Mills invites ‘hard questions’ at town hall

Danny Kim, The Dartmouth
Mills said he would like the town hall to be the first in a series.
Danny Kim, The Dartmouth

In a town hall meeting with around 115 faculty and staff Thursday, executive vice president and chief financial officer Rick Mills called for cross-campus dialogue about the College’s future. The informal, open gathering featured a brief talk by Mills, focused on current shifts in higher education, followed by questions from the audience.

Mills, who arrived at Dartmouth in summer 2013, said he would like the town hall to become the first in a series. Although he has focused on working with smaller groups in his time at the College so far, Mills said he wanted to converse with a wider audience.

“My pledge to all of you in this first town hall is that I will be as open and transparent as I possibly can,” Mills said. “I wanted to start a conversation with the campus, an ongoing conversation about what it’s like to be at Dartmouth, and see where it takes us. I thought it might be a use to opening up a dialogue that isn’t centered on a specific topic. For those who know me, I am known for speaking my mind, sometimes to a fault. I’m going to keep doing this until somebody yanks me off the stage.”

Mills repeatedly compared his first year at Dartmouth to his experience at Harvard University, where he spent the previous eight years, most recently as executive dean for administration at Harvard Medical School. During a lull in the question-and-answer session, Mills said he appreciated the less aggressive demeanor of Dartmouth faculty, but wanted people to ask questions, especially the hard ones.

“There has been a historic fear about engaging the community at large,” he said in an interview. “I wanted to invite dialogue, hearing from a more diverse set of people for a diverse set of feedback.”

Mills said the biggest challenge facing Dartmouth is a “cultural shift” accompanying external transformations within higher education. He called for a freeing-up of resources, saying that the people who are the best at increasing efficiency are those involved in the work.

Mills summarized Hanlon’s charge to faculty and staff to identify 1.5 percent of each department’s budget that could be reallocated from lower-priority items to new initiatives. This process will take place over the next two years.

Although an audience member called these “budget cuts,” Mills emphasized that this will not shrink the Dartmouth budget by 1.5 percent, but rather re-prioritize and reinvest funds in innovative programs.

Mills said that students can also play an important role in restructuring the College, noting that students often had the best questions at last spring’s “Inside Dartmouth’s Budget” program, which Mills led alongside College President Phil Hanlon and vice president for finance Mike Wagner.

Though the town hall was open to campus, including students, its audience was almost entirely composed of faculty and staff.

“I don’t think we can reinvent ourselves without the help of the students,” he said in an interview.

This “reinvention” reflects a trend on campuses nationwide, balancing budgetary constraints with technological innovation. For decades, money flowed into universities, allowing for the expansion and creation of new programs. Now, colleges face the challenge of sustaining innovation without increased funds, he said.

“Higher education is a touchstone of constancy for the nation and has been for a century or more,” Mills said. “This phase we’re in now, I think we’re going to come out looking different. Change is happening at a much faster rate than it used to occur.”

He said that compared to past transitions in higher education, such as the G.I. Bill and land grants that increased college accessibility, the current technological and educational trends are completely transforming the way higher education is viewed.

These developments reflect a “shift in attitude in this country” about the meaning and value of a college degree, he said, citing the success of college dropouts like Bill Gates and the availability of free online resources.

“Leadership is overblown,” he said. “The message that I wanted to convey here is that as we move through these times of change, all of us are going to hear things about how we can do things differently. Think about taking some risks and deciding to join somebody in a new way of work.”

One audience member brought up her concern about the need for interdepartmental communication, saying that missed opportunities often occur when various units are not on the same page. Senior vice president for public affairs Tommy Bruce said that administrators are considering how faculty and staff can use multimedia, especially video, to promote their initiatives and ideas, increasing the visibility of Dartmouth’s programs.

Adrienne Stone, who works in the administrative finance center, said she attended the meeting because she was curious about what Mills had to say. She said she was pleased with how it went, and felt positive about his comments.

Campus planning and facilities staff member Jodie Davi said she appreciated Mills’ desire to hear from community members. While previous administrators have had more “slash and burn” approaches to campus transformation, Mills is listening to faculty and staff feedback to effect change, Davi said.

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