"Communication" is a big buzzword for alumni leaders, nearly three months after the voluntary dismissal of the Association of Alumni's lawsuit to block planned governance changes. Board Chair Ed Haldeman '70 invited newly elected leaders J.B. Daukas '84 of the Alumni Council and John Mathias '69 of the Association of Alumni (AoA) to participate in a Q&A in Hanover in early September. All three had just participated in a joint meeting of two new committees formed to enhance communication among alumni, trustees, and the administration: the Board's Alumni Relations Committee and the Council's Alumni Liaison Committee.
One year ago, the Board asked both the Council and the Association to work to improve the alumni trustee nomination process. Conversations on election reforms began in earnest in summer 2008. This interview was conducted on Sept. 12 by Diana Pearson, vice president for communications.
Q: Please describe the roles of the Board, Council, and Association.
ED HALDEMAN '70, CHAIR, BOARD OF TRUSTEES: The role of the Board is to serve as the ultimate governing authority of the institution. We don't run the College on a day-to-day basis. But we are responsible for long-term strategic direction.
J.B. DAUKAS '84, PRESIDENT, ALUMNI COUNCIL: The Alumni Council's job is to represent alumni. The Council is comprised of 120 members who represent classes, geographic groups, affiliated groups, and alumni through other groupings.
JOHN MATHIAS '69, PRESIDENT, ASSOCIATION OF ALUMNI: The difference between the Association of Alumni and the Alumni Council is that every person who has matriculated at Dartmouth is a member of the Association of Alumni. Our principal function is conduct of elections.
Q: How do the Board, the Council, and the Association support the student experience?
MATHIAS: I'll start with that because I have four children here now and another who graduated in 2007. It's September, so they're just starting again. At the beginning and at the end of the day, it's all about them. It's not really at all about us. The most important thing here, day in and day out, is the education of students. So if you don't care about that, you've got no business being an alumni leader. For anything extraneous to enter into the experience of these students is not a good thing. It's particularly not a good thing for alumni dissonance to be on the front page of The Dartmouth. At least part of what we're trying to do in election reform is to take issues off the front page that don't belong there.
With all of the confusion that goes into these alumni elections, if we're confused, they're going to be confused. It doesn't work out. The reason we're going to go through this election reform is for the betterment of the educational experience here at Dartmouth.
HALDEMAN: I think you've got it right, John. I think the reason that Dartmouth has so many committed alumni who give so generously to Dartmouth of their time and resources is because they care so much about the student experience. And I think that is true of alumni who line up on issues with me and also true of alumni who might disagree with me on many issues.
DAUKAS: I'd add to that and to steal a line, "It's about the students, stupid." That's what Dartmouth's really all about. The alumni body is a terrific asset. But when we get into Washington-style politics with ads in national newspapers and proclamations that we need to "Save Dartmouth," as though Dartmouth is about to run up on the rocks, it sullies the College's reputation. It's a distraction. At the end of the day it's not all about us. The primary mission of the College is all about what's best for the students.
Q: One year ago, the Board recommended changes in the process for alumni to nominate trustees. What are those changes?
HALDEMAN: When we issued our Governance Report, we made it clear that the strong preference of the Board of Trustees was to continue to have the AoA, working with the Alumni Council, be responsible for the elections. We outlined three major precepts that we thought were required in any ongoing election process. Those three precepts are:
1) That the Alumni Council nominate either one or two candidates for each alumni trustee position.
2) That there continue to be direct-to-ballot petitioning that was no more restrictive than the current petition process.
3) That there be an election process where each alumnus gets one vote for a single candidate. And finally, that the winning candidate has to have an absolute majority of the votes cast.
We encouraged the Alumni Council, working with the AoA, to come up with specifics, subject to those three precepts.
Q: You've been talking for a few months about these election reforms and how your organizations work together. What are your goals now?
MATHIAS: Shortly after we were elected [in June], I got a call from Ed. I hadn't had much contact with the Board on a personal level. To have the chair call me right away, I felt, was a great development.
