The role of the college trustee is endlessly nibbled about in academic politics. Mostly, the college establishment is regnant. Trustees are expected to be affable creatures, preferably rich and generous. They are not expected to weigh in on college affairs, which are adequately handled by presidents, provosts, deans and lesser administrative folk.
In my book "God and Man at Yale," published 56 years ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of the somnolent college trustee. I prophesied that the role of the trustee would one day become a matter of earnest alumni concern, roiling the waters, and this certainly has happened at Dartmouth College.
There is a trustee election happening there this spring that has attracted the attention of critics from coast to coast. Here is the situation: Between April 1 and May 15, Dartmouth alumni will cast their votes. There are lesser candidates in the field, but essentially it is a race between Sandy Alderson, the candidate of the Dartmouth establishment, and petition candidate Stephen Smith.
A quick word is all that is necessary to contrast the candidates. Mr. Alderson is a clubby alumnus with a legal background and a hyper-active career as a baseball executive, not the worst way to gain favorable attention from patrons of the sport, who include the formidable George F. Will, Princeton Ph.D. and a man of sovereign judgment in most matters.
Three alumni in recent years have bucked the administration and won election on the premise that a college trustee should devote serious attention to what is going on, on campus. One is industrialist T.J. Rodgers; the second, Todd Zywicki, a professor at George Mason University School of Law; the third, Peter Robinson, a lively fellow of the Hoover Institution. They contended for seats as trustees and won with a majority of the alumni vote. They hope to welcome now as a fourth trustee the learned and eloquent Professor Smith, who, like them, is bent on preserving those traditions at Dartmouth that made it, over the years, so singular an institution of learning, so beloved of its alumni.
Social observers have to acknowledge that there is a role for independent-minded alumni trustees. In the case of Stephen Smith, someone who with every disadvantage known in the land (poverty, single parent, black skin) has triumphed, in an enormously competitive environment, against East Coast snobbery and insularity. This is a moment when one wishes one were an alumnus of Dartmouth, so that one could vote for Steve Smith.