By Richard Vedder
Dartmouth College has done it, it has gone ahead with a plan to dilute alumni participation in university governance. The way they have done it is less egregious than some earlier efforts, but it still seems like it is an attempt by the administration to dilute the influence of an increasing number of troublesome people who want real accountability. They have decided to make the board larger than the current 18, arguing that 18 is too small. I happen to disagree, and believe truly effective boards of more than 15 are rare. My university functions with one of nine (who nonetheless fail to perform their fiduciary responsibilities to the public by truly evaluating administrative decisions).
I suspect that this move is going to cost Dartmouth some real significant amounts of alumni contributions --which is good in my mind. It is time that alumni and other philanthropists get smart and tough in the allocation of their largess --and demand real, meaningful accounting on the use of funds. The Robertson family lawsuit at Princeton is a great thing, in my mind, because finally people are challenging colleges that use gifts in a different fashion than intended without the approval of the donor or his/her heirs or representatives.
The whole issue ultimately boils down to "who owns the institution." The legal answer, usually, is that the Trustees are the owners. The issue of who the trustees are, then, is the equivalent of asking "who are the controlling stockholders" in for-profit private enterprises. Everyone thinks they own the institution --the alums who are loyal users and financiers of educational services --the administration who runs the place, the governments that increasingly finance activities even at the private schools, the faculty, who are the institution in terms of being the critical inputs used in providing services, the students and their parents, who pay much of the bills, etc.
In part the battle at Dartmouth is whether the governance should be done by the Administration jointly with the alumni, or by the administration alone. I tend to favor checks and balances and accountability, and I think the divided board as currently constituted is a better device for future success than the newly changed organization. Of course, the establishment trustees organization (Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities) thinks the changes proposed are great, since this is an organization that, as far as I can tell believes, more or less, that boards of trustees should give money, act important, but do little of great substance (they would deny that of course). By contrast, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (Anne Neal's group) has a better vision of university governance, believing in boards that actively challenge administrations and make them justify their actions.
I have said enough about Dartmouth College for a lifetime, so will move on to stories about other institutions. Dartmouth is a great school, and, as Daniel Webster so memorably said nearly two centuries ago, there are those who love it.