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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Remarks by President James Wright to the Alumni Council

May 05, 2003

There has been a custom at Dartmouth for presidents to make five-year reports, reflecting on the initial years of their presidency. In 1975 and again in 1980 John Kemeny, for example, provided the Dartmouth community with two comprehensive reviews of his presidency. President Kemeny, of course, guided Dartmouth through coeducation and the introduction of the year-round calendar. He rededicated the College to the recruitment and education of Native Americans, and he pushed hard to make Dartmouth more diverse. He also dealt with the campus reaction to the Vietnam War, the bombing of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State, and with the budget shortfalls of the 1970s. He wrote in his ten-year report that the economic downturn had reminded him of the line from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, where the Red Queen told Alice "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

Over the last few months I have been thinking about my own five-year report and will issue one later in the summer or early in the fall. I still have trouble acknowledging that five years can possibly have passed so quickly. Over this time we have set out to do some things of which I am very proud -- strengthening our financial aid program, addressing real issues of lagging faculty compensation levels and of the size of the arts and sciences faculty, remedying competitive disadvantages in some staff salaries, enhancing budget support for the library, for computing, for faculty, for student life, including athletics, and renovating and expanding existing facilities. None of these are one-time matters.

Thanks to generous alumni and friends, I have had the privilege of presiding over dedication ceremonies celebrating Moore Hall, Berry Library, Carson Hall, Rauner Special Collections Library, the renovation and expansion of Wilder Hall, McCulloch Hall, Whittemore Hall, the opening of the McLane Family Ski Lodge, the renovation of the Golf Course, the opening of Scully-Fahey field, the Blackman Fields, the Boss Tennis Center and the Gordon Pavilion. We built faculty housing on Park and Wheelock streets and are nearing completion of graduate student housing on Park Street. We have also renovated Baker Library, Silsby Hall, Steele Hall, Fairchild Hall, and Leverone Fieldhouse. Even while acknowledging some projects are still pending, we can catch our breath and take real pride in our campus.

Over these years we have also engaged in a series of discussions about the College and about our core values and our priorities. These efforts have included the reaccreditation review in 1999 and the strategic planning process. We have undertaken the complicated task of planning and organizing for a capital campaign. I have used the bully pulpit to stress, consistently, values of academic and scholarly strength, of diversity and inclusiveness, of our commitment to teaching, of collaboration between the College and the professional schools, of the historic strength of Dartmouth as a community that includes, enables, and encourages all of its members. I have sought regularly to affirm the high value of all of our employees. We would not be able to accomplish all that we do without them.

Early in my presidency I took full advantage of opportunities to complete some ongoing projects, to fulfill some dreams and ambitions, to address some challenges and needs identified by my predecessors, John Dickey, John Kemeny, David McLauglin, and Jim Freedman. And we are not yet finished -- and will never be finished. This is the 234th year of Dartmouth's history and our legacy is also our obligation -- each generation leaves the College a bit stronger. This is the Dartmouth story that has no end.

Surely any five-year period in our College's -- our world's -- history would be marked by highs and lows, by mourning and sadness, by hope and elation. There may not be many times, however, that could match this one in terms of the magnitude of these emotional fluctuations. It has been a five-year period full of consequential and intrusive events in the world beyond the campus, events that have had a full impact on us: war and terrible acts of terrorism, economic fluctuations with financial markets hitting the most bullish of times and plummeting to sustained bearishness. We have mourned and mourn still the senseless murder of two dear colleagues. We try hard to understand 9/11, that which cannot be understood. At a place devoted to learning and teaching, we know well uncertainty, even as we instinctively resist succumbing to it.

As a historian I always want to understand and discuss that which has gone before. But as president I need to focus on that which is yet to come. And here my interests and my role converge, for any understanding of history suggests that those institutions that survive and thrive are not those that simply wait to take that which comes, but those who focus on who they are and what they seek to be. It is an appropriate time to share again my understanding of Dartmouth and my aspiration for our College.

Dartmouth is a $2.75 billion institution with a half a billion dollar annual operating budget. I function as "CEO" -- meaning that I am accountable to the Board of Trustees for the operation of the College. This includes oversight for matters ranging from union negotiations to insurance and retirement programs; to complicated federal requirements and regulations for the $160 million of our budget that comes from the government; to recognizing the increasingly consumerist and litigious nature of our society; to offering off-campus programs across a changing world; to managing an Inn and a skiway and a major piece of College property in northern New Hampshire. We engage in discussions regarding the development of property we hold in downtown Hanover, regarding our willingness to support the needs of the local schools, and our partnership with the largest health care provider and academic medical center in northern New England. Of course, these are all peripheral to my major focus -- I worry first and foremost about protecting and enhancing the academic strength of Dartmouth in a competitive world with fewer resources, but to this end I also need worry to about foreign exchange rates, about financial markets, about immigration policy.

