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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Remarks by President James Wright to the Alumni Council

December 1, 2006

Welcome to the 193rd Meeting of the Alumni Council of Dartmouth College! Susan and I are very pleased to be here with you. And it is great to have Board of Trustees chair Bill Neukom here along with trustee Al Mulley.  They are tireless in their volunteer efforts on behalf of the College. 

I would also like to thank Martha Beattie for her energy, commitment, and leadership-another tireless and dedicated volunteer, in a room full of them. And before I move on, I want to acknowledge and to thank Bill Walker, the Vice President of Public Affairs and an adopted member of the Class of 1971, for his service to Dartmouth. This week President Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced the appointment of William Walker as Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations. Thank you, Bill, for all you have done.

I especially enjoy the opportunity to salute the alumni award winners - Kelley Fead '78 and Otho Kerr '79. Kelley, you have my thanks and appreciation for the many long hours you devoted to the Alumni Constitution, to your other volunteer work including the Alumni Council, and to your support of our students - offering words of wisdom, and inviting them to join you in your passion for writing.

Otho, over the past several years your enthusiasm and dedication brought participation in the College Fund to amazing new levels - thank you for your motivating spirit. You give so generously of your time to Dartmouth student and alumni causes, and your quiet leadership on the Council and in all other areas now deserves to be proudly acknowledged.

This College depends upon committed energetic volunteers. These two graduates define that, and you have done well to recognize them.

We have had a full term, including a conference on the politics of memory to honor President Freedman, and another on ethics across the curriculum. Romila Thapar, the Indian historian, was here as a Montgomery Fellow, taught a very successful course, and gave a public lecture. Susan and I have attended many athletic events, and I joined a large group of Dartmouth alumni at the final football game of the season at Princeton.

We dedicated eight new dormitories (Berry, Bildner, Byrne, Goldstein, Rauner and Thomas in the McLaughlin Cluster), a new social space called Occom Commons, (provided by a donor who wished to remain anonymous but who was willing to name the facility after Samson Occom, one of the founders of Dartmouth), Fahey and McLane Halls on Tuck Mall, the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center, Kemeny Hall, and the Haldeman Academic Centers. These are all wonderful buildings, and I hope you get a chance to see them. They have already added immeasurably to the academic and residential experience of our students and will help Dartmouth maintain the quality of a Dartmouth education. We also had the groundbreakings for the Tuck Living and Learning Center and the Whitey Burnham soccer facility. These dedications have underlined for me the importance of people, of relationships, of community in the Dartmouth story as the names of new donors mixed with historical supporters of the College and three Dartmouth presidents were recognized, by the McLaughlin Cluster, Kemeny Hall, and the Dickey Center for International Understanding, housed in Haldeman. 

How lucky we are to have such generous friends. Indeed, community has been a constant theme this term. We pride ourselves, rightly, I think, on the special sense of community that exists at Dartmouth. It is something that attracts prospective students and faculty to come here, it is something that keeps faculty and staff here year after year, and it is something that binds Dartmouth alumni to this College for a lifetime - indeed, in the Dartmouth fellowship there is no parting.

I have been working on a revised mission statement this term as well. It is not that Dartmouth's mission has changed - it has not. The College aspires to offer the best education possible to its students and to encourage the creation of new knowledge by faculty and students. But it is good to revisit these things and ensure that our statement of purpose continues to be relevant and useful to the community. Our current mission statement dates back to the 1980s and is a good statement - but it is long and descriptive where I would like something that is crisper, shorter, and more aspirational. I have met with many different groups of students, faculty, alumni, and staff, and discussed this with the trustees in September and again at our November meeting. One of the values that came through in every meeting was the special sense of community. It was very gratifying. Although we often talk about "Dartmouth as a community", it was wonderful to hear others affirm it is a real thing.

We have had occasion recently to consider what community means here. Unfortunately, this term we have had a series of thoughtless acts that have hurt some members of our community. Native American students in particular have experienced a number of incidents where they have been ridiculed or caricatured.

This week, students held a rally to protest some of the incidents that had occurred and to affirm the values that distinguish Dartmouth. It was a very positive experience with lots of students and other members of this community talking about what we valued. I was pleased to participate. I affirmed that this College was founded for Native American education - and, implicit assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, while Dartmouth is not the property of any group, it was, and is, their College as much as anyone's.  I was delighted that Martha Beattie could also speak. Martha talked about her experience as a member of the first coeducational class at Dartmouth and the powerful bonds that unite the Dartmouth family.

