The Magazine

Gunfight at Alumni Corral

A new round in Dartmouth's running battle.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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Even in America's fractious conservative movement, you don't often see William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will facing off on opposite sides of an issue. Much less would you expect the dispute to occur over a trustee election at a university neither attended. But Dartmouth trustee elections in recent years have become national events, thanks to insurgent libertarian and conservative candidates who upset establishment choices by focusing on issues such as free speech and political correctness. And this year's contest--aside from the intervention of Buckley and Will--is no exception.

Four candidates are vying for one slot, in alumni voting that began on April 1 and continues through May 15. But two are attracting the most scrutiny. Sandy Alderson (class of '69), the CEO of the San Diego Padres, is the leading establishment candidate, one of three selected by the alumni council. Following in the footsteps of the insurgents is University of Virginia law professor Stephen Smith ('88), whose name was added to the ballot after he obtained the requisite 500 signatures for a petition supporting his candidacy.

Dartmouth is governed by 18 board members, 8 of whom are elected by alumni. The alumni candidates are vetted by the Alumni Council (this year there were around 300), with a handful chosen for nomination. Alumni not picked by the council can still qualify for the ballot via petition. Petition candidates were few and far between until Silicon Valley tycoon T.J. Rodgers ('70), a self-described libertarian, waged a victorious campaign as a petition candidate in 2004. Rodgers ran against faddish race-gender-diversity studies. George Mason law professor Todd Zywicki ('88) and Hoover Institution fellow Peter Robinson ('79) won seats as petition candidates in 2005, opposing politically correct campus speech codes, among other issues.

Smith says his campaign took shape in January, when he contacted his old classmate and friend Zywicki and learned that there were no petition candidates in this year's race. He also talked to Rodgers, who he says provided advice and moral support, but no financial backing. (Rodgers substantiated this in the Dartmouth, the student newspaper, in late March.) Smith says he was inspired to run because of his sense, in talking to recent graduates, that Dartmouth was drifting away from its "small college academic mission." Despite Alderson's innovative role in major league baseball, Smith feels that when it comes to Dartmouth affairs, Alderson wouldn't demonstrate a "willingness to think outside the box and have a new vision."

Alderson and his supporters tell a different story about Smith's campaign. Alderson, a friend of Dartmouth president James Wright, told me that Smith was selected by a small cabal, some of whom, he suspects, are current trustees who provided Smith with a coveted mailing list of key supporters, as well as financial backing. The fact that they remain unidentified "creates a questionable appearance" in Alderson's mind. Alderson rejects the "establishment" label, arguing that he is independent, nonideological, and can bring a solid business management background to the board.

Depending on who you talk to, Dartmouth is either teetering on the brink of Ivy League mediocrity or thriving. Undergraduates "often come last," according to Smith, on a campus that is slowly becoming a "faceless research university" with an overemphasis on graduate research. Freedom of speech needs to be protected, and political correctness should not dominate campus discourse, as it did last December when the athletic director apologized in advance of a hockey tournament hosted at Dartmouth for the "offensive and wrong" team name of a participant, the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux. Smith calls for transparency in the administration and minimizing bureaucratic bloat; he describes himself as the only candidate who won't "rubber stamp" the administration "politburo."

An African American raised in Anacostia, a poor neighborhood of Washington, D.C., by a "saint" of a mother who had multiple sclerosis and fought hard to keep her kids out of the failing public school system, Smith feels that his humble beginnings would leaven a board comprising mainly white multi-millionaires in business, finance, and law. He sees a need to continue to bolster the athletic programs at Dartmouth, especially the football team, which, he argues, had been in decline before the other three insurgents joined the board. Smith blames a hostile administration, citing a letter that the dean of admissions, Karl Furstenberg, wrote to Swarthmore in 2000, praising that school's decision to drop football because it is "antithetical to the academic mission of colleges such as ours." Students need to be well-rounded, Smith thinks, as opposed to "creative loners."

Alderson, for his part, says the central question is whether the college needs a "complete makeover or simply a redirection," and says he would fall in the latter category. Attacks on bureaucracy are "overblown"; the growth in college administration was not necessarily "inappropriate." John Mathias, a Chicago-based attorney who graduated with Alderson and has supported his campaign financially, has three children currently at Dartmouth, and told me that the issues Smith is raising are "fictional."

In short, it's a race not unlike those of recent years. Except, unlike earlier candidates picked by the alumni council, Alderson has a conservative celebrity in his corner. In the April 6 issue of the Dartmouth, George Will weighed in for his friend Alderson with "a Big League Endorsement." Will credited Alderson for pioneering "new ways of thinking about the evaluation of baseball talents" as chronicled in Michael Lewis's bestseller Moneyball. "The point that is germane to Dartmouth," he wrote, is that "the success of any institution depends on clear and constantly refreshed thinking about how best to match resources to the institution's mission. . . . Dartmouth's turmoils have earned it unwanted and often unjust attention around the nation. Alumni and others who desire a less tumultuous and more constructively stimulating future for the College could begin by making Sandy a trustee."

Four days later came the Buckley rejoinder on National Review Online. "Mr. Alderson is a clubby alumnus with a legal background and a hyper-active career as a baseball executive, not the worst way to gain favorable attention from patrons of the sport, who include the formidable George F. Will, Princeton Ph.D. and a man of sovereign judgment in most matters. The other principal contender is Stephen Smith," who like the three insurgent trustees "is bent on preserving those traditions at Dartmouth which made it, over the years, so singular an institution of learning, so beloved of its alumni." Moreover, "with every disadvantage known in the land (poverty, single parent, black skin) [Smith] has triumphed, in an enormously competitive environment, against East Coast snobbery and insularity. This is a moment when one wishes one were an alumnus of Dartmouth, so that one could vote for Steve Smith."

Ironically, Smith contends that, when properly understood, the contest is not really political, and he tries to dissuade the use of the "conservative" label in the race. He started out as a Democrat, and actually credits his experience at Dartmouth for his political evolution to the Republican side.

Conversely, Alderson says the race is all politics, and it's "baloney" to say otherwise: It's about people who want the school to return to the days "before women were admitted, and before the Indian symbol was removed," referring to Dartmouth's unofficial mascot, changed in the 1970s. The attack on bureaucracy is really about "big government vs. small government," which is "code talk" for attacking diversity.

If it seems implausible for the white CEO to attack the Anacostia native as a foe of diversity, don't forget that in college politics, diversity can take on many different meanings. In an April 2 column for the Dartmouth, a member of the Alumni Council nominating committee questioned whether Smith really would bring diversity to the board, since, like Zywicki, he is a law professor in the state of Virginia. Alderson echoes this talking point: "How many people from the same class, in the same profession, in the same location do we need?"

In an election conducted via mail and the Internet over a six-week period, the outcome is impossible to predict. Junior Joe Malchow, who is following the campaign closely on his blog, Dartblog.com, remarks that students see the campaign as a forum to have their concerns addressed, so in a sense, the petition candidacy is an immediate victory for students. Malchow contends that the other candidates only took stances on issues after Smith came out first with his platform. One alum who is a close observer of Dartmouth affairs describes an increased endowment and increased funding for athletic facilities starting in 2004, when Rodgers was elected, and calls this the "petition trustee effect." Indeed, it's hard to see why alumni would want to eliminate tumult and turmoil from trustee elections. However things turn out May 15, the bucolic college town of Hanover, N.H., looks likely to remain in the national spotlight as a test case for conservative efforts to reform elite academia.

Whitney Blake is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.