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Accountability to Colgate Alumni Initiative:

There appears to be an interesting movement afoot among Colgate alumni, the "Accountability to Colgate Alumni Initiative." The goal of the initiative, as their website explains it, is "to ask the Board of Trustees to change the By-laws to allow 18 of the 35 members to be voted by the alumni."

The initiative seems to be modeled on Dartmouth's 1891 agreement between Dartmouth College and its alumni to guarantee Dartmouth alumni the power to elect half of the Dartmouth board of trustees (discussed briefly here). The Dartmouth deal was struck during a period of immense financial hardship for the College which was plagued by poor management and other problems. The alumni decided to open their wallets to bail out the College financially, but insisted on having the power to elect half of the seats on the board in order to provide oversight to make sure their money wasn't squandered. My understanding is that in fact half of the members of the board stepped down immediately and their successors were elected by the alumni.

The Colgate group appears to be taking a related approach with respect to the financial aspect of the plan. They have set up an escrow fund to which alumni can donate contingent on the new proposal being adopted by the Colgate board. If the board does not adopt the proposal to permit alumni to elect half of the board by 2012, each donor's money will be released instead to a second beneficiary. In the meantime, the funds will be invested by Merrill Lynch.

One interesting aspect of the Colgate initiative is that those behind it are simply requesting procedural reforms to open up the trustee election process, rather than directly demanding certain substantive reforms, which has typically been the approach taken in the past by reformers.

Is anyone aware of any similar movements at other institutions to open up trustee selection processes?

Stentor (mail) (www):
As a Colgate alum, I'm amused to learn about this for the first time through Volokh. It looks like this initiative is an outgrowth of the organizing that's been going on in the past few years in response to the university's plan to eliminate the fraternities.
5.3.2007 10:26am
Jacob T. Levy (mail) (www):
"It looks like this initiative is an outgrowth of the organizing that's been going on in the past few years in response to the university's plan to eliminate the fraternities."

Sigh. Of course it is. Because nothing says "good collegiate governance" like "alumni making sure that their memories viewed through rosy-beer-goggles are honored by insisting that Greek institutions be viewed as sacred and untouchable regardless of the consequences for those who actually inhabit the college or will ever do so in the future."

Alumni are a desirable stabilizing force in collegiate governance, but they're not stockholders of the corporation to whom ultimate allegiance is due. And the selection of cases in which they seem to be motivated to get involved in collegiate governance en masse suggest some undesirable systematic biases.
5.3.2007 11:15am
AppSocRes (mail):
Didn't some British colonists do something like this in the late 1700s? I think they had a slogan something like "No donations without representation."
5.3.2007 11:46am
Disappointed alum:
I agree fully with alumni being more involved in governance. Giving to universities is essentially giving a blank check to the administration and faculty. God bless them, but it is a massive principal-agent problem that only gets worse when it goes into the endowment and outlives the donor. I hate to say it, and I love my alma mater to death, but I do not give any more than some token donations because of what has happened with universities that have grown their endowments. It creates intellectual rot and arrogance and is not what I want my money being done. The Board of Trustees is generally a rubber stamp that is a self-perpetuating feel-good entity that does not do much at all in the way of active oversight.

If my alma mater were to do something like this, I would be far more likely to give, and the university would improve.
5.3.2007 12:16pm
anonVCfan:
I agree with Mr. Levy.
5.3.2007 12:34pm
wm13:
Mr. Levy, you are suggesting that increased funding for post-structuralist analysis of the gender/race/class biases in Blackstone's Commentaries, or whatever nonsense the Harvard faculty wants to do, is more important than good fraternities? Because the axiological groundwork for that proposition has not been laid out that I can see.
5.3.2007 1:02pm
Mark P. (mail):
FWIW,

I'm a pretty conservative practicing lawyer. I've also been reading Blackstone's commentaries. I've been particularly struck by the role that Blackstone's views, in the U.S. and U.K., implicated sex, race, and class issues -- seriously. I'm not an academic, but I hope that someone at Harvard (or anywhere else, for that matter) does look at these issues. I know you think that such an undertaking would be ridiculous (less important than "good fraternities"), but I believe that it could be quite important. (And, from a conservative viewpoint, an analysis of Blackstone from a separation-of-powers perspective, and a federalism perspective would be interesting.)

