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Cinderella Story

Two conservative underdogs emerge victorious in Dartmouth's alumni trustee elections.

5:47 PM, May 13, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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THE PETITION CANDIDATES DID IT. In a stunning--at least to their critics--upset, Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki each won an alumni seat on Dartmouth College's board of trustees. The results were made public yesterday afternoon, following two months of electronic and mail-in voting.

Chalk up another victory for the "New Media"--namely, for the conservative blogosphere. Robinson and Zywicki relied heavily on the Internet to publicize their efforts. They had been the insurgents in the race: the grassroots nominees who worked their way onto the ballot by garnering 500 signatures apiece. They entered a field with four other candidates handpicked by the school's alumni council.

Dartmouth trustee rules bar candidates from electioneering--but only once they've been certified. So as they labored to acquire the requisite 500 petitions, Robinson and Zywicki were free to tout their platforms on personal websites and friendly blogs. They called chiefly for ending Dartmouth's de facto campus speech code and improving the undergraduate experience.

Since Robinson and Zywicki are well-known conservatives--Robinson is a Hoover fellow and former Reagan speechwriter ("Tear Down This Wall" came from his pen), while Zywicki teaches law at George Mason University and blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy site--the race had political overtones. But both stressed that their principal issues--protecting free speech and renewing Dartmouth's commitment to its undergrads--were nonpartisan.

Yet almost overnight, blogs sprang up to denounce them. Concerned alums--including such groups as "Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth" and "Dartmouth Alumni for Social Change"--zinged Robinson and Zywicki for their "reactionary" politics and criticism of Dartmouth president James Wright.

They had a good reason to be startled by the two outsiders. In 2004, another petition candidate, Silicon Valley tycoon T.J. Rodgers, won election to the board of trustees--the first to do so since 1980. Rodgers, a self-described libertarian, ran on a platform similar to those of Robinson and Zywicki.

Now, thanks to the petition process, three center-right alums in two years have gained positions on the board by campaigning against the Dartmouth administration and against politically correct speech codes. To say this has raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers in Hanover would be an understatement. Robinson and Zywicki--like Rodgers before them--challenged the reigning academic establishment head-on and emerged victorious. They join the board officially in June, following Dartmouth's commencement exercises.

Robinson spoke to The Daily Standard Friday morning about the significance of his win. He emphasized the Internet angle above all. "The victory represents a victory for alumni participation in the governance of Dartmouth College," Robinson said. "What made that possible was the blogosphere." Blogs "made it possible for me to reach alums" and "keep up reporting and interest in the campaign."

More broadly, he added, blogs offer a novel way for graduates to stay in touch with their alma mater. "I learned more in three months of reading these blogs about the actual state of affairs in Hanover, New Hampshire, than [I did] in 25 years of reading the alumni magazine." Blogs thus pose a mortal threat to the "propaganda machines" of major universities, Robinson said. "That strikes me as a sea change."

Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.