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The DAM Interview

President Jim Kim explains what he’s learned in his first two years on the job and talks about his plans for the future.
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How’s he doing?

After more than two years in the driver’s seat, Dartmouth’s 17th president has reached a turning point. Behind him already are two ground-breaking initiatives launched in a 13-month period, layoffs and more than $100 million in budget cuts, and, most recently, settling his administration into place. Next, says Kim, “we’re switching from defense to offense.” The faculty will be his focus, along with what he calls the “special sauce” of a Dartmouth education.

The president made this clear in a series of fall interviews with DAM. In more than six hours of candid conversation Kim not only shared his plans for the near-term but also reflected on his time at the helm thus far. Topics ranged from his evolving leadership style (“I’m no longer Jim Kim”) and dealing with constituencies that can often be at odds with one another, to how he balances family life and fatherhood with a never-ending job. What follows is an edited version of the interviews.

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Now that you’ve been in the job for two years, how do you describe your duties?

My job is to understand and somehow inspire and keep happy very different constituencies: to make faculty and students feel Dartmouth is a great place to be and alumni feel it’s a great place to be from and to support. Doing that means removing obstacles so faculty and students can do their best work or the Medical School dean can create an even greater medical school or the athletic director and the coaches can get absolute peak performance and turn students not only into great athletes but also into great citizens, just to give a few examples. I found a lot of great people here when I arrived, and since then we’ve been able to put more great people into important roles.

Part of helping talented people achieve success is just going out and showing my support—that I’m here for them and I’m going to try to solve problems for them. Another part is steering clear of what’s not my job. It’s not my job to have a gazillion opinions about what Dartmouth faculty should be doing in their research or about the scholarly directions that specific departments choose. This is the crux of American higher education—academic freedom—and it’s the reason we’ve been great for so many decades. Faculty have the license to go in whatever directions they think are important.

What do you mean by removing obstacles?

The way I try to remove obstacles is by asking my colleagues pretty specifically: “What can I do to help you achieve your goals?” I’ve discovered two things: One is that some people never thought to ask me for help with a problem—for example, getting other faculties to consider an interdisciplinary initiative. I can be helpful because I have convening authority to bring together professors from various disciplines or, possibly, to include alumni with specific expertise.

Other people think I can do things that I can’t: change a policy, for example, or the academic calendar or a particular requirement. There are very specific faculty processes for doing this that have to be followed.

What about your responsibilities as fundraiser-in-chief?

Because we work on a very specific model in which tuition and fees pay less than half the total cost of running arts and sciences, I have a responsibility to raise the money needed for Dartmouth to grow and excel.

Some people say, “Why would you ever want to be president when all you do is fundraise?” But here’s how I see it: Fundraising is finding people with more resources than they need and inspiring them to support a mission that’s critical for Dartmouth. There is no such thing as simply maintaining the status quo in higher education. So many other places are running as fast as they can to surpass us that failure to maintain an upward curve will, by default, send us into a downward curve.

Is your role what you expected when you became president?

It’s really hard to know what this job is like unless you’re sitting in the seat. Initially I thought my job was to have ideas about everything, to add value in every conversation, to have opinions and offer analysis and perspective in every single meeting. I did a lot of reading to prepare for this job, but now when I reread these books, they make more sense. Judy McLaughlin, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says there are three things that are really important for a president: to be a good manager, to be an inspiring visionary and to understand governance. But it’s hard to know how to actually put these principles into action. You just have to get in and make a lot of mistakes and talk to a lot of people. It’s a real trial-and-error process.

What have you learned from these conversations, trials and errors?

First and foremost I’ve learned about governance at Dartmouth. Each constituency—faculty, trustees, alumni, staff and students—has its own understanding of how this place works and very strong notions of the right direction for Dartmouth. But often they have a limited understanding of the perspectives of the other constituencies. That’s the hard management job for a college president. You might think the president can just say it and it happens, but it’s almost never like that. You’re always having to persuade people, knowing full well that when you finally get going in a particular direction there will be loud cries of objection from somebody else.

