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Bucking the Deans at Dartmouth

A new challenge to the university monolith on the hill.

11:00 PM, Feb 20, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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WHEN WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY founded National Review in 1955 at the age of 29, he lit the fire that sparked the modern conservative movement. Buckley had already achieved notoriety--if not celebrity--with the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951. He attacked the undergraduate education on offer at Yale for its hostility to Christianity and its adulation of collectivism and sought to dispel the indifference of Yale alumni to their supervisory responsibility, calling on them to grasp the nettle of university governance.

Yale was, of course, only the example which laid closest to Buckley's hand. Mutatis mutandis, as Buckley himself might say, he undoubtedly could have written the same book about any of America's most prestigious universities. In the ensuing decades the conservative movement as a whole has experienced successes that must exceed even Buckley's visionary imagination. Yet the university remains untouched by Buckley's call to action. In fact, it understates matters considerably to say that circumstances on campus have not improved since 1951.

University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and Harvard president Lawrence Summers have recently served to illustrate the absurd conditions that prevail in the university. Churchill is the tenured professor of "ethnic studies" producing bogus scholarship and anti-American vitriol in roughly equal measure. He appears to have qualified for his post on the basis of a claim to Indian lineage that turns out to have been of the cigar-store variety. In the meantime, Churchill has become a campus celebrity who speaks before enthusiastic student audiences. Academic bystanders refrain from passing judgment, instead waving the banner of academic freedom.

On the other hand, President Summers can testify to the powerful taboos enforced on university campuses. For the sin of offering informed speculation about possible gender-based differences giving rise to the numerical disparities between men and women "in high-end scientific professions," Summers has been subjected to a ferocious reeducation campaign.

In the film Cool Hand Luke, prison authorities sought to maintain order by teaching the film's hero to "get [his] mind right." Luke refused to conform and met with an unhappy ending. President Summers is not as hard a case as Luke; he has quickly set out to prove to the faculty that he has got his mind right all on his own. The success of his efforts, however, remains in doubt; conformity may not be enough. The faculty is not as easily appeased as Luke's keepers.

The adversary culture that has been widely institutionalized and ruthlessly enforced in the university is so out of step with the rest of America that it is perhaps time to wonder whether it can survive the publicity it has received in recent weeks. Next month's election of two trustees to the Dartmouth College board may provide a portent.

LAST YEAR Cypress Semiconductor chief executive officer T.J. Rodgers waged a successful insurgent campaign--the first in 24 years--for election to the Dartmouth board against three candidates selected by the alumni council nominating committee. Rodgers leans libertarian and shuns characterization on the left-right divide; he says he was motivated to run by "the degradation of freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly . . . at [Dartmouth] today." Rodgers initially promoted his candidacy via a website and mailed alumni to solicit signatures (500 are required) to have his name placed in nomination for election to the board.

This year the alumni council nominating committee has presented a slate of four alumni candidates for two board positions. Following in Rodgers's footsteps, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki have set up websites and solicited signatures to have their names placed in nomination in addition to the four pre-selected candidates. They have both secured signatures sufficient to be added to the ballot that will be presented to alumni in the election that takes place next month. Rodgers supports their candidacies.

The rules governing election to the Dartmouth board restrict speech to a great degree. As Patricia Fisher, Dartmouth's director of alumni leadership, explained to me, the restrictive election rules enforce "a level playing field." Electioneering is prohibited; once Robinson and Zywicki are certified as candidates after they submit their petition signatures this week, their websites will come down (as did Rodgers's last year). The campaign will be limited to the candidates' 400-word-personal statements and capsule biographies that accompany the ballots submitted to alumni.

And in a bow toward the information age, the rules have been modified this year to allow the candidates to send two email messages and to post a short video for alumni, provided they are reviewed and approved in advance by the alumni council balloting committee. Despite these severe constraints, the election should be interesting.

Peter Robinson is the Hoover Institution fellow and former Reagan speechwriter who wrote the earth-shaking 1987 "tear down this wall" speech. Todd Zywicki is a professor of law at George Mason University Law School and a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy. In addition to their desire to preserve Dartmouth's traditional character as an institution devoted to undergraduate education, Robinson and Zywicki share concerns about the repressive atmosphere and rigid orthodoxy of political correctness on campus. (Zywicki's site links to a Dartmouth Daily article by student Dan Knecht, The Monolith on the Hill. Knecht writes, "In my almost four years at Dartmouth, I have encountered more than a handful of dyed-in-the-wool liberals. I have yet to meet one conservative professor.")

The election has been the subject of a fascinating article in the local Dartmouth-area newspaper, the Valley News, which quotes Hans Penner, a retired religion professor and former dean of the faculty. Penner reveals more than he intends, observing: "It always seemed to me that alumni [trustees] that wanted to get into the actual workings of the college make more trouble than it's worth. They don't know what's going on . . . It's the faculty and the administration that they should trust."

Given the constraints under which the election operates, Robinson and Zywicki are only nominally running against the four candidates selected by the alumni council; the views of those four candidates are unknown to anyone outside the council's nominating committee. Robinson and Zywicki are running against the Dartmouth administration and the state of affairs on campus. With any luck, another wall or two will be torn down.

Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line , a contributing writer to The Daily Standard, and a 1973 graduate of Dartmouth College.