Being and Dartmouthness
By Kip Dooley, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, April 27, 2012
As the end of my student life at Dartmouth nears, I’m finding myself looking for the people, events, significant characters and lessons that have defined the story of my class’ four years here.
One of the first things I did at Dartmouth was to meet then-College President Jim Wright. While I can’t say that he was a central character in my Dartmouth story, he was still an important one. He was the man from whom I, as an eager freshman, took my cues. I didn’t know how to think about this place yet or what I should expect of my time here. I met him the morning of Convocation with the rest of my class right before the ceremony. What I remember most was his booming voice echoing through Alumni Gym and his message to us that we must have the courage to challenge the leaders of our generation.
He had been at the College for 39 years, previously as a faculty member in the history department. Professors of mine commented that he used to take walks across campus every day and would stop and chat with friends, colleagues and students along the way — the kind of understated, yet meaningful engagement with the people who make this small college what it is.
When College President Jim Yong Kim was inaugurated my sophomore fall, we were presented with a very different model for leadership. Looking at his resume, I wondered if there was anything the guy couldn’t do. So it made sense that his vision for Dartmouth was equally ambitious. He told us that Dartmouth could be a leader among other institutions in both the sciences and the arts, a college whose students were equally adept at engineering and dance choreography. Citing examples from his groundbreaking work on large, systemic issues such as poverty and disease in Haiti, he urged us, “do something great with all you’ve got. Be ambitious. Aspire to change the world.”
I felt like my purpose at Dartmouth was starting to crystallize. I felt like we’d all been issued a challenge from a legendary coach, the kind of guy who you want to work hard for because you look up to him so much. Standing on the other side of his tenure, however, I have a hard time calling his presidency anything other than a disappointment.
Yes, he brought the College through the financial crisis, albeit by making substantial budget cuts with very little institutional transparency. But the two other main achievements he’s credited with were hamstrung by his insistence on visionary, bigger-than-Dartmouth planning. While doing good work that is connected to Dartmouth, the Center for Health Care Delivery Science and the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking have little to no potential for remedying the issues that are relevant to the undergraduate experience itself, which Kim claims is the administration’s first priority.
As an expert in public health, he’s made shockingly little impact on the big three issues at Dartmouth, all of which are health-related: binge drinking, hazing and sexual assault. You would think that for all of his talk of being an anthropologist, Kim would have asked students themselves why they drink so much, why sexual assault rates are so high or why cocaine use is more or less an open secret on our campus. Kim had an opportunity to go local, to investigate what was going on right in his backyard, but he was too busy going for the home run projects, the ones that would bring Dartmouth — and himself — acclaim, to understand the complexity of our own problems.
Through all of it, President Kim insisted that he was deeply involved and invested in the undergraduate experience. Once again, however, it seems this was centered on his image rather than substantial change. Standing on the sidelines of football games was a nice novelty, but we’re not a school in the Southeastern Conference. A gesture like this was rarely seen in other areas of campus, and in the end, it probably ended up doing more to make him seem disingenuous than it did to help the football team earn wins.
Global, systemic issues require Kim-style visionary leadership, but the problems faced by a small community like ours require a leader who is patient, thorough and compassionate. We need someone who is willing to ask difficult questions and demand accountability for how we treat ourselves and each other. There are lessons to be learned from any leader, I suppose, even when they don’t succeed.