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Whither/Wither Dartmouth?

Compass.jpgAn enterprise leader’s critical function is the definition of a competitive strategy: how to excel in a marketplace where other organizations are competing for the same customers. So it is in higher education, where institutions joust for the same talented students, faculty and research dollars.

Back when I was with Bain & Company, we all laughed when General Electric traded its struggling color television and consumer electronics business to Thomson of France in exchange for Thomson’s successful and growing medical imaging business. As I recall, GE was strong, but not dominant, in medical imaging at the time. The trade left GE as a leader in the field, whereas Thompson became only the #4 or #5 producer of televisions in the world. What a great move by GE; what a boneheaded understanding of strategy by Thomson.

Today GE is still a leading player in medical imaging, a highly profitable field, and Thomson is no longer producing televisions at all.

GE’s long-standing rule was/is that if the company can’t be one of the premier firms in a field, don’t stay/get into it at all. Being one of the very top dogs is the only way to ensure long-term excellence (and profitability).

And so it is for Phil Hanlon’s Dartmouth College. Rather than forcefully occupying the research college niche where leading scholars also spend large amounts of time with undergraduates — the strategy that has ensured the College’s long-term success — Phil now seeks to play with, as he sees it, the big boys. He’s going to move the College’s emphasis decisively towards greater size and extensive research, at the cost of an intimate campus and close cooperation between faculty and students.

This is the strategy that’s bound to fail. Rather than building on the College’s historical strengths, Phil wants to compete in areas where other players are already doing an extremely good job. In doing so, we will necessarily sacrifice the areas where we are highly successful.

Needless to say, any thoughtful observer will see that Phil’s strategy is a loser. The College will just dilute its priorities in an effort to be what it is not. Imagine a fine French restaurant trying to open a chain of establishments in every major city in America. Or inversely, think how unsuccessful McDonald’s would be if it tried to open gourmet eateries, too. There is no way the French restaurant could maintain a high level of quality across 50 or 100 franchises. And gourmets would shun McDonald’s as simply not having the ability to produce fine cuisine.

Five years from now, Dartmouth could find itself betwixt and between. The quality of undergraduate teaching will suffer as we hire on more and more researchers who have little interest in or time for undergraduates. Yet the scale of our research infrastructure and the quality of recruited faculty (would you want to come work for Phil and Carolyn?) won’t be able to compete with the well established likes of Michigan and Harvard.

So where will we be? Squarely in the middle of mediocrity, which is where enterprises find themselves when they do not understand who they are. Thanks Phil.

Addendum: As we have reported, in soliciting donors the administration has not been shy about its goals. And to date, donors have not been reticent in rejecting Phil’s strategy. Let’s hope that donors continue to think for themselves.

Addendum: A former member of the faculty writes in:

Read with interest your morning missive on D and Hanlon. You’re right re strategy, but miss the broader and more important issue which is visions/aims/goals. Absent clarity about those, strategy is meaningless. Universities don’t want to have conversations about goals which they know the alums and external market would reject, so they talk endlessly about strategy. It’s all about advancing the progressive/socialist agenda. But again, they don’t want to talk about that.

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