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Q&A with Dartmouth Board Chairman Ed Haldeman

Why are you expanding the Board without retaining parity between charter trustees and alumni trustees?

With one of the smallest Boards of any comparable school, Dartmouth has been at a competitive disadvantage.  So, we’re expanding the Board to directly involve more alumni in the College’s governance and ensure it has the broad range of backgrounds, skills, expertise, and fundraising capabilities needed to steward an institution of Dartmouth's scope and complexity. 

In doing this, we weighed the best mix between charter and alumni trustees.  Our major concern was that trustee elections have become so politicized, costly and divisive that they are alienating some of our most committed alumni volunteers and donors.  They threaten to harm the College’s reputation and hamper Dartmouth’s ability to recruit top faculty.  So we didn’t think having even more of these elections than the eight we already do was good for Dartmouth.  Adding more charter trustees also allows the Board to select more Trustees for the specific talents and experiences they can offer the College – which elections can’t guarantee. 

Still, Dartmouth will have among the highest proportion of alumni-nominated trustees of any comparable school as well as the opportunity for regular contested elections.  We think this is the best balancing of Dartmouth’s interest.

Why are you changing the trustee election system? Is this an attempt to make it harder for petition candidates to earn a place on the Board?

Absolutely not.  We believe having alumni trustees and contested elections helps give alumni a direct voice in our governance – and fosters greater alumni involvement in the College.  So Dartmouth will continue to be one of the few leading academic institutions that has trustee elections and guarantees candidates the right to petition directly onto the ballot

Some people have suggested that the so-called 1891 agreement guarantees parity between alumni and charter trustees.  Is that true?

The 1891 resolution simply says that alumni will nominate 5 trustee candidates and their successors.  It doesn’t promise parity.  Alumni today directly nominate 8 trustees and they’ll continue to do that under the changes we’re making.

The Board’s 1891 resolution was simply a non-binding resolution of the Board.  It’s one of many resolutions that have been adopted over the years regarding governance, and one the Board is free to amend, in fact is required to amend, if it determines that it’s in the best interest of the College to do so. 

It’s important for everyone to keep in mind that Dartmouth will continue to have among the highest proportion of alumni-nominated trustees on its Board and one of the most democratic Trustee election processes of any college in the country.

By expanding the number of charter trustee seats, is the Board simply looking to attract and appoint wealthy alumni who can make sizable donations to the College?

Throughout the College’s history, charter trustees have been selected based on how their professional expertise, skills, reputation, relationships and experiences will help the Board steward an institution of Dartmouth's scope and complexity.  The same is true today. 

In fact, the Governance Committee was very clear about the characteristics they’re looking for in new Board members, including their willingness and ability to serve, their professional background, a record of service and involvement with Dartmouth, other non-profit experience, and the diversity they bring to the Board.  They also were pretty clear in outlining some of the backgrounds and perspectives that could enhance the Board’s governance capabilities, including engineers, medical researchers, real estate experts, artists and authors, nonprofit leaders, and others who have dedicated their careers to public service.

Obviously, Dartmouth depends on alumni contributions to support its mission, including funding need-blind admission, attracting world-class faculty, developing new facilities and keeping Dartmouth at the leading edge of higher education.  So, the College also needs trustees who can lead by example in contributing to the College and inspire others to give as well.  But that’s only one of many other important attributes of a good Trustee.

Dartmouth’s small board has always been seen as a “plus” for the College.  Won’t a larger board be less effective and more difficult to manage? 

It’s pretty clear in looking at the experience of Dartmouth’s peer institutions — most of which have boards two, three, and even four times the size of ours — that we can increase the size of the College’s Board without losing its “working board” characteristics. 

In fact, a larger Board, with more trustees selected specifically because of the individual skills and expertise they can offer Dartmouth, will help ensure that the College benefits from a diverse range of backgrounds, perspectives and professional experiences.  That’s incredibly important, given how big and complex an institution like Dartmouth is – and given the new challenges the school is facing.  We’ll also be able to get more alumni directly involved in Dartmouth’s governance, which is a plus.  And we’ll have stronger leadership for capital campaigns and ongoing fundraising activities – which are necessary to fund need-blind admission, attract world-class faculty, develop new facilities and keep Dartmouth at the leading edge of higher education.

