Hang One, Warn a Thousand
By T. J. Rodgers, Guest columnist and a trustee of the College
Published on Wednesday, April 22, 2009
"Hang one, warn a thousand" says the ancient Chinese proverb. In its April meeting, the Dartmouth Board of Trustees hanged Todd Zywicki '88, thus warning the petition trustees -- and any others tempted to express independent views -- not to cross the party line. The Board's action was coldly deliberate. The legal machinery by which it was achieved took two years to construct.
Every 20 years or so, when a majority of the alumni body decides that the College is ignoring a critical problem, it elects petition trustees to promote change. That tradition, a healthy method of governance that sets Dartmouth apart, goes back to 1891, when alumni were formally granted one-half of Dartmouth's Board seats in return for financing the College.
"Swim team" was the rallying cry behind my election in 2004. The alumni were angry because we all knew of administrative programs that should have been cut before the swim team (which has not won a single Ivy League meet since being devastated by the Board in 2002). After my election, I found that Dartmouth's teaching was also suffering from underfunding. A group of faculty members told me in a private meeting that Dartmouth relied too much on temporary teachers, and that there were so many closed-out classes that it disrupted the education plans of majors in popular departments like economics and government.
Subsequently, the alumni elected three more petition trustees with views similar to mine: Peter Robinson '79, Todd Zywicki '88 and Stephen Smith '88. It was no accident that each of them was a university professor or scholar. The Board Majority, predominantly composed of investment bankers, could have benefitted greatly from the new trustees' education-first viewpoint, but instead, we were treated as if we were attacking the College. We were actually called a "radical cabal" trying to "hijack" the College by the Board member whose seat I had taken. The petition trustees had successfully overcome the penny-ante counterattacks, such as denying us the ability to mail our petitions to alumni to request signatures, and raising the required number of petition signatures, so it came time for the Board Majority to fix the petition trustee "problem" permanently.
First, the Majority Board members simply declared the right to double their number from eight to 16 without adding an equivalent number of alumni trustees, despite an Association of Alumni poll of 4,000 alumni, who responded in favor of alumni trustee parity, 92 percent to eight percent. Then, the Majority threw its weight and College funds into a campaign to remove the Association leaders who had sued the College for breaking the 1891 Agreement.
In the boardroom, the Majority rewrote the 50 year-old Trustee Oath into an oath of loyalty, which was designed, in part, to limit trustees' ability to express dissenting viewpoints without the direct threat of being ejected from the Board. And finally -- fatally for Todd Zywicki -- the Majority installed a formal review process that judged trustees against the new oath on a line-by-line basis.
On the day of his trial, Zywicki was asked if he wanted to make a statement. He apologized again for his Pope Center speech and exited. In order to maintain the confidentiality of board proceedings, I cannot give details. However, I can say from personal knowledge that many of the statements made in that meeting about Todd Zywicki were factually incorrect, but Todd was not there to respond. In my opinion, all of the issues, including his speech, did not rise to the level of negating the votes of the alumni who elected Todd. Despite my objection, the vote -- for the only time in my five years on the Board -- was secret.
Later, as I watched, Todd was told in a hallway that he had been ejected. He was not given the vote count or even the reasons for his ejection. I walked him to his rental car and watched him leave Hanover, perhaps for the last time.
Todd was offered the option to save himself -- to resign before the vote and slink out of town. Todd Zywicki's greatest achievement as a Dartmouth trustee may well be having the personal courage to force the Board Majority to take responsibility for a political lynching.