As for the positive and negative attributes of fraternities, I'll leave that to someone who knows what they're talking about.
5.3.2007 1:55pm
wm13:
Mark P., why would it be important? In other words, what is the reason for your belief? Would the analysis you want to read have social consequences? Larger social consequences than the texture of daily life for today's Colgate undergraduates?
5.3.2007 2:07pm
Disappointed alum:
For what it is worth, at least at my college, non-Greek students had higher alcohol citations than Greeks. And, in the end, I agree that the social skills one learns in a Greek setting are more important than discovering that the Sound of Music is actually a musical about lesbianism (yes, this paper has been written and published by real faculty).

This comes from someone who was a leader in an independent student theme house and who seriously disliked the Greek system while a student. I dutifully read all the absurdity and now think I'd rather have spent more time socializing, honestly. Also, I presided over an unruly theme house with insufficient internal discipline. The great thing about the Greek system is that if someone acts up, it reflects on everyone in the house, and there are specific punishments that the president can mete out to contain unruliness.

Not that there are not major problems with the Greeks, by any means--my only point is that it's not like the alumni are a bunch of unwashed heathens that should not be allowed to intrude on the sublime wisdom that is a faculty.

That being said, if you ask me, what is more important is trustees who are willing to check the nearly absolute power of the faculty/administration over curriculum decisions and funding decisions. Greek debates are just the flashpoint and symptom of a larger problem at universities.
5.3.2007 2:09pm
Disappointed alum:
I should also add that, at my university, Greek grades were higher than non-Greek grades. Surprising but consistently true. Greeks did have some internal discipline mechanisms that would put heat on members that decided that failing was fun, because it would threaten the group's status in one way or another.
5.3.2007 2:13pm
Jacob T. Levy (mail) (www):
At Greek-heavy institutions, the Greek institutions are able to attract students who are better across a range of dimensions because being in a Greek institution is socially desirable. That doesn't mean that the Greek institutions make them better, or that the students wouldn't do better across a range of measures without a Greek-dominated campus culture.

I favor free association and tend to favor a hands-off policy toward frats. But I think it's well within the competence of university administration to find that the frats have come to occupy too central and dominant a place on a given campus, to the detriment of the educational mission-- and that it shouldn't be impossible for them to do something about it.

Moreover, as I said, I don't think that there's a legitimate principal-agent problem here, because alumni aren't principals of the institution. Universities are something more like trusts for the benefit of current and future students than they are like corporations that ought to be maximally responsive to alumni. (They're not quite like such trusts either, but they're *more* like that.)

Now, getting good governance of trusts is hard. And alumni can often have a longer-term view than temporary university management-- so, like I said, they're an important stabilizing force and part of university governance. But they sometimes have the capacity to value their memories more than they do the present and future of the institution's mission.

I'm sure there are universities where alumni have too little not too much power, and where current management unduly interferes with alumni representation. But the fact that so many of the mass-alumni-mobilizations are Greek-centered inspires... something less than enthusiasm on my part.
5.3.2007 2:41pm
Disappointed alum:
I'm not sold on Greeks. I never was one and generally thought they were tools when I was in school, probably because of typical us-versus-them stuff.

I do believe that there is a major principal-agent problem in universities, though. Alumni and benefactors donate enormous amounts of money to universities with the hope that universities do this or that image that the donors have of universities. What they do not know is that they are handing the money over with very little accountability. The fact that you don't think it's a principal-agent relationship shows the whole problem. People give to universities thinking that they will always be these idealized institutes that they remember or think of and that the board of trustees will continue this Golden Age.

I guarantee that most of the great turn-of-the-century benefactors of the major universities would be appalled at the junk that passes off as scholarship and edification of the student body these days. Now, they made the mistake of giving to the university system without realizing what would happen. Fair enough. A lot of us that see what the university governance (or lack thereof) system creates simply won't make the same mistake.

An interesting irony is that 100 years ago a lot of people thought that universities would be bastions of moldy conservatism, given the lack of incentive to respond to market demands and the comfort of the endowment. What has happened has mostly been the exact opposite. Alumni/benefactors donated thinking that they were financing something that ended up being quite different—and, in my view, highly problematic.