Even with these changes, Dartmouth will continue to have one of the smallest Boards of any of its peers - with 26 members at Dartmouth versus an average of 42 at other schools. 

Some might suggest that the recent vigorously contested elections have been good for Dartmouth.  Why does the Board think they’re harming the College?

Let’s be clear: in making these changes, the Board reaffirmed its commitment to alumni democracy and alumni trustee elections.  And we’ve maintained the important role that alumni play in our governance.  We fully accept and respect the outcome of recent trustee elections.  We’ve embraced the petition candidates as trustees, and treated them the same way we do any other member of the Board.

However, we don’t think the trend toward a highly politicized nomination process, which requires candidates to spend nearly $100,000 on all the trappings of a modern political campaign, is in the best interest of Dartmouth or its students. 

That’s why we’re making some slight modifications that we hope will create a fairer, less rancorous and more democratic process.

How do you feel about some of the petition trustees being so vocal in attacking the rest of the Board and the leadership of the College?  Do you think these trustees have been good for Dartmouth?

It's not really appropriate to talk about individual trustee performance.  Like all of the Board's work, that's a discussion that should take place in the Board room – among trustees – not at public forums or in national newspapers.

The full Board has embraced the petition candidates as trustees - treating them the same way we do any other member of the Board.

These governance changes are aimed at addressing problems with a politicized election process, not the trustees it’s produced. 

That said, I do think it’s inappropriate for Trustees to use words like "thuggery" and "dictatorship" to attack the College’s leadership in the media. I think we all can agree that's not good for Dartmouth.

Some people have suggested that these governance changes are intended to help a group of supposed “insiders” protect their position at the College.  How would you respond to that?

That’s ridiculous.  The Board is full of incredibly accomplished individuals who give generously of their time and talent to help make Dartmouth a better place.  They made these changes because they think it’s the best thing for Dartmouth.   And, frankly I find it ironic that people who haven’t supported the College would attack them as “insiders” and claim that a lack of involvement in College affairs makes someone more qualified to determine what’s best for Dartmouth.

What about the recent suggestion that President Wright is the one pushing hard for these changes?  Or, conversely, that he could have stopped the Board from making them?

These governance changes were driven by a significant majority of the Board – and what they think is best for Dartmouth and its students.  The Board is full of extremely independent and objective individuals – no one who knows people like Pam Joyner or Leon Black would suggest they’re going to be pushed to do anything but what they think is best.

These actions grew out of a thorough and thoughtful review of Dartmouth’s governance practices conducted by a committee composed of both “alumni” and “charter” trustees.  The committee received input from many alumni, students, faculty, parents, and staff as well as the insights of leading experts in university and non-profit governance.  And, the issues they’re addressing aren’t new to the College.  Almost all of them are issues raised in earlier governance reviews – well before Jim Wright became president.

The Board certainly supports the great things President Wright has done in leading the College, but these changes are driven by what individual Board members believe is best for Dartmouth.  And in fact, to remove any question whatsoever about his role in the Board’s actions, President Wright chose to recuse himself from both the Board’s deliberations and voting on these governance issues at the Minary retreat.

One of Dartmouth’s strengths has always been its rich history and unique character.  Why do the Trustees care how other schools organize their boards?

Like most alumni, the trustees have a deep respect for the College's rich history and traditions, and we cherish those things that have always made Dartmouth unique.  None of us are looking to change that.

As part of its review process, the Governance Committee took a look at governance practices at some of Dartmouth’s peer institutions and spoke with leading experts in non-profit and collegiate governance.  That’s the responsible thing to do – and would be a part of any governance review at any college in the country. 

But the changes the Board made were driven by what we thought was best for Dartmouth.  Practices at peer institutions were merely used as a point of comparison – showing us, for instance, that we have a significantly smaller board than most other schools, which has put Dartmouth at a competitive disadvantage with its peers.

The fact is that these changes maintain the unique role alumni have played in the College’s governance as well as the relatively small size of Dartmouth’s Board.  They also preserve the close working relationships and hands-on involvement in College life that have always distinguished service on the Dartmouth Board.