This rally in front of Dartmouth Hall on Wednesday was unlike others that I have seen over the past 37 years. The speakers were often hurt and angry, but they stressed our common obligation to reach out and to affirm that this community belongs to all of us - and we are all responsible for protecting it.  They embraced their College and they defended it.

Obviously, this fall we have also seen some divisions within the alumni body as well, as alumni debated the proposed constitution.  In retrospect it was a curious thing, having as it did some national interest.  The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal seemed quite taken by it all. 

If you follow some of the blogs, I understand there was hand-wringing and a sense that democracy, as well as the future of the College, was at stake.  The emotions picked up and some hurtful accusations flew about. And this debate circled around a complicated set of constitutional changes that few people outside of the committees or their most vigilant and tireless opponents could have described in any detail.

Yet...this was not a major matter on campus really, except The Dartmouth ended up being a forum for debate and accusations. I am not sure how many students read these and followed the disputes, but the volume and intensity seeped through a bit. Some students, faculty, and administrators expressed concern about the future of the College. If some of our graduates believed they were engaged in a battle at Armageddon, if the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal described it as a contest to regain control over the College from the leftists who were running things with the connivance of "ornamental" trustees, then I guess it is not surprising that people here started to worry. Even if few of them could have really summarized what it was all about. And some of my Board colleagues who supported the constitution found themselves described as leftists for the first time in their lives!

What was it all about? You will know that while I and the administration did try to stay out of the campaign, I supported the proposed constitution. I respected the hard work that went into it over the last few years.  And I respected the people who tried to find ways through some of the conflicts and criticisms to develop a product that would advance alumni governance.

I would like to thank the many people in this room who contributed to this effort including Jim Adler, J.B. Daukas, Kelley Fead, and Joe Stevenson, who headed the committee.

It lost. Following a vigorous campaign on all sides and a historic level of participation, alumni did not give it a majority, much less the two-thirds support it required. Basically, we split down the middle. It is my view that all of this signals that it is time to give the efforts at alumni governance reorganization a rest. Let us work with the existing structure.

Does this mean that alumni are split down the middle on the direction of the College? I think not - surely we are not split down the middle on providing here the strongest comprehensive student learning experience in the country; we are not split down the middle on the need to recruit, retain, and enable faculty who are leaders in their fields and share in a passion for teaching and mentoring Dartmouth students; we are not split down the middle on the need to protect need-blind admissions and make Dartmouth truly welcoming to all students, regardless of their background or their family's means. We are not split down the middle because these values and this sense of purpose are the center of our legacy and are at the core of our shared responsibility. Alumni survey results confirm regularly that support for the College is far more substantial than is disenchantment. Far more. We are not split down the middle.  In fact a number of voters who are supportive of the College and its direction said that they did not support the new constitution.

This College has always had sharp edges and those of us who care for Dartmouth have always had sharp elbows. We debate and dispute energetically.

This has been an essential quality of Dartmouth and of the loyalty the school engenders. But we have seldom been at war with ourselves nor have we ever embraced a culture that assumes this state of affairs will be the norm. As we go forward now, I worry about institutionalizing a state of conflict.

I believe that under the proposed constitution, the change in trustee nomination process was an improvement over the existing system. It was based on an important assumption, one that I do not like but that I reluctantly have to admit that I could not deny: that we may now be in a mode of constantly contested elections. I do not mean the conflict inherent but never material in the multiple candidate system we have had for 15 years. I mean the conflict that follows when petition candidates challenge the entire slate and run against the state of the College. The presumption that the Alumni Governance Task Force seemed to share was that there will regularly be a petition candidate for alumni nomination to the Board of Trustees. If this is going to be the case, providing for a clear head-to-head election as proposed in the new document would be preferable to the current system, where the nominated candidates split the votes in the face of a well-organized and disciplined petition bullet vote effort. No one can deny that the current voting system as it is understood and practiced favors the petition candidate.

Over the years, alumni voting on trustee nominations has resulted in very strong trustees who have served the College and the Board well. The first three chairs under whom I served, Steve Bosworth, Bill King, and Susan Dentzer, were all nominated by you, and the College is the better as a result of their work.

I have some concerns about trusteeship under the current and continuing system -acknowledging that I get on well with all of the three trustees nominated as petition candidates, Peter Robinson, TJ Rodgers, and Todd Zwyicki. So let me be very clear that my concern is not with them - they were nominated fairly and I voted along with my Board colleagues to elect them to the Board, unanimously - but it is with the prospects of this selection process longer term on the governance of the College.

