Alcor’s self perpetuating board: reviewing the arguments

In January 2008, Alcor’s self perpetuating Board came under renewed scrutiny after long-time Alcor member and cryonics activist David Pizer tried to raise interest for changing the current system to a member elected Board. Alcor’s most publicly visible response to the arguments raised by Pizer was to publish a document by Board member Ralph Merkle defending Alcor’s self-perpetuating Board. What follows is a review of some of the arguments in that article.

The article asserts that a self perpetuating Board “is the most common way of electing Board members in non profit organizations.” As of writing, research by Charles Platt and Steve Bridge has not produced a definitive answer whether this statement is correct or not. But the real question is if the interests of Alcor are best served by a self perpetuating Board. Choosing an organizational structure for Alcor should not be a simple popularity contest because the nature of Alcor’s activities may warrant considerations that are not relevant to most non-profit organizations.

The article also states that “Alcor’s self perpetuating Board dates back to Alcor’s founding in 1972.” Research into this issue, however, established that this is not the case. The original Alcor bylaws gave some members the right to vote for Directors. The current understanding is that this system was changed as a result of the efforts of ex-Alcor President Mike Darwin, a change he now regrets as one of the biggest mistakes he made in cryonics. In his own words: “in structuring the Alcor Board election process as I did, I erred colossally, and really succeeded only in meeting one of the three criteria I had in mind: extreme stability.”

Some of the characteristics of many of Alcor’s past and current Board members include Alcor membership (required by the bylaws), a (long) history of Alcor involvement, and having served as an Advisor. These characteristics, or in the case of membership, a formal requirement, are not unique to self perpetuating Boards and can be required from candidates in member elected boards as well. This point raises a more general flaw in most arguments that have been put forward in favor of a self perpetuating Board; a lot of safeguards that are associated with self perpetuating Boards can be built into a member elected Board as well. As a matter of fact, one can imagine a member elected Board that has more safeguards than a self perpetuating Board. For example, Alcor’s current bylaws do not require anything other from potential Board members than Alcor membership.

A proponent of Alcor’s self perpetuating Board will need to present reasons why such a system has intrinsic elements that make it superior to a member elected Board. One such argument could be that Alcor’s first Board constituted the “elite” of Alcor members when it was formed and ensured that the Board will always consist of the elite of Alcor members. Proponents of a member elected Board may object that many of the characteristics that constitute an “elite Alcor member” tend to be objective in nature and can be formalized and written into the bylaws as conditions that need to be met for being a candidate for Board membership. The prospect of being subject to a general election will also provide an opportunity for members to investigate and evaluate such claims of excellence. It often happens that other members raise concerns and/or have information about potential candidates that Board members do not have access to. Although it is possible to encourage feedback from members (or Advisors) on potential candidates in a self perpetuating system, Alcor’s recent election of Board members indicates that the current Board is not interested in actively utilizing such a system.

One other potential defect in the current system of self perpetuating Board members is that it may not be well equipped to deal with situations where the Board has evolved into a Board that constitutes far from the elite of Alcor members. Advocates of a self perpetuating Board may claim that such a thing could never happen, but this seems to be overly optimistic. As a matter of fact, some current advocates of a member elected Board claim that we are currently in such a situation. Alcor has been criticized for promoting failed Presidents to the Board and electing Directors without even the most rudimentary understanding of readiness and cryonics procedures. Even if the probability of such a scenario happening is lower in a self perpetuating Board than in a member elected Board, the difficulty of reversing this situation in a self perpetuating Board presents a major challenge.

In other words, the question should not just be what system can be expected to generate the most competent board members, but also in which system incompetent or negligent Board members can be easily removed if such a scenario occurs. A member elected Board would not constitute a problem in this regard because members can vote (anonymously) to remove (or not re-elect) such Board members. In a self perpetuating Board, it is often painful for other Board members to propose the removal of another Board member. And if a Board has evolved in such a way that such Board members constitute all, or the majority, of the Board members it will be simply impossible.

Another argument that Merkle presents in his article is that Alcor Board members have access to all relevant information when they decide who should serve on the Board. There are a number of problems with this argument. The first problem is that it should be the goal of Alcor to make such information available to its members in the first place. Because Alcor is neither subject to market nor regulatory pressure, extensive dissemination of information to members is one of the few safeguards Alcor has to produce some degree of accountability. Granted, there can exist certain information that cannot be made available to the general membership (such as patient data), but this information is often of a nature that is not relevant in selecting a candidate. The second problem with this argument is that selecting a candidate for the Board is not only about “consuming” information, but also about making this information subject to a process of deliberation that produces informed decisions and, sometimes, novel perspectives. It is not obvious that a self perpetuating Board is the optimal environment for such deliberations. Finally, the argument itself may be flawed (or at least in the case of Alcor it may be). It is evident that existing Board members have access to information that general members do not have, but it is not evident that the information the Board has is more relevant than the information the total membership has or can generate.

One argument that is often raised is that Alcor’s primary mission is to maintain the current patients in biostasis and that these patients cannot benefit from giving members the right to vote for the Board. But it is not clear why this situation mandates a self perpetuating Board. This is something that needs to be argued for, and cannot be assumed. Current patients might be expected to be safer under a self perpetuating Board but the stakes are also higher because a failing Board cannot be removed by the members. One may also reason that maintaining the current patients in biostasis requires a conservative Board that is not subject to short-term politics. As a matter of fact, it is sometimes claimed that the Alcor board cannot be too aggressive in holding management accountable because the resulting tensions may destabilize the organization. Some critics point out that this argument holds existing patients hostage to future patients. Such a scenario might be avoided if Alcor’s daily operations (readiness, research, etc.) are completely separated from long term patient care. Instead of enforcing conservatism upon every aspect of the organization for the sake of stability, the part of Alcor that warrants extreme conservatism can be made completely independent from Alcor’s daily operations.

Merkle writes that “discussions with both new members and members who decide to leave Alcor do not support the idea that the presence or absence of a member elected Board directly influenced their decision.” The most surprising aspect about this statement is that these kinds of data exist at all and have not been communicated to Alcor members in a systematic fashion. But is it persuasive? If many Alcor members are leaving (currently one member is leaving for every two members who join) this may reflect dissatisfaction with aspects of the organization that are under the control of the Alcor Board. At the very least, this situation seems to be an indictment of the current Board.

Merkle also points out that during the recent Alcor conference only a minority of the audience preferred a member elected Board. What he does not mention is the fact that the people who raised their hand in favor of a member elected Board included a fair number of Alcor insiders who are quite knowledgeable about Alcor’s operations, including the person who changed Alcor to a complete self perpetuating Board, Mike Darwin himself. One also wonders what the result would have been if Merkle would have asked the conference attendees to raise their hand if they are in favor of increased membership participation and better accountability at Alcor. Clearly, there is a “framing” issue at play here. Another issue to consider is that the public nature of requiring a “show of hands” response to such a question may cause people not to vote against the status quo (as represented by Merkle himself), so as not to appear disagreeable or be labeled as a dissenter. Merkle’s argument would have been a lot more persuasive if opponents and proponents of a member elected Board would have presented their arguments on stage, followed by anonymous voting.

In conclusion, some advantages that are associated with self perpetuating Boards can be built into a member elected Board as well, some intrinsic advantages of self perpetuating Boards are uncertain or may become serious disadvantages in some scenarios, and other advantages are just assumed and not argued for. But there seems to be one thing that both sides agree on: if there is going to be any change, it can only come about if advocates of stronger membership involvement present detailed proposals to replace the current system and present evidence that Alcor has survived but only as a shade of its former self.

First published on Reform Alcor (February 2008)