Anti-suit ‘Unity’ slate sweeps ex. com. seats
By William Schpero, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, June 20, 2008
In a fatal blow to the Association of Alumni's lawsuit against the College, candidates critical of the suit swept all 11 of the Association's executive committee seats in the organization's annual election, according to results released June 10. The Association has since ended its engagement with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Williams and Connolly, which represented the organization in the suit.
The lawsuit should be withdrawn in the "near future," according to incoming Association President John Mathias '69.
"Now more than ever, Dartmouth alumni should be united in our support of the finest undergraduate college anywhere," Mathias said. "As we move forward, our Association will practice collaboration and persuasion and, as promised, we will take prompt action to ensure the dismissal of the lawsuit against Dartmouth."
Some alumni, however, have expressed interest in pursuing separate legal action, said John MacGovern '80, founder of The Hanover Institute. The Institute has raised money for the Association's legal effort and historically supported causes critical of current College policies and the administration of College President James Wright.
"That door certainly is not shut," MacGovern said, adding that some of the roughly $200,000 the Institute provided for the Association's suit remains available to support other legal efforts.
In an interview with The Dartmouth on Thursday, MacGovern also stated for the first time that his organization has received funds collected from alumni by DonorsTrust, a Washington D.C. organization with conservative ties.
The executive committee election was a contentious referendum on the Association's lawsuit, which seeks to block changes to the structure of the College's Board of Trustees. Approximately 60 percent of the votes in the election were cast for the anti-lawsuit "Unity" slate.
"Dartmouth alumni have expressed their support for ending the lawsuit against the College and pursuing a more collaborative and productive approach to governance," said David Spalding '76, vice president for Alumni Relations and a reelected member of the Association executive committee, in a statement.
A record 38 percent of alumni voted in the elections, which began April 28. In comparison, 28 percent of alumni voted last spring in the contest to choose a new trustee.
In its first meeting on June 10, the new executive committee voted to remove Frank Gado '58 as the Association's liaison to its legal counsel. Gado, who supports the lawsuit and lost his committee seat in the election, conceded in an interview that the anti-lawsuit slate had "won a resounding victory."
He also criticized his opponents for engaging in "smear tactics."
"They kept painting us as right-wing fanatics who were against coeducation," Gado said. "It created a climate of fear and depicted us as deeply reactionary, which is unfair and untrue. They won, I can't say they won fair and square, but they won and the reins are in their hands."
The committee designated Mathias as the new liaison to replace Gado and delegated to him "the full power and authority to direct the work of outside counsel and to take any and all actions to obtain the prompt dismissal of the lawsuit," Mathias said.
In addition to ending its relationship with Williams and Connolly, the Association also moved to terminate its engagement with Donovan Hatem, a Boston-based law firm that assisted Williams and Connolly in the Association's suit, Mathias said.
"The reason we did not continue the engagement is that the terms of the engagement were not satisfactory," Mathias said, adding that he would provide clarification once the suit has been withdrawn.
The Association will now be represented by the New Hampshire firm Upton and Hatfield. Former New Hampshire Bar Association President Russell Hilliard will serve as lead counsel.
The election results gain an added significance in light of the College's current search for its next president, Spalding said.
"My hope at this point is that the signal alumni have sent is that they do want Dartmouth alumni to come together and recommit ourselves to the very important missions of the College, especially at the time when we have an historic event underway," he said.
Six members of the executive committee originally voted to bring suit on Oct. 3, 2007 following a vote less than one month earlier by the College's Board of Trustees to increase its size by adding eight members not elected by alumni. This decision ended a century-old tradition of parity between the number of alumni-elected and Board-selected, or charter, trustees, and provided the impetus for a contentious debate within the alumni body that eventually reached the pages of national news publications, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The Board's decision came after a series of trustee elections in which candidates elected by petition, rather than nomination by the College's Alumni Council, had won. These candidates, including T.J. Rodgers '70, Peter Robinson '79, Todd Zywicki '88 and Stephen Smith '88, campaigned on similar platforms of change. These trustees opposed the September alterations to the Board's structure and filed an amicus brief in support of the Association's suit against the College on Dec. 7. Board Chairman Ed Haldeman '70 has refused in the past to comment on the election. Calls to Smith and Robinson were not returned.
"The alumni trustee nomination process has recently taken on the characteristics of a partisan political campaign, becoming increasingly contentious, divisive, and costly for the participants," the governance committee, a sub-committee of the Board, said in a statement last June. "Alumni have also raised questions about the fairness of the multiple-candidate, approval-voting, and plurality-winner features of the process. We believe these issues must be addressed, lest many highly qualified alumni be dissuaded from seeking nomination."
In bringing suit, the Association executive committee argued that the trustees were contractually obligated to maintain parity as the result of an 1891 Board resolution. The Grafton County Superior Court rejected the College's motion to dismiss the case in February, and the case had been scheduled for trial in November.
The 40-day voting period in the Association executive committee elections featured active campaigning by interest groups founded to support each slate of candidates. Dartmouth Undying and Dartmouth Parity, the two organizations involved, mailed, phoned and e-mailed alumni to build support for their respective candidates. This campaigning led to accusations of push-polling against both organizations and allegations that Dartmouth Undying had placed misleading political advertisements. Several Dartmouth alumni affinity groups, including the Dartmouth Asian Pacific American Alumni Organization and the Dartmouth Association of Latino Alumni, also campaigned on behalf of the anti-lawsuit candidates.
The Association elections also marked the first time students played an active role in alumni political affairs. Students circulated petitions supporting candidates on both sides of the lawsuit and several students received payment for making calls on behalf of Dartmouth Undying.
Although the lawsuit will be withdrawn in the next few weeks, the possibility of future legal action and further disputes over Board parity call into question whether the Association elections will end the debate on the College's system of governance.