside Higher Education that, while the association “regrets” the defeat, “we are pleased to see the record number of alumni voices heard.” What Adelman did not say was that these wrong-headed efforts to control the message were beginning to wake up a sleeping tiger. This growing alumni rebellion will not likely stop at Dartmouth and will not be assuaged by upbeat propaganda issued by their alma maters.

In an act of rebellion similar to the Dartmouth affair, hundreds of disconcerted alumni of Rutgers University pooled their resources, along with those of students and faculty members, to place an ad in a 1998 issue of the Rutgers alumni magazine to denounce the university’s hefty investment in varsity sports. The president’s office intervened and blocked the magazine’s editor from running the ad. The alumni, with the help of the ACLU of New Jersey, sued and scored a major victory when the court ruled in 2002 that Rutgers had violated their First Amendment rights. Not surprisingly, the administration’s unseemly efforts to control its alumni have backfired: the percentage of Rutgers alumni giving has dropped every year since the school’s bid at censorship: from 13 percent in 1999, to 9.4 percent in 2005.

Brave students and faculty have long protested trends in higher education that compromise their rights through the rise of speech and “harassment” codes. Such regulations limit constitutionally and academically protected speech, theatre, artwork, and publications, and are capriciously enforced by often-secret internal administrative proceedings that deny students any semblance of due process. As Alan Charles Kors and I pointed out in our 1998 book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, academic freedom is being sacrificed so that academic administrators can play-act as empire-builders and careerists rather than serve as educators. The typical modern college president’s goal is to have no controversy, no trouble “on my watch,” we wrote.

One major problem facing campus administrators accustomed to having little or no blowback from alumni is that their graduates are among the most Web-savvy members of our society who are increasingly turning to the blogosphere and the Web sites of student newspapers that remain, by and large, fairly independent. For administrators to think that they can mold alumni opinion by monopolizing the universities’ messages sent to grads ignores the growing realities of our increasingly sophisticated and informed electronic-media-saturated culture.

Now that no-nonsense alumni are seeing through the smoke and mirrors, cutting off donations and asserting control of alumni associations and boards of trustees, colleges may have no choice but to pay attention to the rising chorus of voices saying “enough!”

“Freedom Watch” columnist Harvey Silverglate is co-founder and board chairman of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Jan Wolfe assisted in the preparation of this article.

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