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.
The other principal contender is Stephen Smith. His career might have been written as a Horatio Alger tale. He grew up with a single mother in a municipal slum, worked his way up the slippery education ladder and became a student at Dartmouth. He then went on to the study of law and emerged among the happy few selected by a Supreme Court justice to clerk for one year. From there, Smith went to practice law in Washington and soon was drawn to the University of Virginia, where he holds a chair as a professor of law. He is a practicing Christian, a Catholic with five sons, and add to the above that he is a black American.
Smith's candidacy is backed by members of the Dartmouth community who several years ago resolved to observe closely the development of their college, and to protest trends deemed inimical to its welfare. One of these is the expansion of the administration, which in the last 10 years has grown much faster than the Dartmouth faculty. Professor Smith believes that Dartmouth should work diligently to renew its traditional commitment to having students taught in small classes by energetic and learned professors.
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.
It is difficult to understand the hostility so many colleges have toward alumni who are vigorous and devoted. I am myself a veteran of the painful experience of running against the establishment. In 1968, I was nominated as a dissident candidate (you need 500 votes to secure a spot on the voting registry). Official Yale all but collapsed with fear and loathing. They induced the most popular living alumnus to take time off from running the Department of Defense in order to run against me. True, 32 years later I received an honorary degree from Yale, as a prize for losing.
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.