Since that time it's been nothing but an open door as far as the Board is concerned. What they're asking us to do is to simplify the election process so that everybody understands exactly what they're voting for. Clarity is a good thing and it's been a good process.
DAUKAS: My view is similar. I would expand on the interaction we've had with the Board, with Ed in particular, but also with other trustees. The Alumni Council this past year created a new committee, the Alumni Liaison Committee, to convey alumni sentiment [to the Board]. Our purpose is to engage in a two-way dialogue with the Board of Trustees and the administration to help make sure the alumni sentiment is heard, and that alumni understand the current state of the College and the stewardship of the Board of Trustees.
We have met in person several times with trustees, including members of the Governance Committee, and also the Alumni Relations Committee of the Board of Trustees. We've also had conference calls, and we've met on a one-to-one basis. We've seen a terrific amount of interaction and exchange. This is a golden age of opportunity for the alumni-College relationship to continue to improve.
HALDEMAN: J.B., the meeting that we had in your office this summer, August 4, was a historic meeting in some sense. We had essentially every member of the AoA Executive Committee, and four trustees: myself; Jim Wright; Christine Bucklin '84, the chair of the Governance Committee; and John Donahoe '82, the chair of the Alumni Relations Committee. We had four or five key members of the Alumni Council all in the same room. In terms of the history of Dartmouth, that's probably not been too common an occurrence, to get all those people in one room.
Q: These meetings followed the June AoA election and the voluntary dismissal of the lawsuit against the College. What are the next steps?
MATHIAS: Well, let me back up just a little bit, about the signals that we got from the election. Alumni don't want public fighting, they don't want any courtroom fighting. They want collaboration. They have every reason to expect that they're going to get that out of their alumni leadership.
Ed mentioned that our 11-member Executive Committee met in the Boston offices of J.B.'s law firm, which we did. There were no subjects at all that were off the table.
It was an excellent example of how collaboration and cooperation can move the ball forward, including, I might add, the number of alumni trustees, which has always been a subject of discussion from the minute we were elected. Ed knows that among the first conversations I had with him were to raise those issues and I've been with J.B. when he's raised those issues again. So we're all now focused on a process that I think is going to unfold over time. The first and most important thing that we're going to be working on is election reform.
HALDEMAN: That spirit of collaboration, which was started during the course of this summer, continued just this morning, when we had a joint meeting of the Alumni Relations Committee of the Board with the Alumni Liaison Committee [of the Council].
DAUKAS: The Alumni Liaison Committee has reached out. We included the president and the past presidents of the AoA, and alumni who are not members of the Alumni Council or the Association Executive Committee. So it's a 12-person body whose purpose is to carry on this two-way dialogue. We had a very productive meeting this morning.
Part of what came out of that meeting was a commitment moving forward to meet on an ongoing basis throughout the year, and for us to work together in the best interest of Dartmouth College. The Alumni Liaison Committee, in its six short months of existence, had pulled together a report with about a thousand different communications from alumni on a range of different topics, areas of concern, questions, kudos. We provided that to the Board several weeks in advance of the meeting. The Board was very receptive to that.
Q: A record number of alumni voted in this election-38 percent. How do you increase involvement?
MATHIAS: It's record participation, so this is a good thing. We welcome that, and the opportunity to educate our alumni body concerning what the situation is here at Dartmouth on an everyday basis as well as what the real issues might be that alums ought to be concerned about. As we go forward we have a lot of work to do. The Alumni Council's Alumni Liaison Committee, which J.B. just mentioned, has created a mechanism whereby the alumni can express their views or ask questions.
But as importantly, over the next couple of months, we are going to be undertaking a process of making elections even better. If we have that many people participating, we want to make sure that they do so in a system that they understand, that's simplified, that issues are clarified and that when they speak, their voices will be heard.
Q: As new leaders of the Council and the Association, J.B. and John, what makes you so passionate about volunteering your time?