Perhaps a fundamental question, one that was only implicitly engaged in the debate just concluded, is how do we govern Dartmouth?  And this relates to my earlier observation that a number of groups and constituencies will claim proprietorship over the College.  I would deny any such claims.  The Board of Trustees is responsible for the College.  This is a $4.7 billion organization that is considered one of the top institutions in the country despite being less wealthy than our competitors and despite - I might say because of  - being smaller than they are. Can we continue to recruit the strongest students, the faculty who are our lifeblood? Can we secure the financial support we require and sustain the public support and recognition we deserve, if we are viewed as at war with ourselves? Can we run an audacious and essential $1.3 billion capital campaign if annually we face petition candidacies essentially running against the direction of the College?  Can we manage Dartmouth if we are now institutionalizing a polarizing party system?

We have the smallest Board of any of our competitors and we have traditionally turned to alumni to nominate nearly half of the membership, a proportion significantly higher than any other school in our category or class. We have varying Board needs - Dartmouth needs, actually - to make certain that there are trustees who can bring to the Board table experience in fields such as investment oversight, administration and management, marketing and human relations, insurance, legal affairs, and real estate management. We need to have trustees who can represent the interests and purposes of the professional schools and who have professional experience in higher education.

We are committed to having a Board that is diverse in background and in viewpoints. Board engagement is absolutely crucial to the success of the capital campaign. Successful campaigns in any organization or institution always depend upon Board philanthropy. My fear is that we may soon find ourselves in a situation where "electability" will also be a prime factor, perhaps the dominant factor, in alumni nominations-and the College will be the loser as a result.  The Charter seats will simply be unable to sustain all of the other needs.

I am grateful to the nominating committee for the slate they have proposed to you this weekend. What a strong and accomplished set of graduates. I am grateful to the candidates themselves for agreeing to be nominated. It is hard to imagine an improvement on this group. From what I know of them, each would be an exceptional trustee. But despite this there apparently will still be petition candidates - at least some have already professed their intent, independent of the actual slate. What we all need to acknowledge, and what is a matter of concern, is that if a petition contest is assured regardless of the candidates identified through the nominating process established by the alumni/ae, we should not assume that we will always be able to see such strong and compelling individuals agree to allow their names to go forward. What an unfortunate turn of events that would be.

If that would be the case, the Board and the College would be deprived of trustees such as Bosworth, King, and Dentzer - along with  Jon Newcomb,  Peter Fahey, Nancy Jeton, Christine Bucklin, Michael Chu, John Donahoe,  and Jose Fernandez, all of whom were nominated under the current system.

I am speaking out on this tonight candidly not as a forum to grouse over the election. It lost and quite frankly the underlying issue would be there in any event.  I speak because I have served this College now for more than 37 years. I have a few more left in me and I have things to do - but the responsibility I hold as the sixteenth member of the succession established by Eleazar Wheelock is not one that provides for silence in the face of concern about the College.  I am concerned - despite our obvious strength.

This institution has never been in better condition:  our students are exceptional and they care deeply about Dartmouth; the faculty are committed scholars and passionate teachers; our athletic programs have never been stronger; the Greek system is alive and well; the finances and administration of the College are strong and committed; our commitment to strong two-way communications with alumni is unequivocal.  These have been matters misunderstood in some of our earlier campaigns.  So now I intend to communicate these qualities clearly when critics distort the strength and values of the College. The time for silence is over.

We need your help. That same sense of community, of coming together, that we saw demonstrated this Wednesday in front of Dartmouth Hall, needs to resonate through our ranks. Our common values and shared purpose must bring us together in support of our College. We need you to help us to communicate these values and to engage your fellow alumni so they can participate in conversations and healthy debate that will contribute to our ongoing need to improve and strengthen Dartmouth. Doing this is our legacy and now it is our responsibility.

In 1909 at an alumni dinner, President William Jewett Tucker said to the assembled guests,

[the] College is not so much an institution as it is a movement, a procession.... The perpetuity of the College lies in this ceaseless movement of life, in this ever-flowing stream which reaches the sea only to replenish the springs.

Dartmouth is indeed a movement. Join and engage.  The Hill Winds Call. Thank you for all that you do to answer that call. 

Last Updated: 8/21/08