“Bad” is probably too strong a word. But it’s not exactly “good” news, either. What follows are some rough thoughts on article “Dartmouth alumni battles become a spectator sport,” NYT, 21 June 2006.
Dartmouth does get mentioned in the news for interesting things like research, especially in engineering, economics, and medicine; and advances in campus computing. Just check out the Times Topics listing for Dartmouth. If you search on the New York Times site for “Dartmouth,” you’ll get even more results, many of which reflect the social cachet associated with an Ivy League pedigree–the wedding pages. (Slate‘s Tim Noah in 2002 wrote, “The wedding pages remain because a very small aristocracy demands that they remain. And when Chatterbox says ‘aristocracy,’ he means it largely in the traditional sense, i.e., ‘those who pass great wealth or power on to their children.'”)
But Dartmouth in the news. The college has plenty of high-profile alumni and faculty who make the papers: Henry Paulson, the incoming Treasury Secretary; Jeff Immelt, the GE chief; a good number of President Bush’s economic advisers; and probably some others whose primary aim is possibly something other than the generation of wealth. These people, especially the alumni, tend to reflect very well on the school.
Which is why the college is probably a little put out by the Times article about the pitched alumni battles over the board of trustees and the Alumni Council constitution. Like many of the notable news items about Dartmouth in recent years, it reveals some cracks in what I’ll call “Dartmouth Life.” And Dartmouth Life is probably the college’s biggest selling point. (That is, the image that Dartmouth wants to project of a wholesome, meritocratic bastion, a pastoral retreat where one can indulge in the life of the mind, attain the old Greek ideal of arete in a holistic sense, engage in chummy debate, celebrate all kinds of diversity, and gain a set of liberal arts values that will stick with you for life. Is that rhetoric enough? I also receive a newsletter every couple months full of good news about Dartmouth called Dartmouth Life.)
Dartmouth probably doesn’t want you to see those cracks. Just take a look at the school’s own “Dartmouth in the News” site, a great resource to find out about all the great things that Dartmouth people are doing all over the world. One can’t blame the college for trying to manage its image. Any organization that wants to present a message with any effectiveness strives to brand itself and speak with a unified, coherent voice (plus, it helps with fundraising). The Bush administration does it. Look at the American Civil Liberties Union which, of all groups, is considering limits on what its directors can say about what’s going on within the ACLU.
But the Times article doesn’t just show how enthusiastic Dartmouth alumni can be (and they can be rabid). Take a look at this: “The outsiders [petition candidates who won trustee elections] accused the college administration of sacrificing free speech to political correctness and of abandoning Dartmouth’s historical focus on undergraduates to turn it into a ‘junior varsity Harvard.'” With coverage like this, one might think that Dartmouth is becoming a red hot front in the wars of culture and ideology.
So what’s new about that? Not much. I think it’s fair to say that Dartmouth might stand out from other schools because conservatives have established a prominent foothold there in what is often perceived (not necessarily accurately) to be a liberal Ivy League–this despite finding much of the student body to be quite comfortably apolitical during my time there. That foothold is the conservative Dartmouth Review, which was founded with the backing of William Buckley and whose alumni include Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham. I have very mixed feelings about the Review, an independent publication with offices off campus, but it does sometimes spark conversations that the college’s student body might not otherwise have. And while Dartmouth is a great school, from a national media perspective it tends to be more interesting when it invites controversy or is subject to tragedy. A few examples of this type of newsworthy Dartmouth issue spring to mind:
- The Alpha Delta raid earlier this month
- The Zeta Psi sex papers
- The Chi Gamma Epsilon ghetto party
- The Alpha Chi/Tri-Delt attempted luau (I’m really not trying to pick on the Greek system)
- The computer science mass cheating allegations
- The Zantop murders
- The destruction of protest shanties
All of those took place in 1999 or later, with the exception of the shanties. That, which occurred in 1986, is one of the college’s more interesting conflicts. In the fall of 1985, students erected shanties on the Green to protest apartheid in South Africa and encourage the college to divest itself of any South African investments. Eventually, the town of Hanover ordered the shanties removed, but student protestors physically blocked the College from carrying that out. At about 3 a.m. on January 21, 1986 (Martin Luther King Day was January 20), the “Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival” smashed the shanties with sledgehammers. Turns out, the committee was mostly made up of students on the Dartmouth Review staff. Controversy, of course, ensued–you can read more here and here–and some from their ranks were suspended (indefinitely).
