By Richard Vedder
I am furious over the story that Bryan O'Keefe called to my attention that appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. Dartmouth College is moving ahead with a plan to end democracy in the election of some of the Board of Trustees, and to stifle any trustee who does not agree to adhere to the party line --a line that is against transparency, accountability, and, arguably political pluralism. One elected alumni trustee is mad about the downgrading of emphasis on undergraduate instruction; others worry about political correctness and all its evil manifestations. All want more transparent information on what is going on. For this, abuse is being showered upon them for their service to the College and the fulfillment of their responsibilities as trustees.
Fortunately, Dartmouth is somewhat unique in that many of its trustees are elected under an arrangement that has existed since the late 19th century. Now, however, the president and some establishment trustees who believe a trustee’s job is to be seen and not heard are trying to ignore the alumni, who have a disturbing tendency to reject any attempts at increased accountability. They reject administration nominees for Trustees in favor of electing independently minded persons who believe their job is to oversee the way the university operates and approve major policy decisions. Why do we dump huge quantities of public funds on institutions that are anti-democratic, inefficient, and politically intolerant? Dartmouth can do what it wants, but if it is going to be so contemptible, must we keep subsidizing it?
The Dartmouth problem is a national problem. My own university, Ohio University, is having troubled times, and both the faculty and the students last year expressed overwhelming votes of non-confidence in the Administration. The Trustees, who in their rare visits to campus are wined and dined by the President and his puppets and supplicants, pay little attention to real issues --declining relative student quality, falling real per student endowment over time, swelling administrative bureaucracies, etc. They simply say "Yes sir, we will do what you want." They are abdicating their responsibilities, pure and simple.
To be sure, there are trustees that over-meddle, who try to pick football coaches and demand that Professor X be fired because he says something a little bit offensive. And presidents are hired to lead, to be the prime mover in determining the institutional direction and identity. That is for the good. But they should not be dictators, and boards of trustees should not be regarded as the academic equivalent of the old Soviet Politburo. Shame on Dartmouth's administration and majority trustees. Ditto Ohio University. And the same can be said of many universities. That is why we need to listen to groups like ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) who argue for greater aggressiveness on the part of university trustees in fulfilling their mission of responsibility.