Background in research could make Kim controversial pick
By Turia Lahlou, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, March 2, 2009
Like many of Dartmouth's previous leaders, College President-elect Jim Yong Kim has said that maintaining the College's academic excellence will be his first priority upon arrival in Hanover.
That affirmation, however, is perhaps the only Dartmouth presidential stereotype to hold true for Kim, a 49-year-old Korean-American physician and anthropologist who has spent his career working to improve global health. Kim's background represents a striking departure for the College, as Kim's profile deviates strongly from that of outgoing College President James Wright and previous members of the Wheelock Succession.
When he is inaugurated on July 1, Kim will become the first Asian American to lead an Ivy League institution. In an interview with The Dartmouth, Kim noted that it was Brown University President Ruth Simmons -- herself the first person of color to head an Ivy League institution -- who first drew his attention to another historic title he will soon claim: that of the first male minority president in the Ivy League.
Growing up in one of the few Asian American families in Iowa, Kim said he has always been aware of his distinct ethnic and cultural background. Kim recounted advice he received from his father, who advised him to become a doctor.
"What he said to me was, 'Look, you're Asian American. As a Korean you will have to have a skill no one can take away from you.' And that's still what people felt at that time," Kim said. "No one would have said an African American could be president of the United States. I mean, that was not in the realm of possibility in 1980."
Kim said that while he is pleased with Dartmouth's commitment to diversity, exemplified by the increasing number of international students and students of color at the College, he is concerned about a lack of growth in the number of African American students on campus.
"I would certainly want to do everything I can to make every person of every kind of background feel that Dartmouth is the coolest place in the world that they can go study," he said.
Kim will take the reins of Dartmouth at a time of major budgetary constraints, when financial leadership is critical for the College.
Kim's budgetary experience is limited to managing an operating budget of $120 million for the Department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization. WHO had an overall endowment of $1.2 billion during Kim's tenure in the mid-1990s.
Dartmouth's operating budget, including the graduate schools, is approximately $700 million, and its endowment is valued at approximately $3 billion, according to College administrators.
Kim, however, who has 25 years of experience fundraising for nongovernmental organizations, said raising funds for Dartmouth is "not going to be difficult."
"This is the first time, for me, that I will be able to raise funds among a group that is a natural constituency," he said, drawing a contrast between fundraising from Dartmouth alumni, who have an inherent tie to the College, and seeking donations from people who may have no direct connection the people they were being asked to help.
Kim said the loyalty of Dartmouth alumni will allow the College to withstand the current recession.
During his time as executive director of Partners In Health, the leading international health care organization profiled in The New York Times best seller "Mountains Beyond Mountains," Kim attracted support from major corporate sponsors, including Eli Lilly, the Gates Foundation and the Soros Foundation -- sources of funding that could be especially valuable to Dartmouth Medical School. These particular donors have not traditionally shown great interest in Dartmouth.
Kim's background as an acclaimed researcher and scientist is likely to draw criticism from those who seek to emphasize Dartmouth's identity as a college, rather than a university. Outgoing President James Wright sparked controversy in 1998 for his reference to the College as "a research university in all but name" in his inaugural address. Wright has said that a heightened focus on research would not compromise the level of teaching at the College.
Much of this criticism of a perceived shift toward research at the College has stemmed from alumni, and has been at the center of recent conflict within the alumni body.
Kim said that, as an anthropologist -- a science he maintained has the closest tie to the humanities -- he will not come to the College looking to "impose any research agenda."
"The focus of my career hasn't been research," he said. "The focus of my career has been a combination of service, education, training and research."
As chair of Harvard Medical School's department of global health and social medicine, Kim's resume features more graduate-level experience than those of many previous College presidents. Kim said he believes this factor may have distinguished him from other candidates in the search.
"I think that one of the reasons, perhaps, I was selected for this role is I have so much experience with the three particular [types of] graduate schools that are at Dartmouth," Kim said.
Kim emphasized that, despite his strong personal ties to medicine, he will serve as president of the entire institution -- not only of Dartmouth's medical school.
The transition from being "a leader of individual research projects to the leader of an institution," Kim admitted, will be significant.
"Rather than throw my own body at problems, either through research or service or any of the other things I've done, I'm choosing to become a leader," he said.
Unlike many recent Dartmouth presidents, Kim has no strong connections to the College.
Kim noted that "it is hard to out-Dartmouth [Wright]," who has worked at the College in various capacities since 1969.
Kim said that he will try to spend time with students, attending athletic events and eating in campus dining halls.
"I'm very aware that Jim and Susan Wright created an incredibly open atmosphere for students and faculty, and I can only do my best to try and continue that tradition, but it's a big act to follow," Kim said.