It’s the most complicated ethnographic puzzle I’ve ever faced. But there are also times when really great things happen right in front of your eyes.

For instance?

A good example is the binge-drinking initiative. This is such a difficult issue and an area of worry for me because you just never know when you are going to lose somebody to an alcohol overdose. We’d been talking—administrators, faculty—about different approaches, and then almost out of the blue a group of students came to me and said, “We’ve heard of this program at Haverford College that seems to be working really well. We’re going to do it here.”

So now we have the Green Team operating at parties across the campus. All we really had to do was create paid jobs for these students to go to parties and not drink and help others who have been drinking.

At the time it seemed to happen out of thin air, but it really flowed from discussion across constituencies. I certainly had been talking a lot about alcohol, but so had the students and faculty and the town of Hanover. All of these pieces coming together suddenly made it happen. Now we’ve grown the Dartmouth effort into a national collaborative with 31 other colleges and universities, including five of the eight Ivies, in which we’re working to help each other be more effective on this important issue. The program at Dartmouth that is most interesting to these other schools has been the Green Team, so our collaborative is now helping to replicate it on other campuses.

It sounds as though your experiences to date have led you to see your role more as enabling than as initiating.

It crystallized for me this idea of clearing a path so smart, motivated people can be successful. That’s what I was able to do for these students. They got it, they understood that this effort to reduce harm from binge drinking was important. They gave a presentation of how the Haverford program works, including data on a dramatic decrease in alcohol-related hospitalizations of Haverford students. After that I basically stood back and said, “Okay. Let me know what I can do to help.”

So now I say this explicitly to deans and others: “Tell me what your biggest dreams are, and tell me what I can do to help you achieve them.” It’s a more humble approach than trying to use the power of the president’s office to push people to do things they don’t otherwise want to do. Instead you work to create an environment where people interact with each other and come up with good ideas, and then you try to remove demoralizing roadblocks.

Another example is the master’s program that we developed for the new Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, which is a collaboration between Tuck business school and the Medical School. The original idea was mine, but what they developed is so much better than anything I could have ever imagined. Faculty have come up with truly innovative ways to present material never before seen in higher education partly because we created a structure in which the faculty from various disciplines could interact and exchange ideas.

How has your management style changed since your days with the World Health Organization?

It’s fairly well known now that I have a leadership coach, Marshall Goldsmith, who was recently ranked one of the world’s top-10 thought leaders and who also teaches at Tuck. He took me on as a pro bono case. In Marshall’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, he lists the 20 most common mistakes that CEOs make. Probably the biggest mistake is adding too much value. I didn’t understand that in the beginning, but I sure do now.

In tackling the problem of drug-resistant tuberculosis and AIDS at the World Health Organization I had to constantly come up with new ideas and specifics about what we were going to do. In meetings I not only had to contribute to the discussion but also argue that my perspective was the correct one. I had to talk, talk, talk to convince people in order to do my job. When I came to Dartmouth, I continued this approach and tried to add value in every situation I walked into. Very quickly I learned that can cause problems.

Can you give an example?

Well, even simple things—how do you want to redesign the Hanover Inn? How should we be thinking about a Commencement speaker? All kinds of things. If I come in and try to be brilliant and show that I’ve thought deeply about the particular question, it sets people back because now they’ve got to deal with the fact that the president said this or that. They may have been working on the issue for a long time, but now they have the extra worry about how to push forward their agenda without insulting me.

In other words, you took office as Jim Kim and had to learn how to be president.

Yes, I’m no longer Jim Kim. It’s not a question of being false, it’s just that everything I do has implications for the organization. You’ve got to think of your job as pure service, and you’ve got to support the leadership of others in the hierarchical structure for Dartmouth to be successful. Unless every single person in a managment role is maximally effective, you’re not going to be successful as an instituion. You have to resist the temptation to say, “I’m going to go in and fix it,” because it’s not about you, it’s about the organization as a whole, it’s about ensuring that people are as successful as they can possibly be.

