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What We Need in a President
Another member of the faculty has written in to voice an opinion, this time about the qualities needed in the College’s next President. This senior professor could have sent a note to the Search Committee, but my sense is that enriching campus debate — as well as the Committee’s deliberations — was an important factor in choosing to publish these ideas on Dartblog.
Having watched many college presidents, both at Dartmouth and elsewhere, I’ve formed a short list of qualities that I think we must see in Dartmouth’s next president. There are no priorities here: all these qualities are essential; the College’s best presidents have evidenced each one of them.
1. FAMILIARITY WITH/APPRECIATION OF THE CULTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. Colleges and universities don’t work like other institutions. While new ideas can come from the top, faculty must buy into them through the instruments of faculty governance. Administrators and students, too, must feel as though they’re being heard. Put simply, college and university governance is collegial. Senior business managers usually come from a different world, where their word is law. Anyone coming into a college or university must understand, or quickly learn that such an approach doesn’t work here. Does this mean that our next president must be an educator? Probably. But quick learners from other spheres, a diplomat like John Sloan Dickey at Dartmouth or a governmental administrator like Donna Shalala at Miami, have been excellent presidents. (Shalala had the advantage of prior educational leadership.) A search committee must probe for this ability to understand our world.
2. MANAGEMENT SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE. A good president must be a good manager. This includes the ability to lead and structure the administration so that things get done efficiently (and humanely), and the ability to execute plans without either neglecting relevant detail or engaging in excessively intrusive management. Although a good manager doesn’t have to be a finance person, he or she must understand budgets. Above all, a good manager must have the ability to appoint good subordinates. Poor leaders/managers often try to shine by surrounding themselves with mediocrities and yes-people; the best surround themselves with outstanding subordinates who, in some ways, may even outshine them. Dartmouth’s Jim Freedman may not have been one of our most striking campus personalities, but his senior officers were outstanding, and his presidency was successful.
3. HONESTY. Because of the collegial nature of college and university administration, the best college presidents earn the trust of all their constituencies. This means that everyone must believe that the president is speaking truthfully and is not being manipulative. Truthfulness, not “optics,” is what matters. Good presidents understand the need for appropriate confidentiality, but they also knows that respecting people’s privacy and knowing when to communicate sensitive information must never be confused with deceit and misinformation. Everyone in the College should feel that when the president says something, they can count on the veracity of what is being said.
4. LOVE OF DARTMOUTH. Almost all of our previous presidents have shown their love of Dartmouth by regarding the presidency as a key stage in their career. The next president must show us that Dartmouth is not just a steppingstone to higher office, but a place to which he or she hopes to make an enduring personal and professional commitment.
A Dartmouth president must understand and cherish what makes Dartmouth unique. This includes our commitment to undergraduate education, and the facilities and programs needed to support it (housing, dining, libraries, computing, arts, athletics, and staffing for undergraduate life). Over the years, we have innovated in the integration of computing into education, involvement of students in foreign study, and the national and international diversification of our student body. These are all areas that a president committed to Dartmouth should respect and develop. Excellent graduate programs and professional schools are also a part of Dartmouth’s historic identity, and, done well, they can contribute in many ways to our undergraduate program by fostering contact with world-class researchers and educators. They help infuse the undergraduate program with the insight that higher education is about the creation of knowledge, not just its communication. But graduate education should never be allowed to eclipse the prime commitment to undergraduate education.
A love of Dartmouth also includes an appreciation of the College’s unique environment and a willingness to protect it. New buildings and renovations of historic older ones are good and needed, but we must strive to preserve the beauty of Hanover and the campus environment. We must never lose the view of the hills from the Dartmouth Green.
Finally, and not least, love of Dartmouth includes appreciation of and respect for all the people committed to Dartmouth: our intensely loyal alums, our devoted staff, administrators, and faculty. Valuing these people’s love of Dartmouth means listening to and respecting their concerns. This should not be confused with simple Big Green boosterism. Nor should it resist change. Dartmouth is always changing. But the commitments to undergraduate education, to our beautiful environment, and to all those who have given to Dartmouth in various ways must be unchanging basics for a Dartmouth president.
Many of these qualities have been lacking in Dartmouth’s recent leadership. But I don’t set these values forth to criticize. They are offered to guide the selection process in which we are now engaged. By choosing a president who understands higher education, who is a good and experienced manager, who earns our trust through honest communication and conduct, and who understands and loves what is essential to Dartmouth, we can foster renewed greatness in the Wheelock Succession.
My correspondent is too gracious. As long-time readers know, no better summary of Jim Kim’s and Carol Folt’s failings is to be had anywhere: of neither of them can it be said that we have “a president who understands higher education, who is a good and experienced manager, who earns our trust through honest communication and conduct, and who understands and loves what is essential to Dartmouth.”
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