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“Strident”? Moi?

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“I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” — Harry S. Truman

The D ran a profile on votre humble serviteur the other day that was capably written by Mitch Davis ‘11, aided by Kate Farley ‘10. It contained the oft-leveled charges: “outspoken,” “controversial,” ‘fervent,” “needlessly combative,” along with temperate commentary from Association of Alumni President John Mathias: “an unrelenting critic of Dartmouth, almost pathologically.”

My response: in the present cultural context, guilty as charged (except for the “pathologically” remark, of course). But let’s get a little deeper into it.

My Dartblog posts and D columns about the College are usually divided into two sections: 1) an elucidation of data, most often gleaned from the College itself, that lay out the basis of my concerns; and 2) my conclusions and recommendations for action, often directly critical of College policies and administrators, whom I have the temerity to criticize by name.

The first part seems acceptable to people, though the College’s designated responders usually offer up blanket condemantions of my stats without ever offering other, supposedly correct, figures themselves. But the second part really rubs folks the wrong way. Why?

For one, we live in an environment of false gentility: don’t offend anyone by criticizing their performance personally. Go along to get along. Truth is less important than bonhomie. After all, “there are always two sides to every story.” And besides confrontation is not nice. Secondly, in an academic setting, the goal of a professor’s analysis is often to lay out in the most nuanced of terms all facets of a problem — so much so that people often get lost in the weeds of detail and don’t draw conclusions.

But I am not an academic and we are not discussing subjects that require excruciating analysis. Rather, I approach problems as an executive manager: Is an employee doing a good job? Are students getting value for their money? Is the College acting honestly and fairly, and in search of excellence? And so on.

The goal of any effective manager — in both the business and academic worlds — is to acquire sufficient information to make decisions — and then take action, a quality that has been consistently lacking in Hanover for the past decade. In doing so, a leader necessarily makes some people unhappy: one program gets funded and another doesn’t; an administrator is fired or a department cut; a competing idea sees the light of day. The alternative is stagnation - treating everyone equally well (or badly) by making no changes at all. Sound familiar? Well, we have had too much of that kind of spinelessness around here for too long.

President Kim aspires to change the way that Dartmouth is run. Good! But what he has not yet told you about leadership is that it is not the easy path. Change is disruptive; real leaders make enemies and attract (pathological?) name callers. But not to worry: shallow, angry attacks should be worn as badges of honor, proof of a job well done. They are too often a necessary precursor to achieving measurable gains.

So let’s leave the endless soft-headed praising of the College to the folks who don’t have the nerve to tell the truth as they see it. The rest of us can stridently work to make Dartmouth a much better place.


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