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Another Faculty Member Comments on the Next President’s Characteristics

Another distinguished professor weighs in on the next President:


A member of the faculty recently wrote to you about the qualities that he/she considered were needed in a new President:

1) Familiarity with the culture of higher education
2) Management skills and experience
3) Honesty
4) Love of Dartmouth

I certainly think it is a good idea that the next President has management skills and experience. This was clearly one of our past President’s major weaknesses; Jim Kim hadn’t managed much of anything before coming here, and it showed. He clearly had little clue about the need to build coalitions, and as a consequence he didn’t know what he didn’t know. It didn’t help that Kim was hopeless at taking advice, and that he was more interested in the Trustees than the students or the faculty. The closer the contact with him, the worse it was. Kim had little interest in what anyone else was doing. He didn’t ever seem to understand that nobody could give a damn about his silly Global Health Delivery non-Science guff.

Experience in higher education seems vital, but a good administrator could bring in high-quality people to advise on that subject. The best managers can manage anything. It would help to have past experience of what to do about crises like sexual harassment, hazing and the various calamities that can face college presidents. It’s clear we don’t need another rookie. Honesty is important, of course (Kim didn’t have it), but that would seem to apply to any top-tier job, and while a love of Dartmouth is all very well, restricting the pool of applicants will inevitably lower the quality of the person we ultimately get. It would not make sense to rule out a President from some distinguished university, someone who was trained at Yale, say, and had never visited the Upper Valley. Hence, that is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition; we should just trade for the best player available, someone with lots of alternative job opportunities.

The crucial ingredient missing from the list is that our new President MUST have a major reputation in research and scholarship, and understand what Jim Freedman used to call “the life of the mind.” We are not Dartmouth High School. Recent research from Princeton University* shows that world-class scholars, not administrators, make the best leaders of universities. Presidents who are scholars help lift the reputation of their university; they contribute to national and international debates. Dartmouth needs the best and brightest scholars to take our talented students to the frontiers of knowledge, and a scholar-president is best placed to understand that. We also must contribute original things to the body of knowledge; we cannot simply draw from it.

Dartmouth is not the place for the lone scholar contemplating his or her navel over some esoteric problem. The College is an institution for the “teacher-scholar” who engages with the students, but who also does cutting-edge scholarship. We have many fantastic examples of people like this across the campus in our various divisions and professional schools. The new President needs to come in and celebrate their work and advertise it. The new President needs to fight to retain and hire the best quality faculty. In short, unlike Kim, a President needs to celebrate excellence in all areas.Too many of our best faculty have simply left because they felt unloved, undervalued and underpaid. The new President needs to set out a vision and a set of priorities quickly — we currently appear to have none — the most obvious being that we should have the best undergraduate education in the world, bar none. All else should matter less.

Finally, a successful university president knows it is about everyone else, not him or her; our new leader needs to be “in touch” with what is going on at the coalface. Experts, not managers, make the best leaders.

* Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars, Amanda H. Goodall, Princeton University Press, 2009


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