Jeffrey Hart, an emeritus English professor and regular Review contributor, said about the shanty dismantlers and their efforts:
If the conservative movement lets these kids down, these kids who are fighting the last vestiges of Sixties leftism–if the conservative movement does not come to the aid of the students who, at the moment, have their backs against the wall–then we might as well pack our bags and go home. For there will be no point carrying on the battle here in comfortable Washington, D.C., if we permit the Left to gang up on and lynch our people on America’s real battlefront, the college campus.
—Remarks published in the New Republic, 11 April 1986
I found the Times article useful mainly because it elucidated what’s happening with the Alumni Council constitution, which I haven’t followed too closely. But the ultimate aim of all these machinations is to determine who sits on the board of trustees.
As for our “renegade” trustees, Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason, hasn’t said anything terribly controversial, that I’ve yet heard. In an interview, the Dartmouth Review asked:
TDR: There were some alumni who saw you as a sort of an ideologue or a reactionary. Is that true? Are they right?
TZ: [Laughing] No, that’s not true. That’s not true at all.
Of course, at Dartmouth, having a friendly interview with the Review is enough to be painted a hellfire-spouting conservative by others on campus (I’ve given a quote to the Review on a subject important to me when no one else would give them one, but I’ve not been interviewed). Zywicki has a position with the Bill of Rights Institute, which has been described as a conservative organization; I haven’t read much about it, except that it’s partnered with the Jesse Helms Center in the past.
Trustee T. J. Rodgers is probably more accurately described as a libertarian than a right-winger. When his concerns are described as “increasing the budget for teacher salaries and preserving the primacy of Dartmouth’s role as an undergraduate institution,” one can, I hope, take him at his word.
“Outsider” trustee Peter Robinson has conservative bona fides: he was a Reagan speechwriter, authored How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, and works at the Hoover Institution. When asked, as a candidate, what traits or experiences would be his “greatest contribution to the Board,” Robinson answered: “After watching the fortieth chief executive of the United States stand up to the Kremlin, I’d be perfectly happy to stand up to the bureaucracy in Hanover.” Commenting to the Times on the proposed alumni constitution, Robinson said, “This is as much a reform as when Joseph Stalin decided to hold elections in Eastern Europe…Voting? Yes. Democracy? Not at all.”
It’s too easy and too often that issues of political philosophy and education philosophy are confused. While Peter Robinson talks about “excellence in undergraduate education,” he also campaigns for his concept of freedom of speech. Rodgers and Zywicki, as well, have stated that they wish to preserve freedom of speech at the college. And how can you be against that? But I think the concern among many alumni is that “freedom of speech” is becoming a sort of code that doesn’t just mean rooting out “political correctness,” however that may be defined–and which is a debate over what kinds of ideologies are allowable–but may also signal something more. It puts me in mind of how George Bush, during the 2004 debates, mentioned the Dred Scott case–which, while an important issue in itself (like freedom of speech), was also a loaded reference to something quite different from ante-bellum slavery.
It’s twenty years since the shanty controversy, and maybe Jeffrey Hart is as right as ever: “America’s real battlefront, the college campus.” While I think there’s a been a shift away from the campus as the unequivocal center of political and ideological conflict, perhaps the “outsider” trustees disagree. After all, in this country, with all of its freedom and variety, you can pick your battles.