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Great Issues: After Two Years, That’s It?

Thumbnail image for Great Issues First Year.jpgWhen President Kim arrived on campus over two years ago, his signal initiative was the revival of John Sloan Dickey’s nationally renowned Great Issues course (NYT articles on right). The idea hit all the high notes: GI recalled Dartmouth’s last great President; the course was a fount of memories for alums of the era; and it seemed to be a way to turn sophomore summer into something more than a sunny term.

After one year in Hanover, Jim Kim inaugurated his version of Great Issues with a speech of his own. Students were less than thrilled. There are only so many times that a quick-minded undergraduate can listen to Kim’s stump speech and watch a brain slide’s highlighted area turn from Harvard crimson to Dartmouth green. The follow-up was a visit from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the sweetheart of Dartmouth Trustee Diana Taylor. Bloomberg announced to all the world that he was not running for President; other than that, I don’t recall the greatness of any of the issues that he evoked.

After that, pffffttt. Nothing more, and President Kim apologized that getting GI off the ground had been harder than expected.

Needless to say, more than a few people were waiting for GI 2011. Finally Jim Kim was going to show Dartmouth the intellectual firepower that he could bring to Hanover. The end result, however, was not a class-wide event like Dickey’s Great Issues, but a public speaker series affiliated with one small undergraduate course, Leading Voices in Politics and Policy, that was team-taught by Professors Charlie Wheelan ‘88, Andrew Samwick, Deborah Brooks, Bruce Sacerdote and Dean Lacy.

Great Issues 10 Years.jpgThe speakers in the series fell into three main groups: Republican politicians on the make (Charles “Buddy” Roemer and Jon Huntsman Jr.), well known Dartmouth alum/politicians/financiers (Tim Geithner ‘83, Robert Reich ‘68, Henry Paulson ‘68, Jeffrey Immelt ‘78), people in the Dartmouth orbit (Judd Gregg, Joel Klein); and an outlier: Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of the Gallup polling company and a former colleague of Professor Brooks.

As well, President Kim gave a speech of his own, one that was sparsely attended by students. He laid out issues of health care reform that have been part of the national debate on this subject for many years.

In short, there is nothing very impressive about all this. In fact, what we have here is a failure to implement. Sure, the PR value of having past and present Treasury Secretaries on campus was high, and it was interesting to meet a couple of candidates, but can we say that the sophomore class as a whole was captivated by speakers who caused students to reflect on the large questions facing America today? It is one thing to have the Trustees rope in various illustrious alums and friends of the College, and allow candidates bucking for position in the upcoming Republican primary to speak at Dartmouth, but where is the intellectual content that pulls the entire sophomore class into discussions about themes that affect them and the world? Will the 2013’s be misty-eyed about things they heard during Jim Kim’s GI this year, when the come back to Hanover a few decades from now? (Answers: No; I wasn’t there; I highly doubt it.)

Tellingly, the presence on campus of all of the public speakers in the series, save one, can be traced back to President Kim and the Board, or to the desire on the part of presenters themselves for a platform. Only the last one, Frank Newport, came to Hanover because of the intervention of a member of the faculty. Yet a moment’s reflection should make it clear that faculty members doing research would be the ideal source for speakers. They will be aware of society’s innovators, the people who are doing exceptional things today behind the scenes, who will be renowned tomorrow. Once again, President Kim has sought to lead from the top, rather than intelligently marshaling the exceptional resources available to him at the College. Rest assured that this point has not escaped the notice of Dartmouth’s professors.

Perhaps President Kim has a set of proposals for a true, Dickey-style Great Issues course in the summer of 2012 — one that involves the entire sophomore class? I hope so. While talks by a set of unrelated politicians are of interest to the community, they don’t measure up to the task that President Kim set for himself when he invoked the name of President Dickey. Jim, when you prep the College for an exciting idea, you had better be able to deliver the goods. Otherwise, certain bloggers and a great many faculty members might assess your efforts as being intellectually lightweight or just flat our unserious.

Addendum: At a meeting of the faculty on October 9, 2007, President Wright put forth a series of ideas for revamping the sophomore summer experience. He noted, “For 30 years it has evolved but it has not been strategically and intellectually managed by the faculty and the administration.” Four years later, we are still waiting for progress.


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