The Dartmouth Observer

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Dear Old Dartmouth

In an attempt to arrest the progress of the College, the forces for and against the Constitution are planning to do battle in Hanover come fall.

Recent alumni and rising seniors at and The Little Green Blog (to say nothing of Malchow) pit the insurgents who have recently won trustee elections against the institutionalists-- those whose political and social views largely lean left with the rest of the Dartmouth's administration.

Vox's views, and its opposition to the constitution, are generally unsurprising. It announces its purpose as "website [serving as] a means of communication and information for those alumni of Dartmouth College unwilling to accept the often misleading public relations material issued by the College. This site contains articles by, and authentic accounts of, students currently enrolled in the College." As a part of its "authentic accounts" it contains a weepy missive from Nick Stork '06 claiming that David Spaulding, the Vice President of Alumni Affairs, attempted to intimidate him after Stork mass blitzed a group of his fraternity brothers and associates to vote against the upcoming alumni constitution. Moreover, the group therapy offered by the website and its cantankerous, reactionary readership have transformed an embellished account of Stork's meeting with Spaulding into a claim that this is more proof that Dartmouth's administration is against freedom of speech, conscience, and hates non-leftists.

The Vox are not without their collaborators.

Andrew Seal '07, who alternates between claiming ideological independence and sheer lunacy as often as twice a sentence, atypically offers a shrewd analysis of the situation.
I think both sides come at the constitution from the same assumption: that they are fighting to give alumni what they really want, which is, of course, coterminous with what their “side” wants. The pro-constitution side, I think, really believes that the past two trustee elections have not been reflective of genuine alumni will, but have been the result of problems in the system that allowed Rogers, Zywicki, and Robinson to ride in on a small wave of discontent and confusion. I think they sincerely believe that the majority of alumni do not prefer candidates who bank on being “outsiders” for their electability. The anti-constitution side seriously believes that they are at the head of a growing movement deeply dissatisfied with the current trajectory of the College.
The debate is about controlling the future of the college, with both sides entrenched and yelling.

Joe Malchow, never more than a moment's notice from right-wing rectitude (or hysteria), fired off this response:
Forget the constitution. Forget it. By lengths, the graver news is that this incident, coupled with that of the other student who has come forward, Andrew Eastman ‘07, constitutes a crackdown on freedom of political expression at my school. On principle, and as the author of a blog, I cannot stay quiet about grounded allegations of censorship and intimidation. And not just allegations—these things have occured. How do we know? The chilling effect.

Slowy shifting the debate about the constitution to innuendos about rights violations helps capture the disaffected alumni and galvanize them into a movement. It is one of the best parlor tricks I've seen in a while. Eugene Volokh explodes the hysteria with this analysis (with my emphasis added):
I take it that the student might have been somewhat worried that the administrator would somehow affect the closing days of his school career (the student was about to graduate), but it would take someone with a pretty poor view of Dartmouth to think that there's that much of a chance that the administrator would, say, urge professors to unfairly lower the student's grades or some such. (Top universities, to my knowledge, are known for leaving the individual grading decisions to the professors, except to the extent that they leave them to TAs.) And if this was the student's view of Dartmouth, then I'm surprised he had spoken out in the first instance, since the administration could (if it's willing to break all the rules) retaliate against a student whether or not an administrator decides to personally argue with the student. All the evidence suggests is that the administration is willing to talk back to students who they think express unsound views. Not a lot to build a case of intimidation and censorship (much less, as the blogger later says, "indecent tactics"), it seems to me.
The key move is that the constitution is not the true target, the administration is. Once you realize that many view the upcoming vote on the constitution as a referendum, this whole constitution hullaboo begins to make sense. The constitution is just a red herring meant to attract those who already have a poor opinion of the College.

Part of the problem with this whole episode and the ripple of events surrounding this infernal constitution is that the students involved don't really understand what free speech means. If a student forwards a proposition, particularly if it is publicly announced in a student group or as public statements, it may well be that the other members campus, students and administrators alike, will learn of the propositon and its contents. Public speakers and group leaders should be prepared for that. In fact if, as a result of the proposition going forward to the public, an administrator "criticizes [the speaker's] views" and says "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones," this is also free speech, an entitlement possessed by administrators as well.

