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Great Issues Not So Great

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The speakers for this summer’s Leading Voices course have been announced. Good news. But while having a few more prominent people come to town is a positive thing, it is worth reflecting at this point on what has become of President Kim’s once-prominent initiative.

Even before he came to Hanover, Kim evoked John Sloan Dickey’s Great Issues course as a Dartmouth tradition that he wanted to restore. The idea was a good one pedagogically — a great many alumni recall GI as the intellectual highlight of their undergraduate experience — and connecting with JSD was a smart PR move, too: Dickey is the College’s last indisputably great President.

The summer of 2010 saw several prominent alumni speak in Hanover (Tim Geithner, Hank Paulson, Jeff Immelt), along with Mayor Bloomberg and Jim Kim himself. That summer’s speaker series was announced as a precursor to the return of Great Issues. Kim noted at the time that the organizational complexity of the effort had been a surprise to him.

The summer of 2011 saw a broader range of visitors and a matching undergraduate course. Things seemed to be moving forward, though behind the scenes the usual academic staff work was strangely absent. Where were the faculty committees that are needed to integrate an important curricular initiative like GI into the sophomore class’ summer?

One would have imagined that President Kim had envisioned the summer of 2012 as the time to take the wraps off a full-fledged Great Issues course. By the end of this third year as President, a revamped GI would have been strong evidence of Kim’s devotion to undergraduate education, the liberal arts, and to Dartmouth traditions.

Based on those expectations, this summer’s speakers are pretty thin gruel, and no effort has been made to include the entire sophomore class. The visitors certainly do not rise to the standard that one expects in a significant Presidential initiative.

The question arises as to why Jim Kim did not make more effort to get GI off the ground this year. Last month in Chicago Kim asserted to alumni that he only learned that he was under consideration for the World Bank Presidency five days before the March 23 announcement of his nomination by President Obama. One would have expected him to have been working on GI right up to that date, no?

No. And I wonder why not? Two hypotheses come to mind: a) Jim Kim had lost interest in GI when he came to see how much work was involved in implementing the proposal; b) He realized well before March 2012 that has wasn’t going to be in Hanover beyond the summer, so why waste time on projects that weren’t going to impact his career trajectory. I vote for the latter as the explanation, especially because this scenario also explains his two-month-long silence on the hazing controversy in the first quarter of the year.

All that said, GI remains a good idea in the context of a re-structured, re-invigorated sophomore summer. With the support of the faculty, a real leader could move the College forward in this area.

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