MATHIAS: When I was here originally I was a financial aid student. When I graduated I made up my mind that it was my obligation to repay the generosity of the alums who had built this College. My parents didn't go to college. All of the opportunities I have had here have been given to me by other alums. I always felt that I owe Dartmouth and not vice versa. Because of my five Dartmouth children, I had a pretty good idea as to what was actually happening on campus, as any parent would, and some of the things that were being said and done by alumni politicians did not ring true or sit well with me. I'm proud of the fact that there were ten of us besides myself who stood up and ran for the Executive Committee offices under the circumstances. There's only one kind of alum. That's the good one. There are not two classes of Dartmouth alums. There's not the good and the bad or the insider and the outsider. There's one class. And we're all committed to the same common good.
DAUKAS: Probably most of the 69,000 alumni would have the same sort of thing to say about why we're all so passionate about Dartmouth. So much of what I am, I trace back to Dartmouth. I think it becomes part of your character. I think of us as just a big family. We're a family that sometimes has its squabbles and that's fine. But it's good to keep those things within the family and I think that's part of what the recent success of John's slate in the election shows. I came to this as someone who had some concerns about the College in the '80s and '90s. I was a dissident; I ran as the petition candidate for the Association several times, losing all the way. Finally, as someone who had been opposed to a constitutional change before, I was asked to be involved in a committee to talk about coming up with something that made more sense. Eventually I was pulled onto the Alumni Council.
I've heard people sometimes say, "Oh, the Alumni Council is a bunch of insiders." I guess I'm the poster boy to tell you that that's not true. I would agree with John that there's only one kind of Dartmouth alum. In the recent election I would hear some people talk about not wanting to vote, not wanting to get involved. The number of alumni voting, four out of ten, is very high for an Association election. But in the recent trustee election, it was three out of 10 alumni voting. We've got seven out of 10 alumni who don't vote in trustee elections. We have elections in which only 15 percent of alumni actually vote for the person who's successful. That's not a good way to run a railroad. Every alumnus has an obligation, based on what Dartmouth has given them and meant to them, to stay somewhat informed about the College, and to participate at least to the extent of voting in these important elections.
HALDEMAN: J.B., it's sort of ironic, don't you think, that the first time we met you were representing something of a dissident group? That was only four years ago. I've only been on the Board for four years. It is interesting to think how closely we work together today.
Q: These conversations coincide with the search process for the next president of Dartmouth. Ed, can you talk about that task?
HALDEMAN: This current academic year will be a critically important year for Dartmouth. We are going to select a new president. The good news is that we have a wonderful search committee and a great search chair, Al Mulley '70. They are working very hard on behalf of Dartmouth. I'm optimistic that we're going to have a very successful search. The job is not over when we choose the new president. We have to make sure that the new president gets off to a good start. I know the Board, the AoA Executive Committee, and the Alumni Council will all be part of making sure that the transition is a successful one.
Q: Do you have closing thoughts?
MATHIAS: I really believe that we're all on the same page here. We all have this common interest when it comes to simplifying the election procedures. The more people who understand exactly what we're trying to do, what the Board has asked us to do, and why it makes so much good sense, the easier it will be for us to accomplish our short-range goal of reform and then our longer-range goals of continuing the discussions about other issues that are important to our constituents, including the number of alumni-nominated trustees. So I'm really optimistic and I'm really looking forward to this. To be continued ... stay tuned over the next couple of months.
DAUKAS: I would agree that simplifying the election rules and making them more rational and fairer is the objective here. Also, I'd like to stress again that this is a terrific time for the College and for the alumni in terms of the relationship that the alumni have with the College. The trustees and the administration are very anxious to hear from us and have reached out to us. With regard to alumni voting, I'd say, "Use it or lose it."
HALDEMAN: I'd just like to thank John and J.B. for their leadership and the cooperation that they have shown to the Board of Trustees. I think we're working well together and I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to come up with an election process that is simpler, more fair, less divisive, and better for Dartmouth.
Last Updated: 10/8/08