Dartmouth: A Way Forward

I previously wrote some thoughts on the Trustees Decision of 2007, which for those who haven’t read them, it basically boils down to “it sucks, but it won’t last.” But I didn’t specify any mechanisms by which change would be effected.

Since I wrote last I’ve done some more reading on the roles of the Trustees, the Charter, the Alumni Constitution, and who has power and authority over what. I doubt any lawsuits are going to change the current situation – I think the AoA has been mortally wounded. “I’m not Dead Yet!” is only worth something until the undertaker’s club meets its target, but go ahead and prove me wrong on these points, I want to be wrong.

The debate is certainly rancorous and many of the discussion boards have descended into acrimonious anonymous postings, debasing the reputation of all Alumni. I suspect this is a bit of ridicule on the part of those defeated in recent elections and a feeling of helplessness, betrayal even, by those on the other side. Emotions run high and it serves none well.

So, this is here to declare the situation not helpless. Now I do believe it is futile for anonymous posters to whine, “fine, I’m not sending my yearly contribution” online, but the power of the Alumni is in those contributions, both large and small. When the question is asked, “what right do Alumni think they have to have a say in how the College is run?” the answer is, “the College couldn’t run without their support.” I can’t exactly say to what degree that’s true – if somebody can tease apart the annual report and find that number, please post a comment.

We can also figure out what percentage of the alumni voted for the ‘insurgent’ candidates but I’m not sure anybody on the outside can tell what percentage of giving that group represents. This would be very handy to know.

So, what choice do they have? Stop giving to the College they love and thus weaken it? Give anyway, and just accept that the Alumni shall have no real control over the College’s destiny? No, as I wrote earlier, the Alumni derive power not just through their contributions (which isn’t remarkably different today than in the past), but through their ability to organize (that’s what’s new and deeply troubling to the status quo). So, this needs to be applied to the cynical version of the Golden Rule.

Alumni Investment Corporation. As of this writing the term has no hits on Google. Maybe it exists by another name – somebody educate me, I am not expert in the ways of educational fundraising, though I’ve never heard of this idea before. But here’s the basic idea: form an investment vehicle for like-minded Alumni to donate funds into in lieu of making donations directly to the College. The corporation would have to have a clear set of principles, by-laws, etc. so contributors know where their money is going. Being an investment vehicle, the investors would be issued shares and thus be able to pull their money out should the governance of the fund go astray. Changes to the fund’s policies would be done though a shareholder vote (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and there’d be nothing to stop competing funds, should they become necessary (though a proliferation of funds would incur weakness to each). The fund would need to be well-managed, so that it grows safely over time, and it would probably have to do the same kinds of fundraising (or smarter) that the College does. It would disperse funds to the College on its own terms, with strings attached. If the College were uncooperative, the fund would instead grow, until such time as the College were willing to accept the money.

There isn’t much here that’s new – there are mutual funds that organize to effect social change – the twist here is a select set of potential contributors and a very specific set of potential beneficiaries. The fund would have to be properly organized to garner a charity status so it would be as attractive a donation target under our Federal Income Tax regime. Obviously, profits from shareholder withdrawals would be taxable.

This arrangement leverages the two powers the Alumni really have and largely ignores the one that has been or can be abrogated from it. It allows the disaffected Alumni to continue to donate to the College, but in a manner they find morally acceptable and fiscally prudent.

Now, I have no idea how to organize this nor the time or expertise to manage it (I’m busy trying to get a startup funded), so somebody take the ball and run with it. I might even donate.

Emergence At Dartmouth

Things change.

Sometimes there’s something you can do do stop it.

And sometimes there’s not, but you try anyway.

On Saturday, the Dartmouth Board of Trustees enacted changes to the Dartmouth Constitution, last modified over a century ago, to change the balance of power from 50/50 alumni-voted/administration-appointed to a 33/66 split, in favor of the administration. They fancy to implement a model closer to Harvard’s, which isn’t all that well regarded by folks who aren’t in the habit of appointing trustees. Much more info on what happened and why can be found at Dartblog.

The strategy isn’t even all that creative – Roosevelt tried this in 1939 when the Supreme Court wasn’t voting the way he expected it should, and it’s seen as the most egregious political blunder of his Presidency (quite the curious model to emulate). Just as that move enraged the other three branches of government, this has sparked talk about getting big name law firms involved in the process. It’s even brought ridicule from the non-academic intellectuals – the Wall Street Journal gave the idea a good dressing down. A shame, but this will passs.

What won’t pass is the surge in Alumni participation in governance in the College, and that’s why this article appears on my blog. It’s about the Internet.

10 years ago, Dartmouth offered its alumni (n.b.: this blog is in English, not Latin) a lifetime e-mail account. Then it added some alumni services websites, access to the Library, online voting, social networking, etc. The idea was to keep the Alumni closer to the College. And guess what? It worked.

But rather than just fondly fire up BlitzMail and think, “boy, I think I’ll send those guys $100 today,” they also thought, “where’s that money going … what are these guys up to?” And so they checked in and the majority didn’t like what they saw.

So, they organized websites, campaigns, analysis sites, and decided to set out to change things, in the liberal democratic fashion set out for them in the Constitution.

Now, these alumni didn’t share the same values and plans that the incumbents shared, and they were batting a thousand. The Trustees weren’t used to the Alumni exercising their rights as laid forth in the Constitution. So “something had to be done”. And it was. But it won’t last.

You see, the Internet isn’t going away. The power of Alumni to communicate and collaborate is only going to get stronger over time. They can look in whenever they want, even if they can’t get up to Hanover, or to the U.S., even.

Just as Linux (the poster-boy for all of Open Source Software) appeared just as soon as there was an Internet to support its development, Alumni Governance will come to be seen as an emergent property of Alumni linked together with the ability to easily cooperate. It’s no mystery that all of this happened just as soon as it was feasible – what’s mysterious is that some think they can hold back the sea.