How’s it been going when it comes to dealing with alumni?

I do 12 or so big alumni events a year. In a very interesting way I kind of relax as soon as I walk into a room full of alumni because of this crazy devotion to Dartmouth we all share. It’s great to be with people who understand what it’s like to be part of this College. The passion for this place is unmatched in any other institution I’ve ever been part of. Different alums have different memories of Dartmouth, but the vast majority wants what’s best for this place. They want to be inspired by a vision that’s going to take it to new heights.

The most important thing I can do with alumni is push the message that we have got to keep innovating and evolving if we’re to remain a great institution. That means that the Dartmouth of 10 years from now is going to be in some ways different from the Dartmouth of 10 years ago. We’ve got to make sure that we honor and cherish the love alumni feel for Dartmouth College but at the same time get across the message that we either evolve and innovate or we go backward.

Do you approach faculty in the same way?

Faculty already understand this message very well. They’re collectively engaged with the latest things that are happening across a huge number of disciplines, not just in the United States but around the world. So this is a unifying message for all of Dartmouth’s constituencies: that we love our traditions, but it is not a slavish devotion to repeating the past. We’ve run around the bonfire for 100 years and that’s important not because we’re a bunch of automatons who go through rituals but because we want to feel connected to each other. Equally important traditions at Dartmouth have been innovation and evolution. These are Dartmouth’s driving principles that we’ve got to hold onto for dear life.

Alumni have a long history of generosity to the College. In the current economy is it difficult for you to ask alumni for contributions to Dartmouth when some alums might believe a local food bank or international charity has the higher claim?

If someone were to say to me, “I can’t give as much as I’d like to this year because I’ve just given a major gift to feed starving kids in Ethiopia,” I’d say, “That’s great.” I would never argue that someone should give to Dartmouth instead.

I would argue that they should also give to Dartmouth, and here’s why: The more I work on really difficult issues, the more I understand that it’s human beings who understand the notion of service and what it takes to humble oneself to get complex groups of people to do something they otherwise would never do. We describe this capacity as leadership, but the word is inadequate to describe something so profound.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important things that any of us can do is contribute to the education of the next generation, to expose them to philosophy and literature and science and Dartmouth’s incredible variety of extracurricular activities in a way that forces them to understand who they are in a variety of settings and their responsibility to tackle difficult problems.

So the mission you wish alumni to embrace is to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders?

It’s not just inspiring them. We have to go further. The folks in leadership studies at Tuck have said the one thing that is critical for the development of better leaders is self-awareness, the so-called 360-degree analysis. The challenge for us is to structure the kind of education that will lead to the graduation of young people with a clearer sense of what it will take for them to be effective human beings. And there is no better way to do that than through the kind of broad liberal arts education that we offer at Dartmouth.

I see this happening here every day. So I would argue with our alums who say they want to give directly to, say, Haiti, please do, but invest in Dartmouth too, because I think we have a greater opportunity than any other place I’ve ever seen to graduate extraordinary individuals who will not settle for mediocrity but who will bring a level of moral seriousness to get it right for the people of Haiti or wherever they apply their education.

Your talk about this purposeful approach to education at the College is reminiscent of theories about Dartmouth’s potential that you expressed two years ago. In that sense have your expectations been realized?

Absolutely. Can we do it even better? Sure. But there’s a greater level of seriousness about this notion of combining cutting-edge research with teaching. The times when people in academia in the outside world really go crazy are when Dartmouth denies productive scholars tenure because they’re not good teachers. Dartmouth is one of the few places that actually does this because we’re serious about educating people who will address the world’s problems effectively.

Why isn’t Dartmouth as well known for its faculty research as it is for its undergraduate teaching?

I think part of the hesitancy about really shouting to the world about the great research that we do is based on the reaction of the alumni of the past. Every president has had to deal with this reaction for close to 100 years: “Why are you trying to turn Dartmouth College into Dartmouth University?”

