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.