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New Dickey Center Head: What’s “Understanding” Got to Do With It?

Last week the College announced that Daniel Benjamin, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large and principal advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on counterterrorism, had been appointed Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. He replaces former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Ken Yalowitz. (See the College’s press release and The D’s story.) Despite the usual round of manufactured applause, there is a great deal of conversation taking place about Kim/Folt’s choice. A concerned faculty member has written in to voice her concerns:


If you think there are jokes about naming the medical center after Dr. Seuss, wait till you hear what our peer institutions will say about the hiring of the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s main advisor on counter terrorism to head Dartmouth’s “Center for International Understanding”!

Dartmouth announced last week that it has appointed “Ambassador” Daniel Benjamin (an Ambassador by courtesy; he has never manned an embassy) as Head of the Dickey Center for International Understanding. He was a journalist for Time and the Wall Street Journal and has done the think-tank scene. He has lived in Germany and England, (he was a Marshall Fellow at Oxford), and his books indicate only short “visits” to the Islamic world as research for his books — where he depended on translators.

It was evidently decided at some point that the people best qualified to “understand” were ex-diplomats, and so the Dickey Center has been headed now by two retiring ambassadors. One can question whether diplomats, sequestered in their Fortress Americas, with strict security-imposed restrictions on travel and sociability, really “understand” the countries they visit in any meaningful sense of the term. Some have experience in the countries where they work; many don’t. They may understand policy-making in the country where they work, but many have no clue about the country itself — its culture, its language(s), its life — the stuff we ordinarily mean when we talk about “understanding another country.”

Surely of all the ways to “understand” a country, even in the realm of diplomacy, “counter-terrorism” seems about the worst way. In counterterrorism, everyone is either an enemy or an asset. The goals are purely instrumental: stop the bad guys from attacking us. And of course the view from a drone doesn’t seem the best vantage point from which to see another country. No one would deny that counter-terrorism is necessary, and is even a worthy, field of study — perhaps in the government department. But understanding?

This appointment has to be seen as an institutional failure. A look at the search committee helps us to grasp how this choice occurred. Reviewing the selection committee, we have a trade negotiator, a specialist in Arctic flora, a specialist in “conflict studies,” an Italian literature professor, a scholar of Caribbean film, and someone who studies the syntax of dying African languages. But there is no one who actually studies the history, culture, religion, anthropology, or anything else of Africa, the Middle East, Central, South, Eastern or Southeast Asia — that is, most of the world; no one whose brief is any kind of cultural understanding, except perhaps the film studies scholar. But an African-American, check; female, check; social sciences, two checks; humanities, one check; natural sciences, check; alum, check.

Predictably, the administration chorus was self-congratulatory: “Lindsay Whaley, acting associate provost for international affairs, anticipates that Benjamin will connect well with the Dartmouth community over a range of international issues. ‘Dan brings an impressive breadth of expertise and interests. He will be able to build on the Dickey Center’s existing strengths, as well as partner with faculty members to develop some new directions.’” New directions? Drone studies perhaps; targeting as a form of cultural understanding; or “how to make friends — the Pakistani case?”

This final appointment of the “Kolt” Administration is of a piece with their view of why colleges exist: they are think tanks to solve policy problems, unencumbered by any cultural considerations, scholarly aspirations, or pedagogical concerns (Mr. Benjamin has never worked in a university or college).

Dartmouth will survive this appointment of course, and probably the Dickey Center will, too; but for the immediate future, students will be taught that “understanding” means seeing foreigners as obstacles or assets to American policy goals. That view of the world explains our policy failures of the last three decades. Dartmouth, it seems, intends not to counter these failures but to perpetuate them.

One of a President’s critical responsibilities is picking people: staffing search committees and making the final choice for senior positions. A President who chooses weak administrators will have a weak administration. Q.E.D.


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