July 2, 2006

Catching up on the Alumni Constitution Battle

I've honestly not been following the recent coverage--in the Times, in the D, on the blogs--of the "long and tedious havoc," to borrow a line from Milton, that has been continuing to unfold over the past two or three weeks. I'll do a little catching up now, maybe some later.

Sara del Nido wrote "A Political Microcosm" for the D, in which she characterizes the defense of the constitution pretty accurately, I think:
Supporters of the constitution reply that the proposition is not a response to the particular claims of the three recently-elected trustees, but rather that it is a long-planned effort to, in the words of chairman William Neukom '64, create "a more democratic, more participatory form of alumni self-governance."
The latter part of this (everything after "not a response to the particular claims of the three recently-elected trustees") is quite true.

But more participation, even more democracy, does not mean more fairness. Peter Robinson made an egregiously hyperbolic comparison to Stalin, voting, and Eastern Europe sometime recently, but one need not be that dramatic to realize that the constitution can both successfully involve more people in the process of governance and also just as successfully constrict the way that participation functions. The board giveth, and the board taketh away.

What the constitution gives is a static, idle democracy that seems focused entirely on collecting inputs, without much thought given to how some outputs might be gotten out, or even what those outputs might be. Sure, the Constitution would likely introduce a broader level of participation in alumni governance, but I cannot help but think that breadth in this case precludes the addition of depth as well. I mean, I'd like to think that the new structure(s) introduced in the Constitution will allow a significantly larger number of people the chance to be creative agents in the process of alumni governance, but I'm not entirely convinced that will happen, and I'm not sure it's even intended to do so.

The presidential power arc (going from vice president to president-elect to president to past president) really bothers me because it is, quite simply, the most blatant sign that there is a massive distrust among the drafters of this constitution of the dynamics of personal choice. This complete lack of faith in the alumni body of Dartmouth College is what this structure, or any structure so ordered, reveals. The presidential power arc takes the elected candidate and just, well, sort of holds him/her for consideration for awhile, until s/he is either changed or at least influenced by those further up on the presidential ladder, or until his/her campaign platform has become less relevant or less important. It's a cooling method, and while insulation from the passions of an inflamed public can be a great thing in government, the iciness of this particular measure is, I think, a little out of proportion to the danger of the situation.

This all is essentially my response to Josiah Stevenson's defense of the Constitution, which can be found here. Stevenson states, "The proposed constitution significantly improves the democratic processes of electing alumni trustees and creates a vastly stronger alumni organization." I have before outlined why the second predicate bothers me, but the first predicate is the key here.

To reiterate: Yes, the Constitution does have measures in it that will increase democratic participation. But yes, it does have measures that are both unfair and pretty obviously designed to be so. To put it bluntly, this is democracy with a fudge factor.

But I am not at all of the opinion that this fudge factor is meant to advance a specific agenda—this is a defensive strategy, I feel, not an attempt at setting up a junta or an effort to carry Dartmouth to new heights/depths of imitating Harvard. I am sick of the conservative insurgents vs. liberal insiders rhetoric, and I'm sick of the conspiratorial accusations coming from both sides. I feel that this whole issue is just one big petty pity party, though not for people who really have any coherent vision of what they want Dartmouth to be, but rather for people who have one of two visions of what they desperately want Dartmouth not to be. If it were the former—two groups of people who had actual, positive, albeit conflicting, visions of Dartmouth—I think we might actually get somewhere. But instead we have two competing Dartmouth Dystopias repelling people into two camps whose only internal cohesion comes from the fear and repugnance of a common bugbear.

C'mon Dartmouth, we can do better than that.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew: Your readers might find the following of interest. It was posted previously on the AGTF site. My apologies for not knowing how to insert a link to the specific comment in that thread.

    Is the Proposed Governance Representative, Democratic, and Open?

    The AGTF proposal creates an Assembly that, through incorporation into the Association and Association committees, gives this group considerable influence. It is clearly more efficient than the existing Council, for example being tied to the overall Association leadership arc for continutiy. It is also more "representative", being larger and having more individuals representing more classes/clubs/groups.

    But when we address the most important topic of College governance, i.e. trustee elections, the governance structure is touted as also being more democratic and open.

    DEMOCRATIC? Imagine that in order to form a more perfect, and representative, union, we change our form of national governance. (I know there are differences, but bear with me.)
    We eliminate the bicameral legislature, and create a single chamber. Some small number of representatives are elected on a nation-wide basis, based upon the majority (and only the majority) of all citizens across this diverse land. They then convene in a single congress with a much larger number of senators. To insure many voices, there are some senators representing states (geography/clubs), some representing age groups (classes), some representing special groups whose common bond is race/ethnicity/sexual orientation, but excluding gender, and a small number representing the interests of the civil service that exists to carry out the will the governors. There are no guidelines for how all these senators get elected, or even a requirement that all the people they represent can participate in their election.

    There is a executive branch, with four leaders who transition across roles, but who cannot be displaced as a group if the populace wants a change of administration. Any newly-elected leader assumes a role of lesser power in minority to the three remaining incumbents.

    The executive and Assembly are intertwined in their relationship. There is no legal branch of government to serve as a check and balance. If the populace believes those in power are creating laws ("guidelines") that do not serve well, they have no recourse except to await a new election and then vote out a portion of the Assembly and executive officers. Oh wait, election guidelines are set by the incumbents without a court to review. And remember, the individuals in the electorate are not even guaranteed of being able to vote out their senators, only the nationwide reps who are in the minority.

    Would anyone really call such a structure "democratic"? The AGTF loses credibility with this choice of word... please call it more efficient, or even more of a meritocracy, but not a democracy as we all commonly regard one.

    OPEN? How exactly is the Assembly/Association leadership more "open" visibility-wise than what we have today? The proposers in fact specifically reject a simple requirement that individual votes of representatives be published. Again, maybe not a bad decision for volunteer governance, but not open!

    If the alumni can live with a less-than-open meritocracy or a benevolent oligarchy controlling trustee elections, fine. A shame, but it is for alums collectively to decide.

    But please let's not "sell" the proposal based on false perceptions.