A Role Model for Courageous, Principled Public Service: T. J. Rodgers
I spent nearly the first 20 years of my professional life attending Stanford Business School and working in Silicon Valley. Like many other young people in the formative years of their professional lives, I observed others who had attributes worthy of emulation, who provided examples of potential role models for the future.
Many years ago, T. J. Rodgers was the first such person in the business community for me: A demanding and entrepreneurial CEO of Cypress Semiconductor who was bluntly outspoken about public policy issues. A courageous and opinionated leader who stuck to his principles, regardless of whether they were fashionable. Someone who was imbued with a Western sensibility that valued freedom.
I was reminded of this long-ago connection by a recent Wall Street Journal interview of Rodgers which shared news on his latest public service initiative, being part of a “counter insurgency” on the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees:
Until recently, though, Dartmouth’s elections have been indifferent affairs, with the alumni choosing from a largely homogeneous slate handpicked by a committee closely aligned with the administration. In 2004, things got–interesting. Mr. Rodgers bypassed the official nomination channels and was named to the ballot by collecting alumni signatures; he needed 500 and ended up acquiring more than 15 times that. He was dissatisfied with the college’s direction and resolved to either “do something or stop griping about it.” He was elected by 54% of the voters.
Although there were a lot of political issues churning about the campus, Mr. Rodgers decided “that I would pursue just one issue, and my one issue, the one substantive issue, is the quality of education at Dartmouth…I decided that if I started debating the political argument du jour it would reduce my effectiveness.”
That kind of pragmatism, however, didn’t inhibit a highly political response from the aggrieved, including the college administration and some of the faculty. Mr. Rodgers notes that certain professors “seemed to specialize” in accusing him of being retrograde, racist, sexist, opposed to “diversity” and so forth. Or, in the academic shorthand, a conservative.
A curious label for a man who is in favor of gay marriage, against the Iraq war, and thinks Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush. Mr. Rodgers’s sensibility, rather, is libertarian, and ruggedly Western. He is also a famously aggressive, demanding CEO, with technical expertise, a strong entrepreneurial bent and an emphasis on empirics and analytics. His lodestars, he says, are “data and reason and logic.”
At Dartmouth, he remarks, he has produced dozens of long, systematic papers on the issues. His first priority was to improve its “very poor record of freedom of speech.” Soon enough, the college president, James Wright, overturned a speech code. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group, elevated Dartmouth’s rating from “red” to its highest, “green,” one of only seven schools in the country with that status. “We made progress, and I was feeling pretty good,” Mr. Rodgers says.
He intended to move on to quality of education next, but the political situation at Dartmouth degenerated…
Curious, again, that Mr. Rodgers has been cast as the leader of some sinister conservative faction, since he is open about what his actual goals are. “They attack things that don’t matter because they can’t attack you for what you stand for–quality of education…The attacks become ad hominem…We get called the problem. The fact is that we’re a response to the problem.”
In Mr. Rodgers’s judgment, the increasingly political denigration–the “rancor,” he calls it–has seriously impinged on his effectiveness as a trustee, and on the effectiveness of the board in general. “Before I ever went to my first board meeting,” he says, “I did what any decent manager in Silicon Valley does–management by walking around. You actually go and talk to people and ask how they’re doing and what they need to get their jobs done.”…
“In general, I don’t have a prescription,” he says. “I’m not trying to micromanage the place. What I’m saying is take the huge amount of money that an institution like Dartmouth has and focus it on your core business, which is undergraduate education, and make it really, really good. If you want to pinch pennies, pinch pennies somewhere else and not on the core business. That’s all I’m saying.”
Trustee politics is the reason that this problem with “the core business,” as he puts it, has not been addressed. “I don’t think we pay enough attention to it and care enough about it. We have time to worry about other things and somehow the main business of the college, which is to educate, doesn’t dominate our meetings…
Now, Mr. Rodgers says, the argument has come to its endgame. “This is not a conservative-liberal conflict. This is a libertarian-totalitarian conflict.”
One of the main criticisms leveled at the petition trustee process is that it is polarizing, divisive and somehow detrimental to the college. Mr. Rodgers replies, “If ‘divisive’ means there are issues and we debate the issues and move forward according to a consensus, then divisive equals democracy, and democracy is good. The alternative, which I fear is what the administration and [Board of Trustees Chairman] Ed Haldeman are after right now, is a politburo–one-party rule.”
And so, after losing four consecutive democratic contests, the Dartmouth administration has evidently decided to do away with democracy altogether. “Now I’m working on the existence question,” Mr. Rodgers notes mordantly.
Though he cannot say for sure–“I’ll be kept in the dark until a couple of days before the meeting on what they’re planning on doing”–a five-member subcommittee, which conducts its business in secret and includes the chair and the president, has embarked on a “governance review” that will consolidate power. “It looks like they’re just going to abandon, or make ineffectual, the ability of alumni to elect half the trustees at Dartmouth,” Mr. Rodgers says.
He believes that the model is the Harvard Corporation, where a small group “makes all the decisions. They elect themselves in secret. They elect themselves in secret for a life term. How’s that for democracy?”…
But he contrasts the situation especially with his experience at Cypress: “Silicon is a very tough master. It operates to the laws of physics, there are no politics, you can’t vote or will or committee your way around it…Therefore the culture of Silicon Valley, where winning and losing is being technologically successful or not, is an objective, nonpolitical culture. It’s just different on the Dartmouth board.”
Mr. Rodgers expects to be “severely criticized, unfairly and personally,” for talking to The Journal. He may even be removed from his post entirely. “It’s worth it,” he says. “Doing what is right for the college that I love is more important than holding what is largely a ceremonial position.”
We need more people in public service like T. J. Rodgers. It’s not about having everyone agree on all the issues. But it is about having courageous people capable of grappling with the big issues which impact people’s lives – including the proverbial “elephant in the room” that too many people know is present and hurtful but still choose to ignore.
It is about building a culture of public service where principled people take gutsy, reasoned stands based on what they believe is for the greater good.
Such efforts often come at a price. But the study of history shows that people who are willing to take principled stands and lose a short-term battle can alter the future of their world.
And that is the meaning of true leadership.