A lot of alumni remember Dartmouth as a small place that was focused solely on them and their education, not research. That’s not been true for many decades. And the attitude is changing. What I’m hearing now, both from trustees and from alumni, is a newfound appreciation for the need for us to do both.

For me, it’s not just a dual mission. There are actually three things we have to focus on: research, teaching and engagement with the rest of the world, a mission that I think is also deeply ingrained in the DNA of this place. These three cornerstones of a Dartmouth education are what makes us unique and potentially a model for other institutions of higher education.

How have you approached working with faculty?

I consider my relationship with the faculty among the most important parts of my job. Of all Dartmouth’s constituencies, faculty is the group most involved directly in the day-to-day governance of this institution. I’m working hard to get to know them. I go to classes, departmental meetings and faculty lunches whenever I can.

The difficult part for me was that in the first two years we really had to focus on getting the budget in order. Depending on how you estimate the market returns, we were looking at a potential $100-million deficit by 2014. In that context we had to do so much cutting it created a situation where there was basically no get-to-know-you honeymoon period. I had to jump right in and talk with people I didn’t know very well about making cuts. That’s never easy.

But I’ve come away from recent meetings with the faculty as a whole with very positive feelings. I think we have a healthy dialogue going, and we are working out ways to structure and improve the dialogue going forward. That faculty members speak out and say what they think is evidence of great, working governance.

What’s your assessment of the College’s current financial situation?

During the last two years we did a lot better than we thought we would in terms of endowment return, although it looks like we will do worse this year. This market unpredictability was part of our thinking in cutting the budget, keeping in mind that there could be a double-dip recession. That’s the reason we went at it so aggressively.

The good news is that our revenues and expenditures are now in line. Of course if there’s a 50-percent reduction in the stock market, we’re all in trouble. But even with flat or modestly negative endowment growth, we’ve set ourselves up so that our most loyal supporters are now ready to help us take Dartmouth to the next level. I would say that we’ve done such good work in stabilizing ourselves financially that the No. 1 priority is investing in faculty and the academic mission.

How will you do that?

We have to create spaces like the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Building that spur creativity, that let great professors do even greater things because they’re supported by an environment that enables them to teach students and work with graduate students most effectively. The life sciences building is a classic example of a really thoughtful investment in the academic mission that, I’m convinced, is going to bring enormous returns.

In the old biology building, Gilman Hall, all the laboratories were separated, so if you wanted to talk to somebody it was not easy. Now there are four major open laboratory spaces with five or six professors in each. We have transformed the level of interaction in a way that spurs better science. The biology faculty members are just giddy about the opportunities.

I walked into the building and noticed a little gathering area where the wall was painted with a very shiny white paint and there was a little plastic penholder on the wall with all these markers in different colors. I was told the wall is shiny because it was painted with dry-erase paint so that whenever faculty have ideas they want to talk through with colleagues they can just grab a pen and start writing on the walls.

This is the science of the future. Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, argues that chance favors the connected mind. So investing in a way that gives really smart people new opportunities to talk to one another so they can do their best work has to be at the top of our priorities.

How does this play out in the humanities?

That’s the discussion we’re having right now. We have to fix Dartmouth Row, where the religion, classics, philosophy, comparative literature and language departments are housed. The buildings are not handicap-accessible, according to requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our social science departments in their buildings are very crowded right now—there’s no room for growth. When the trustees visited the life sciences building, I think they were convinced that spaces can be transformative. So how can we do something similar for the humanities and the social sciences?

We have a faculty group now that’s just beginning to talk about what we need to do—to dream and come up with a vision of how we can turn these iconic buildings into invigorating state-of-the-art centers so that our humanities professors can do the kind of teaching and research they want to do. We’ve given the humanities departments a hunting license to go out and find out what it might be.

I have to wait for the ideas to come from the faculty, but I have signaled to them that the budget-cutting process has been successful and, barring a full-out depression, we’re switching from defense to offense.

The College’s most generous supporters know that our commitment to the liberal arts is the special sauce of a Dartmouth education. So I’m optimistic that we will be able to raise the money we need to implement the dreams of the faculty.