If all of this comes with the territory, there is an additional expectation that the President of Dartmouth be like a headmaster -- visible and available for students and faculty alike. Of course my heart continues to identify with the faculty whose title and appointment I still hold, and I happily embrace this other role -- both Susan and I take tremendous satisfaction from the time we can spend with students and we are proud of their activities. The tension between the CEO and headmaster roles is more one of available time rather than any conflict in my interests. This balancing act is further complicated in that the culture of the College is one of an ongoing town meeting. This is a collegial environment. There are no command and control options for the President of Dartmouth College! I find great satisfaction in these roles, tensions and all. I recognized them well when I began my assignment. This is my culture.

This spring I set out to have a series of conversations, focusing essentially on the next five years. I realize now just how quickly five years can go. Surely our vision, our strategic plan, our campaign goals, address some longer-term objectives that remain critical, essential; but we cannot simply wait for longer term solutions to current challenges, we cannot defer some needs easily, and we cannot lose our special niche and competitive strength while waiting for a change in the economic climate. I have met with individuals and with groups, with faculty, with students, and with local alumni/ae. These have been substantive discussions, sometimes focusing on specific concerns and sometimes broader, more philosophical matters. But in all of these conversations I have been both struck and heartened by the commitment to and understanding about Dartmouth's special niche.

As we think about the near-term future let me say that we start from a position of incredible strength. It would be hard for me to imagine having a stronger, more energized and interesting, student body than the one we now have. It would be hard for me to imagine a faculty more energetic and more creative, more able to sustain the complicated and demanding commitment to teaching and to scholarship that marks this College. Nonetheless, Dartmouth did not become Dartmouth by standing pat! In this competitive world that is not an option.

Our goal quite simply is for Dartmouth to be the very best Dartmouth, to occupy energetically the special place we enjoy in higher education. I have no interest in conceding to other, larger, wealthier institutions a single student whom we want, a single faculty member whom we want. Neither will I concede the very special sort of educational experience that Dartmouth provides. Those who would want us to be less competitive should explain that to the men's and women's lacrosse teams, to the students who are winning scholarship competitions at historically high rates, to the faculty who are securing international recognition, and who are deeply committed to teaching. Explain to me, to the students who continue to rate the accessibility of Dartmouth faculty as among the very best anywhere -- explain to all who, like me, find no tension between aspirations for excellence and the history and purpose of this place.

We cannot be all things; we cannot do all things. We need to stay focused on what we are about. I have been so impressed by the commitment of faculty and students, of administrators and alumni, to the idea of Dartmouth: Dartmouth College provides the best student experience, the best undergraduate education, in the country. This is our legacy, this is our strength, this is our shared obligation, and this is our future. I recognize the danger of hyperbole in these settings, in these sorts of discussions. And perhaps I can be forgiven some of this from time to time given my 34-year-old deep and abiding affection for this place. I know an audience such as this one will be willing to tolerate, even encourage, some hyperbole about our College. But my assertion about our niche and our strength is not accompanied by a sheepish wink to suggest exaggeration. We know that there are different rankings shaped by different criteria, by different values, by different measurements and methods, rankings that describe the hierarchy of educational institutions. We also know where we are. Let me affirm as clearly as I can my belief that few can compete with Dartmouth in the quality of the student experience. Few can compete and none can exceed!

The Dartmouth of today is, on its face, different from the Dartmouth that I came to in 1969 -- that Dartmouth had 3,200 undergraduate students, all men, with probably 7 to 8 percent students of color, few off-campus programs, smaller professional schools-- then called "affiliated schools." Much of my effort over the last five years has focused on embracing the changes that have marked the profile of Dartmouth, on making absolutely certain that all who are part of this community feel a full part of this community. This too is our legacy. But Dartmouth is not about only welcoming and including. These things are for a purpose.