Free speech isn't just that you get to criticize the administration and not be expelled; it also means that you agree to participate in a public discussion in which your ideas are criticized and defended. Any sophmore knows that criticizing and negative aspect of free speech. Moving beyond sophmorism, however, entails learning about reciprocity and dialouge.

These John-the-Baptist wannabe's (Malchow and that infernal racket in the wilderness) transform a healthy debate about the role of the alumni in the governance of Dartmouth into a mudslinging contest comprising of innuendo about and a referendum on the Wright administration. Many of this ilk "suffered" the implementation of the SLI, the near dissolution of the swimming team, the further regulation of single-sex Greek life, the ousting of Gazzaniga, and the closure of the speech department. Bitter that the administration ignored them, and that Review's sophomoric opinions about Dartmouth life remained on the margins, they view the struggle over the constitution and the future trustees of the college as payback and necessary against the perceived maleovent tyranny of the College's administration.

Seal's problem with it is that it shows that Dartmouth doesn't trust alums.
What the constitution gives is a static, idle democracy that seems focused entirely on collecting inputs, without much thought given to how some outputs might be gotten out, or even what those outputs might be. Sure, the Constitution would likely introduce a broader level of participation in alumni governance, but I cannot help but think that breadth in this case precludes the addition of depth as well. I mean, I'd like to think that the new structure(s) introduced in the Constitution will allow a significantly larger number of people the chance to be creative agents in the process of alumni governance, but I'm not entirely convinced that will happen, and I'm not sure it's even intended to do so.

The presidential power arc (going from vice president to president-elect to president to past president) really bothers me because it is, quite simply, the most blatant sign that there is a massive distrust among the drafters of this constitution of the dynamics of personal choice. This complete lack of faith in the alumni body of Dartmouth College is what this structure, or any structure so ordered, reveals. The presidential power arc takes the elected candidate and just, well, sort of holds him/her for consideration for awhile, until s/he is either changed or at least influenced by those further up on the presidential ladder, or until his/her campaign platform has become less relevant or less important. It's a cooling method, and while insulation from the passions of an inflamed public can be a great thing in government, the iciness of this particular measure is, I think, a little out of proportion to the danger of the situation.... To put it bluntly, this is democracy with a fudge factor.
Andrew's main claim is that the democracy of the college will lessen with the adoption of the constitution. Seal assumes that a strong alumni voice will make for better goveranance and more democracy. But why should the College care what alumni have to say, especially when a significant subsection of the alumni are still fighting old battles? Our job as alumni is to donate early and often, not to ask questions. Does this seem callous or glib? Let me state is more formally: alumni governance is neither good governance nor very democratic. Mark Graber expertly summarizes my views on this issue:
Alumni democracy is highly likely to be bad democracy. Alumni have almost every characteristic that bodes ill for democratic governance. Most of us are poorly informed about the issues facing our alma mater, get what information we have from very biased sources, do not spend a much time becoming informed about the issues, and have little material incentive in the outcome of university controversies. In short, it is hard to think of an association more ripe for takeover by groups with unrepresentative agendas than an alumni democracy. Maybe I should form an association of Dartmouth alums in the teaching business that, in the guise of complaining about educational standards, would force Dartmouth professors to assign more of our writings. Would not be all that hard to do, which is one thing wrong with alumni democracy.

More significantly, alumni democracy is not democracy. A central feature of democracy is that the people whose lives are affected by the policy get to vote for the people who make the policy. Democracies are hardly perfect in this sense. Consider how many Iraqis got to vote in the 2004 election, even though the results may have been more important for their lives than most Americans. Still, the notion of alumni democracy seems akin to granting all Americans who served at least a year in Iraq a permanent vote in Iraqi elections. My life is insufficiently affected by what goes on at Dartmouth to justify my having an effective voice in college policy. As alumni, we ought to be more concerned about having an effective voice where we are, not where we were...

NONE OF OUR BUSINESS: LET STUDENTS, FACULTY, ADMINISTRATIVE, AND STAFF DECIDE WHAT DARTMOUTH WILL BE TODAY. The Dartmouth I went to had much good and some bad. Nothing I can do will change that past. But outside of giving advice, I think the present of Dartmouth and other universities should be decided by those who are there, not by those of us who want to impose unrepresentative agendas on young men and women.
And that's exactly right.