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A Tale of Two Press Releases

It’s far too early to know whether President-elect Phil Hanlon will make a better leader for Dartmouth than Jim Yong Kim, but looking at the press campaign the College released for Hanlon, perhaps “better” was less on the the Trustees’ minds than “different.” In nearly every way that counts, and a few that don’t, Hanlon is the anti-Kim — and that’s a message that the College is conveying to the wider Dartmouth community at every turn.

A public relations campaign tells a story. To see how Hanlon’s compares with Kim, I dug back into four-year-old history to see the PR blitz for Dartmouth’s 17th president. It makes for an interesting side-by-side study. Let’s start with a word cloud from the Kim announcement back in 2009:


There are a few things that probably stick out right away. For example, “health” was tied (with “Kim”) for the second-most common word. “Dr.,” “global,” and “world” also rank high up there. None of these words are things we closely associated with Dartmouth before Kim arrived, although they do sound like things the World Bank might have been interested in. What about Hanlon? Here’s the word cloud for his announcement:


Nothing about health here, that’s for sure. Instead we have more references to words like “academic,” “education,” “undergraduate,” and “research.” Looks like a better fit to me. But let’s go deeper. Take a gander at Ed Haldeman’s lead quote as Chair of the Board of Trustees. It’s literally our first introduction to Kim:

Jim Yong Kim embodies the ideals of learning, innovation, and service that lie at the heart of Dartmouth’s mission,” Haldeman said. “As a passionate educator and physician, he has had a profound impact on students, faculty, colleagues and fellow health professionals. And as a leader in the field of global health, Jim has helped to transform efforts to bring health care to the world’s poor. Jim follows in the long tradition of Dartmouth presidents who have made a significant mark both in higher education and on the world stage, and we are confident he is the ideal person to lead the College in today’s rapidly changing environment.

So, what were we supposed to learn about Kim? He embodied Dartmouth’s “ideals” with his “profound impact” in a completely different area. Not much concrete to go on there. With the benefit of hindsight, we might even suggest that Haldeman’s quote is purposely evasive. Tapping a “leader in the field of global health” to be president of an Ivy League college shouldn’t have been an easy sell, and Haldeman had to shoe-horn him in by explicitly informing the reader that Kim’s accomplishments were not outside the norm of past presidents. But let’s compare that quote to Steve Mandel’s introduction for Hanlon:

Along with my fellow trustees, I am delighted to welcome Phil home to his alma mater. All of us are inspired by the exceptional qualities he will bring to the presidency as a world-class academic, an accomplished administrative leader, and a passionate scholar-teacher. Phil truly understands how great scholarship and research are essential to an undergraduate learning experience that produces leaders who can shape and change a world that is increasingly complex, diverse, and interdisciplinary. This insight, combined with his personal integrity, his strength of purpose, and his deep love for Dartmouth, makes Phil a terrific leader for this great institution as we build an ambitious academic future and look forward to our 250th anniversary in 2019.

It’s the exact opposite story. Mandel lets us know right up front that Hanlon is an alumnus. The triumvirate of qualities he names sounds like they were selected to combat the most common charges against Kim: “world-class academic, an accomplished administrative leader, and a passionate scholar-teacher.” Unlike some people (Mandel might have added), Hanlon “truly understands” scholarship and research and the academic experience. Not to mention, such a man of “integrity,” “purpose,” and “deep love for Dartmouth” would never abandon us like Kim did. Everything you need to know is right there.

What about the words of the President-elect himself? Here’s Kim’s main quote at the time:

I am honored and humbled to accept this role, and look forward to building on the many achievements of Jim Wright and his predecessors that have made Dartmouth the vibrant, world-class institution it is today. Dartmouth is a unique and special place with a powerful sense of community. The educational opportunities it offers, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, are exceptional, and the loyalty and passion of its alumni, faculty, staff and students are unrivaled. I could not be more excited about this opportunity to help build on Dartmouth’s great traditions as well as its singular role in higher education.

There really are no specifics in here at all. Although we do get a shocking crescendo of adjectives: “vibrant, world-class” — “unique and special” — “powerful” — “exceptional” — “unrivaled” — “singular role.” Man, what a place. Does Hanlon fall for the same trope in his quote?

I am humbled and thrilled to be asked to be the president of Dartmouth, the place where I grew up and forged lifelong friendships and bonds. Dartmouth revealed to me the power that derives from the life of the mind. It gave me the confidence to pursue my academic dreams, along with the unshakeable conviction that there is no firmer foundation for success than a broad liberal arts education. Today, more than ever, higher education must produce citizen leaders with the creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, cultural awareness, and flexibility to make a difference in today’s world. Dartmouth has taken great strides toward meeting this goal through its strategic planning process. I am honored to have the opportunity to work with faculty, students, staff, alumni, and our Board to further Dartmouth’s leadership in higher education in ways that combine our traditional strengths with even greater academic excellence, scholarship, and global impact.

There’s plenty of PR speak here as well, but Hanlon’s quote isn’t filled with mindless, enthusiastic jargon. There’s no deifying of Dartmouth. He describes (in admittedly vague terms) his personal connection to the College and the importance of the liberal arts — in a way that suggests we can improve. “Dartmouth has taken great strides,” Hanlon says, but there’s clearly much more to strive for.

In a certain sense, these announcements are little more than two-minute trailers for the full length feature to come. They can be manipulative, misleading, and just plain incorrect. But when you see where that first teaser foretold a certain story with Kim, it may be a good sign that Dartmouth chose a completely different genre this time around.


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