What have you learned from professors that is influencing your priorities as president?

Every field is moving very quickly and is very competitive in terms of doing the kind of research that is going to be transformative. Some of our competitors—Washington University of St. Louis, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins—are aggressively trying to overtake Dartmouth in terms of being great institutions of higher education.

So are universities in China, Korea, Japan and India. All are aggressively trying to build institutions that will not only capture world prestige but also be the drivers of economic growth. We must support Dartmouth professors to the degree necessary for them to compete effectively in that very intense world.

You know, the American university is at the top of the world right now. Fifty out of the top 90 universities in current worldwide rankings are American, but it wasn’t always this way. In the pre-WW II era German universities dominated. We can make no assumptions about where we’re going to be in even the next 20 years.

How do your undergraduate years at Brown compare to the experience of Dartmouth students today?

There is much greater freedom to tackle different subject areas than there was in my day—and much greater uncertainty about the future. When I was a student most everyone I knew was premed, was prelaw, going off to do a Ph.D. or going into business. There just weren’t that many options. There was a greater pressure, I think, to know what you were going to do when you
graduated.

Now we have 25 to 30 percent of our seniors in the spring term of their senior year who don’t know what they’re going to do, which is logical given today’s rapidly changing world. There’s also the reality that many recent graduates are in jobs that didn’t exist when they left college. What we know from data tracking Dartmouth graduates is that, despite initial uncertainty, eventually they are going to do very well.

How has your daily routine evolved?

I meet with my senior leaders and all different kinds of people every week. The calendar gets changed and updated depending on whether there is an area that requires my attention. It is really hard to predict. The difference now as I begin my third year is that day-to-day management requires less of my time than it did the first two years when we were in transition. You just have to be flexible. Different areas are going to require attention at different times. There is always going to be a part of my job that’s focused on putting out fires, but when you have a good team—a great new dean of the college, a great new athletic director and others now in place—you have to find a way to keep informed but at the same time be very careful not to micromanage.

You brought in $35 million for the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science. Was this from one of the alums you inspired to invest in Dartmouth’s mission?

I can’t say who it was, because the donors wish to remain anonymous, but they aren’t alums. They’re a couple who really believed it was the right idea at the right time and at the right place. Arguably the biggest problem that the U.S. government and the U.S. population face is the rapid rise in healthcare costs without the kind of quality that we need to keep people healthy.

Why do the donors view Dartmouth as the location for such a center?

These are people who are not in the healthcare field, but who know a lot about healthcare and are consumers themselves. They grasped the defining influence of the Dartmouth Atlas on the healthcare debate in this country, both among Republicans and Democrats, and the potential contributions of a business school, a school of engineering, a medical school and the faculty of arts and sciences brought together through a center devoted to the science of healthcare delivery. What we’ve seen happen since is that six or seven other healthcare-delivery science centers have popped up, the most comparable and complementary of which is the Mayo Clinic’s Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery. It’s the right idea, and I think the interest of government and industry in research to improve quality and lower costs in healthcare is going to skyrocket.

Do you worry that your commitment to healthcare delivery might be interpreted by other academic departments as neglect of their needs and contributions?

I feel I am tackling one of the great social problems of the world in a way that’s completely in line with my predecessors. When John Sloan Dickey ’29 created the “Great Issues” course, he was trying to bring attention to the possibility of nuclear annihilation and spur Dartmouth’s engagement with the rest of the world. This was innovative in higher education. The “Great Issues” course was copied throughout the country. As a professor John Kemeny built the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System. As president he did things like bringing coeducation to Dartmouth and making computers part of daily student life.

Higher educational institutions have a responsibility to tackle difficult problems partly because we are neutral and disinterested, which is critically important if the issues are to be tackled effectively. Moreover, you want these issues highlighted on campus so students become familiar with them. Healthcare is a fundamental issue for everybody on the planet, and to bring greater health literacy to this campus is almost, I feel, my moral duty.

