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What Leadership?

This past Monday, Jenn gave a great report on the College-sponsored luncheon that took place last weekend to allow for candid interaction between trustees and students. Apparently the trustees even encouraged tough questions. It is bizarre and counterproductive that the event required an application to attend, but as this is a case of Dartmouth’s sprawling bureaucracy shooting itself in the foot with a bad PR move, I suppose I shouldn’t be complaining.

It sounds like the luncheon was an interesting event; I wish I could have been there. (I am in France this term.) But given Jenn’s report, I know exactly the question I would have posed to any trustees available. It regards the upcoming presidential search for James Wright’s successor, who will take office when Wright steps down in June 2009.

The trustees are currently not willing to enumerate any attributes of importance for the next president beyond “leadership skills and an academic background.” Though I have discussed at length the many qualities I see as necessary in Dartmouth’s next chief, those two are good enough for me in this instance. It is great that the trustees will commit that the next president will be a strong leader. My question is:

Will they commit that the next president will be a better leader than James Wright?

I envision basically three answers the responding trustee could give.

The trustee could argue that judgments of leadership are subjective and that my question is therefore unanswerable. This is a slippery “no.”

Or the trustee could answer “yes,” probably in a more roundabout way. Perhaps, “We are absolutely committed to finding the best possible leadership for Dartmouth, so we are excited for the prospect that the new president will incite an overall strengthening in the College’s leadership.” I would be astounded to get any version of “yes”; it would drop my jaw.

The final possibility I see, and by far the most likely in my estimation, is that the trustee would refuse to commit to finding a better leader than Mr. Wright because, in the trustee’s view, Mr. Wright has been an extraordinarily strong leader for Dartmouth. If the trustee allowed me to respond, I would attempt to politely disabuse him or her of this notion.

I would ask the trustee to list five examples of bold, innovative, industry-affecting actions Wright has taken—but if you think he’s such a strong leader, you should be able to list many more. I would stress that responding to the actions of competitors is not bold leadership, but competent management. On that basis, forget about the new construction. Harvard is expanding to a site in Allston bigger than Dartmouth’s entire campus, Columbia has set the wheels in motion to build a second campus in West Harlem, and Yale just dropped $100 million on an new campus half the size of Dartmouth’s. Puts Wright’s construction into perspective, no?

The same goes for Mr. Wright’s recent improvements in Dartmouth’s financial aid. It is admirable to provide financial aid to families who need it. It takes exactly zero leadership to announce a worse, watered-down version of a Harvard policy. If Mr. Wright is so committed to providing the best possible financial aid, why in the world did he wait for Harvard’s improvement to plan and institute his own? Couldn’t he have mustered up an ounce—one single ounce—of leadership to lead Dartmouth on his own terms, instead of Harvard’s?

(Incidentally, this reminds me of an event last term, Ask The Trustees Anything, at which Chairman of the Board Ed Haldeman attempted to justify Dartmouth’s extreme bureaucratic bloat by citing a Newsweek article that documented bureaucratic bloat across many American educational institutions. A student—me—expressed surprise that the Chairman of our own Board would be so complacent as to allow Dartmouth to be “just as bad as everybody else.” At least, I think his source was Newsweek—this was such a discouraging moment that I’ve nearly blocked it out.)

I expect that the trustee responding to my question would be, at this point, a bit flummoxed. I have no doubt that he or she would be utterly unable to name the five requested instances of leadership. Can you name even one?

If you, the reader, happen to be a Dartmouth trustee, I encourage you to contact me with an answer. Will you commit to finding a new president who is a better leader than James Wright?

A FINAL NOTE: Perhaps we can console ourselves with the knowledge that Dartmouth’s bureaucrats are at least marginally better than the ones at Princeton who have, in a recent development so unbelievable as to resemble a joke, made butlers of their freshmen.

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