Now, as then, unambiguously and unequivocally, Dartmouth is committed to providing the strongest student experience in the country. And as strong as we were in 1969, today we surely do even better, even more clearly. This is as it should be. I would happily describe some of those qualities that I believe advance this commitment and underline our strength:

  • We are marked by a diverse student body that is intellectually strong and curious, that is marked by a sense of sharing and belonging, by friendships that are sustained for a lifetime.
  • We are shaped by faculty who are committed to discovery, to teaching, and to learning with students. They are the heart of our strength and the soul of our being. And they are committed to the College -- to their College.
  • We protect an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum that encourages learning as a life-long process rather than a product, that affirms the importance of critical thinking, of openness to new ideas and tolerance for different opinions, and that provides opportunities for independent work of discovery and creativity within an environment that has state-of-the-art information systems, digital capacity, and international programs. At Dartmouth the arts and humanities are positioned as essential in an age of profound scientific discovery and expanding technology. Indeed, even more essential.
  • We embrace a true -- and shared -- sense of community that values independence of mind and generosity of spirit, responsibility for common interests and values, a commitment to integrity, mutual respect, and tolerance. Here we protect a scale and size that welcome the individual and respect the wider community. A Dartmouth degree should confirm a Dartmouth education and this signals a dedication to sharing and to service.
  • We value at Dartmouth a residential community that recognizes the importance of out-of-classroom experiences to the learning process, a place that values the special physical environment, the athletics and outdoor programs, that marks Dartmouth as an environment that resonates with a sense of history and of tradition even as it responds to new challenges and opportunities.

Dartmouth, of course, is more than a small undergraduate college. We are enriched so much as an institution by the strength of the professional schools and graduate programs. And we must remember that we have been enriched by these professional schools for decades, even centuries -- they are very much part of Dartmouth's distinctive history as well as its promising future. The same qualities that define the undergraduate experience mark these schools: a scale that is personal, a sense of shared, collaborative learning, a faculty committed to teaching and to working with students. Dartmouth's goal for these programs is that they seek, within their areas of focus, to provide the finest medical student experience in the country, the finest business student experience in the country, the finest graduate engineering student experience in the country, and the finest graduate student experience in the country and to do this with faculties who are engaged in the work shaping their fields.

While the undergraduate program is central to Dartmouth, together it and all of these programs derive strength from core values of sharing and collaboration that likely have no equal at other competitive institutions. Dartmouth is an exceptional community of learning.

Obviously the budget environment has changed over the last five years. We have completed some budget cuts over each of the last two years and we face another round next year, a painful round. Dartmouth is not alone in this situation, some schools are in far more difficult situations and some are better off, but we all are facing the same fundamental conditions. Times such as these require a crisper sense of priority.

We have no interest in expanding our undergraduate student body -- it is time, however, that we develop the facilities and the faculty size that meet the needs of our current students. Many of these needs date from the 1970s. Accordingly, I will attach a high priority over the next five years to underlining some clear purposes that are essential to protecting the strength of our undergraduate program. These are:

  1. Continuing to recruit a strong and diverse student body. Competitive financial aid support within a need-blind admissions program is critical to our purposes.
  2. Maintaining and building upon the strength of the faculty through competitive recruiting, through aggressive retention, through supporting the work of the faculty, and through seeking, despite this economic environment, to continue to expand the faculty in order to meet the scholarly and teaching purposes of Dartmouth.
  3. Strengthening the residential community through the construction of new residence halls. To advance this too-long deferred need, if we cannot now meet all of our objectives, we will move aggressively in the near term to build some substantial housing and to enrich the range of extra-curricular options by developing new dining and social spaces.

Each of the professional schools has been considering its near term priorities and while they may differ somewhat in kind or in order, they are fundamentally similar: protecting the quality of students, enhancing the work of the faculty, and dealing with facilities needs on at least an interim basis. We all share in a commitment to meeting the goals described in the strategic plan; we cannot balk at accepting the cards that history has dealt us. Rather than wringing hands, we need to roll up our sleeves and confront the challenges before us.

Dartmouth did not become Dartmouth over the last two and one-third centuries by timidity, by complacency, by an absence of ambition. As I have said before, this lovely place is not a museum or an academic theme park, it is a place vitalized and continually revitalized by a sense of energy and of ambition.

I invite you to share with me a tremendous sense of pride in this place and a renewed commitment to protect that which we do so well. Doing so is among the oldest and the most important of Dartmouth's traditions.

I have told you before that there is no place I would rather be than in this position, at this place, at this time -- and your good company, your support, your encouragement, have helped to make it so. Thank you for all you do.

Last Updated: 8/21/08