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Who Is Richard G. Mills?

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch earned the nickname “Neutron Jack” because he could go into an overstaffed, inefficient division of GE, and like the high-radiation, low-explosive-power neutron bomb, he would leave the buildings standing, but with no people — or a good many fewer — in them. In doing so, he built GE into a high-performance company.

Mills EVP Pic.jpgWill we one day be able to call the College’s new EVP/CFO, Richard G. Mills, “Neutron Rich”? And what does his appointment tell us about Phil Hanlon’s intentions for Dartmouth’s bloated bureaucracy (up by over 40% since 1999, a period during which there was no appreciable increase in the size of the undergraduate student body).

Mills does have an interesting background, at least on the surface. I know, I know, it’s a little like mine, but still. He went to Hamilton, a good liberal arts college; he studied law at Boston University, a Top 20 school; and his Harvard biography lists him as having worked as a litigator at Posternak, Blankstein & Lund in Boston, and then as a department director and senior staff counsel at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The latter position might give one some pause: shifting early in one’s career from a law firm to a government entity, particularly a utility, is either a lifestyle choice, or it hints at only a moderately successful stint as a lawyer.

Before going to work at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in 2005, Mills’ bio information lists him as having been “the principal of a strategic consulting firm” — however, no further information about this position is available in the College’s press release. But let’s dig into his background for a little more detail than the initial press release provides us. Here are the various steps in Mills’ career following his graduation from BU Law in 1986:

1986-89: Posternak, Blankstein & Lund. Mills was a starting associate at this Boston firm for about three years.

1989-2003: Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. Hmmm. This type of organization can hardly be called cutting edge. Mills did everything from handling litigation at the start of his time there to managing waste-treatment facilities and the sale of their byproducts by the end of his stint at the Authority. Consider that an interesting, and probably very uncommon, progression.

2003-2005: Though his College bio notes that Mills was “the principal of a strategic consulting firm,” that’s an overstatement. In fact, he was the only professional in his own one-man consulting shop. He worked a wide variety of areas. Interestingly, he helped a major educational institution outsource its facilities management function, and he lobbied the State of Massachusetts government for private clients.

2005-2007
: He began work at Harvard Medical School as its Facilities and Planning Manager. Mills was the equivalent of the head of Dartmouth’s Facilities Operation and Management (FO&M) department.

2007-2008: For more than a year, Mills managed HMS’ IT function, and other business and administrative areas.

2008-2010: Moving quickly into education, Mills oversaw HMS’ overseas programs, various graduate programs, and other aspects of the medical school including HMS’ publications.

2010-2013: As HMS’ Dean of Administration, Mills held a position which had broad administrative oversight for many and varied areas of HMS.

On paper, that’s a meteoric rise.

I was not able to find any detailed financial information regarding HMS’s finances over time, except for the fact that its basic operational expenses in 2011 were $654 million (the College’s 2012 expenses were $776 million). In 2012, the school had an alarming $28.8 million deficit, after enjoying a balanced budget in 2011; recently 31 custodial workers were laid off.

On paper, Mills appointment is confusing. The fact that he has worked outside the academy is encouraging; that he did so with a state water authority is not. He seems to have held many HMS positions, but only for relatively brief periods of time. Does that fact denote the fast rise of a highly competent administrator, or something else?

Phil Hanlon’s intention and goals here are unclear. Has he hired a competent bureaucrat or a tough-minded cost-manager? Based on Richard Mills’ career path, it is tough to know, though there certainly are reasons to be hopeful.

Addendum: An alumnus parses the College’s press release regarding Mills’ appointment:

Did you notice how Mills is quoted as describing Dartmouth as:

“a superb undergraduate college, three premier professional schools, and leading graduate programs”

You know as well as I that press release quotations are rarely actual quotations. Whoever drafts the release drafts quotes that the alleged speaker then approves/adopts. I am willing to bet that considerable thought went into crafting this. It differs significantly from the past 20 years or so in which the description always crept toward “research university.”

Also of interest to me was

“I am looking forward to meeting more students, faculty and staff in the coming months and learning what it means to bleed green!”

So listening to others and bleeding green matter now? It’s not only that they may mean it. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. It’s that they believe it’s important to say it. I am also willing to bet that this kind of language can’t be found in pre-Hanlon releases.

Too soon to go euphoric, of course. But it beats being discouraged.

Addendum: An alum writes in with an additional thought:

It sure would be nice to see a senior manager at Dartmouth have some executive-level experience in the private sector. Seeing how well a real business can be run would shed light on how poorly bureaucratic institutions like Dartmouth are administered.

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