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The debate over the future of Dartmouth College’s board of trustees escalated Tuesday, after a group of graduates placed a full-page ad in the New York Times contending that the college’s leaders are trying to stifle alumni.

The ad urged graduates to “save democracy at Dartmouth” by preserving the collective voice of alumni, who currently choose half of the board’s 16 elected trustees.

The latest development in a years-long struggle over the future of the board and the Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H., stems from a study a committee of the board conducted this summer to examine its size, nominating process, and electoral structure.

Some board members and alumni say the study was launched in response to the election, beginning in 2004, of four alumni-nominated trustees who have criticized Dartmouth’s administration and overall direction.

Critics say that the committee — scheduled to present its recommendations at the board’s three-day retreat, beginning Sept. 7 — could propose changes that would limit the alumni’s influence over the board.

“This has become very polarized, and that’s not good for Dartmouth,” said Stephen F. Smith, a University of Virginia law professor who was elected to the board by alumni in May and has consistently spoken out against the administration. “The governance approach of the Dartmouth administration is if you can’t beat them, disenfranchise them. … If they go ahead and take this drastic step and disenfranchise alumni, I don’t know if Dartmouth will ever be the same.”

Ed Haldeman, the board’s chairman and president and chief executive of Putnam Investments in Boston, said the study of the board’s governance structure was not intended to weaken alumni’s influence. But he also said the study was prompted in part by the nature of the past few campaigns for the board’s alumni-controlled seats.

Haldeman, a member of the governance committee, said that any board should periodically review its governance and that it was time to evaluate Dartmouth’s.

“It seems to me that our last three or four elections for trustees at Dartmouth have been somewhat divisive, somewhat political,” he said. “Certainly the last one resulted in a heavy amount of spending to try to get elected. We hadn’t had that before.”

Dartmouth’s 18-member board is comprised of the state’s governor, the school’s president, eight trustees appointed by the board, and eight trustees nominated by alumni.

The alumni trustees have usually been nominated by the alumni council, but Smith and three other alumni trustees used a rarely used clause that allows candidates to run if they each gather 500 signatures from alumni.

Smith said he spent about $75,000 on his campaign. Since 1891, half of the board’s seats have been reserved for trustees nominated by alumni.

Todd Zywicki, an alumni trustee elected by petition in 2005, said he and others worry that Dartmouth is gradually moving away from its historic focus on undergraduate education toward a greater emphasis on research.

“Dartmouth has resisted that trend because of its democratic traditions and its small and engaged board,” said Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

“I’m afraid that the governance committee will take a step that will sever that tie. I’m afraid that Dartmouth College will, a generation from now, be a different, less distinctive, and weaker institution than it is today,” he said

Haldeman declined to speak about the specifics of the committee’s upcoming recommendations, and said the group could recommend no changes.

But Smith said the recent ad campaign shows that the board’s attempt to possibly change governance has struck a chord with Dartmouth alumni.

The Committee to Save Dartmouth College was started by two anonymous alumni earlier this month, with $300,000 in alumni donations. It sponsored Tuesday’s ad in the Times, two ads that ran on the paper’s website earlier this month, and another ad scheduled to run in the Wall Street Journal.