As you grapple with the College’s own healthcare costs are you planning to implement the center’s insights into practice on campus?

Yes, we are. By the time this interview is published we probably will have announced our new primary care practice, which follows a model in which you have ready access to primary care, along with lots of nurses to help manage care as well as health coaches—community health workers—to help people avoid illness. We will be implementing this model as a pilot project at a location in downtown Hanover for self-selected faculty and staff and hope it will have a very large impact. Depending on how that works, we hope to expand to other locations and serve the entire campus community.

There’s a perception floating around campus that you like sports more than the arts, since you’re seen more often at sporting events than at the Hop. Any truth to that?

Few people know this, but when I was a senior in high school I spent the spring of my senior year as a bit player in the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I did this because I wanted to try a different kind of experience rather than hang out with my jock buddies and my nerd buddies.

I never performed again until I came to Dartmouth and did the Michael Jackson “Thriller” takeoff video and the “Time of My Life” performance for the Dartmouth Idol competition. I really enjoy spending time with students, and with these I was trying to demonstrate that Dartmouth is a place where you should take opportunities to push beyond your comfort zone. And believe me, I was way beyond my comfort zone. I love music. I just have no talent, which was clearly evident in my performances.

It’s not that I have no interest in the arts, but I am a much more informed patron of athletics because I play sports. It’s also hard for me to go to the evening performances because of my young children. I’m trying to be a good father and spend evenings with them.

Being a college president means living in a fishbowl. How has your family adjusted to the scrutiny?

It’s hard. The rumor mill around us was a bit of a surprise. We’re constantly hearing rumors about ourselves, some of them really wild, about who we are and what we do and how we live as a family.

My wife, Younsook Lim, is a pediatrician and, like me, came to Dartmouth with a background in global health. She shares with me a deep commitment to providing healthcare to people who don’t have access. The transition to presidential spouse was not something she expected in our life together, yet she is carrying out that role while at the same time raising our sons and working at the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science. Far more than I ever could have expected or asked, she has committed to serving the Dartmouth community in every way she can given the fact that she also has a career and is the mother of young children.

When the board of trustees selected me, they knew I was coming up here with a young family and would have limitations on what I’m able to do because of that. I feel badly that I can’t go to more events because of reserving evenings for my family. I hope I bring other strengths to the job to offset this limitation. But the decision to reserve time for my family is one I made long ago and one that I’m proud of. I hope there are students who see this as something to aspire to.

Can you elaborate on that?

We used to talk back in the day about quality time, but I haven’t been able to find a way to make that work for me. I think you’ve got to spend quantity time with your kids because you have to see them in all different kinds of situations when they are in different moods and dealing with different types of stimuli. Not all Dartmouth students will choose to have children, but if they do I believe they must commit to spend time with them. It doesn’t mean you can’t travel for your job—I certainly do—or you have to be with your children all the time. But you have to choose to put the time in.

You’ve launched major initiatives in each year of your presidency—first the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science and, a year later, the effort to curb binge drinking, which has turned into a national program. What’s coming next?

If we examine which institutions of higher education competing with us have made the most gains, it’s those that have invested in their academic mission and faculty.

So my plan is to focus for the next three to five years on those two things. It’s the right thing to do for our already extraordinary faculty and it will be great for students—having access to great professors at the cutting edge of their fields.

Every department has a wish list of people it would like to recruit and investments to make in current research projects. I see my job as helping figure out how to gather up the best ideas. Doing it at the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science was a no brainer. We had all the elements there: the medical school, the engineering school, the business school and arts and sciences. Now we have to figure out with the faculty the innovative architecture for this sort of interdisciplinary collaboration in other fields.

I am listening for the compelling ideas that I can go out and sell. I can’t go to our most faithful donors and say, “Hey, we need lots more faculty, just give us the money.” We must present a compelling idea. That’s what we’re going to be working on, not just in the coming year but for at least the next five years.

Irene M. Wielawski is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to DAM who writes from Pound Ridge, New York. Her profile of the new president appeared in our Sept/Oct 2009 issue.

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