That is the problem. The principal-agent problem inheres in most endowments, given the lack of institutional fealty to all-too-vague grantor intent.
5.3.2007 3:24pm
neurodoc:
Jacob T. Levy: Alumni are a desirable stabilizing force in collegiate governance, but they're not stockholders of the corporation to whom ultimate allegiance is due. And the selection of cases in which they seem to be motivated to get involved in collegiate governance en masse suggest some undesirable systematic biases.

To my knowledge, there are no stockholders in any university (the University of Phoenix?), and no one(s) in the university "to whom ultimate allegiance is due." But I do think alumni should be counted, along with current students, among a school's "shareholders" or "stakeholders," and their voices should be heard and respected. That, of course, is not the view of all, especially some of the more radical faculty, who seem to see themselves as the true and only keepers of the flame, with administrators necessary functionaries and trustees useful fundraisers.

And the selection of cases in which they seem to be motivated to get involved in collegiate governance en masse suggest some undesirable systematic biases.
Did you see "some undesirable systematic biases" at play when Dartmouth alumni resisted changes that would have decreased their influence in that school's governance? If so, what exactly were they and why "undesirable"?
5.3.2007 4:28pm
Waldensian (mail):
Oh man. The Incredibly Self-Absorbed Dartmouth Governance Controversy Machine (ISADGCM) has sprouted wheels and is going on the road.

Colgate, beware of Greens bearing such "gifts."
5.3.2007 5:30pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Ever count up how much grant and contract money faculty bring in to universities, which among other things support students? For many places that is a lot more than what the alumni donate.
5.3.2007 8:49pm
neurodoc:
Ever count up how much grant and contract money faculty bring in to universities, which among other things support students? For many places that is a lot more than what the alumni donate.
Some universities receive gargantuan sums in grant and contract money. Little, if any of it, though, goes to "support students," in particular undergrads, except perhaps by creating some low-paying part-time jobs. At which institution(s) do you imagine that monies from those outside sources going to "support students" are "a lot more than what the alumni donate"? It certainly would not be at a school like Colgate. (If you have any data to contradict me, please cite it.)
5.3.2007 9:53pm
Jacob T. Levy (mail) (www):
Standardly grantors pay an additional 20% to 50+% of the size of research grants to the university's general fund as overhead. (Slight but not severe simplification.) This is indeed sometimes more in aggregate than annual alumni donations, especially at universities with major medical and physical science departments, and it funds the overall institution, not part-time lab work.

Overhead payments exceed half a billion dollars *per year* at Hopkins. I'd guess that at Hopkins, MIT, Caltech, Wash U, BU, and most research-intensive public universities, they're larger than annual alumni donations.

If graduate students are included as 'students,' of course, then students are major direct beneficiaries of the grants themselves, too.
5.4.2007 8:50am
neurodoc:
Ever count up how much grant and contract money faculty bring in to universities, which among other things support students? For many places that is a lot more than what the alumni donate.

As someone who spend a few years in the "extramural" part of NIH, I am very familiar with the "overhead" add ons to grants to which you refer. The notion is that there is more to the cost of research than direct costs entailed, there are also indirect costs, like library services, building maintenance, utilities, etc., do that extra dollop of $s goes to the school at which the research is done. (And the %s vary greatly from institution to institution.) And you are quite right about the magnitude of grants for mostly scientific and medical research at major research institutions like Hopkins, MIT, Stanford, Harvard, etc. (I would be surprised if BU is up there in the top tier.) The question is how much of that realized through such "overhead" payments benefits undergrads in any way that much affects them, e.g., reduces schools' dependence on tuition payments and makes an undergraduate education less costly. At Colgate, which was the subject of this thread, and other liberal arts colleges, I expect that such funding in connection with grants is negligible, and a small fraction of what alumni contribute.

But the real thrust of this is how much of a say, if any, alumni should have in a school's affairs. If Eli Rabett was suggesting that alumni don't do so much for many schools financially, and perhaps don't deserve to be taken seriously as "stakeholders," I disagree.
5.4.2007 12:20pm