State Rep. Maureen Mooney, R-Merrimack, is moving forward with plans to introduce a bill “relevant to amending the charter of Dartmouth College.” The bill, which Mooney signed off on Friday, seeks to repeal a 2003 law that gave the College the right to amend its charter without the permission of the state, according to an advanced draft copy of the proposed legislation obtained by The Dartmouth.
The extent to which the College controls its own future hangs in the balance.
“While we have not had an opportunity for an in-depth review of the proposal, we believe it is inappropriate for the state to intrude on the autonomy of the College or any other private not-for-profit institution on matters of internal governance,” Bob Donin, Dartmouth’s general counsel, said in a statement.
Mooney said that a group of alumni prompted the drafting of the bill, but she would not release their names, explaining that they had not given her permission to do so.
The legal effort appears to directly result from the ongoing governance controversy at the College, which is currently being played out in the courts since the Association of Alumni filed suit against the College on Oct. 3. This followed a September Board of Trustees resolution that calls for an additional eight new members.
The proposed bill represents the sixth piece of legislation related to the relationship between Dartmouth and the state of New Hampshire since 1819 and the storied case of Dartmouth v. Woodward. In that case, Dartmouth Class of 1801 alumnus Daniel Webster successfully argued that the state’s attempt in 1816 to change the College into a state university was unconstitutional, citing the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution. The state, it was decided, could not alter the Dartmouth’s charter without the College’s agreement.
In 1893, a law was passed that gave the Board of Trustees the right to meet without informing the state, but required all members of the board to be residents of New Hampshire. This was further liberalized in 1921, when the state allowed seven members of the board to be non-residents. The number of non-resident trustees allowed was increased to 11 in 1961 and any stipulation on residency was removed in 1967.
It was not until 2003 that the College was given the unilateral right to amend its charter without the involvement of the state, as long as the governor served on the College’s board of trustees as an ex officio member.
In repealing this law, Mooney’s legislation would allow the state to potentially “check” any changes the College makes to its charter.
“I think that when [alumni] see the Webster decision being codified almost 200 years after the decision and coincidentally all of this commotion with the Board of Trustees, quite a few of alumni are alarmed by that,” Mooney said. “I think quite a few of them see that as too coincidental ” I think they see it as an opportunity for a certain group at the College to completely take the reigns.”
Alumni should be adequately heard when it comes to “the direction of their alma mater,” Mooney said.
“Now I think the alumni realize this  bill has had unintended consequences, or, even scarier for the alumni, intended consequences that the alumni are not happy with,” she said.
Mooney said she hopes her bill will take the College “back to 2002, when Dartmouth as a courtesy would try to get more trustees through the legislature.”
While the chances of the bill being passed into law are unclear, it is notable that Rep. David Hess ’64, R-Merrimack, a co-sponsor of the 2003 bill, supports Mooney’s effort to repeal it.
Hess said he supports the legislation because \”there need to be some checks and balances in the system of Dartmouth governance that apparently do not exist.”
Hess would not comment on whether he agrees with the recent governance changes at the College.
Jim Varnum, former president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, a non-profit institution like the College, said that such institutions are defined by a lack of state involvement.
“The whole point is that [not-for-profit] organizations have been delegated the responsibility to determine how they operate,” Varnum said.
Mooney’s bill will be scheduled for a January or February public hearing.