Skip to main content

Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015
Email: james.wright@dartmouth.edu

Remarks to the Alumni Council

December 2, 2005

Thank you, Rick [Routhier]. It is always a pleasure to welcome the Alumni Council back to Hanover. Susan and I are pleased to see so many friends of many years back on campus. You have a very full agenda with a lot of important topics to be covered. Certainly, my colleagues in the administration benefit from and enjoy their meetings with your committees. I am grateful to Trustees Nancy Jeton and Al Mulley for all they do to strengthen Dartmouth and for their commitment to communicating with you.

I would like to add my congratulations to Trevor Burgess '94 and Bill Dean '89 on their recognition with the young alumni award. I have seen each of them often, on campus and off, serving the College. You have both done so much for your alma mater and we are deeply grateful. And let me more broadly thank you all - for everything you do for Dartmouth. This school would not be able to do what it does on a daily basis without your support and hard work. So thank you all.

I would also like to welcome Vice President for Alumni Relations David Spalding to his first meeting in that capacity of the Alumni Council. I hope you all get a chance to meet with David; you will learn first-hand just how lucky we are to have him here.

We have had a full fall term - the weather has been incredibly mild and the energy on campus has been high. The '09s have settled in well - I have spent time with them beginning at the Ravine Lodge in early September down through a lunch in my office last week and can attest to their enthusiasm for Dartmouth. We also welcomed over 20 new faculty - at a dinner earlier this term I spoke as is my custom at this occasion, about the central role of teaching. Many of them explained that it was this commitment to undergraduate education and to excellence in teaching and scholarship that had attracted them. It was very gratifying.

Over the last four months I have made four visits to injured marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. As a Marine myself and as president of an Ivy League institution I felt some obligation to meet with these young people and to encourage them to continue with their education. Many of them do indeed plan to do so and I am working with various groups to see what sort of support we can provide them with. One of the great successes of American higher education has been our ability to remain accessible to a wide range of people. I have been pleased to work to encourage these young people to think about their educational options. These young women and men, along with our own students, give me great confidence in the future of this republic.

Just about a year ago we received a wonderful surprise when Booz Allen Hamilton named Dartmouth one of the "World's Most Enduring Institutions." It was a delightful accolade - Dartmouth joined Oxford University as the enduring academic institutions and we were in the good company of General Electric and Sony, the American Constitution, the Salvation Army and the Olympic Games-and the Rolling Stones. This recognition should no longer be news to members of the Dartmouth community - I have happily passed it along whenever I have had a forum to do so! It is a source of pride - but it is also an opportunity for reflection on our history and for discussion of our purpose. In order for institutions to endure, pride of accomplishment needs always lead to higher ambition rather than self congratulation. As I have described it, Dartmouth's endurance is about more than hanging around. The CEO of Booz Allen Hamilton defined our accomplishment and our task well: "An Enduring Institution is one that has changed and grown in unswerving pursuit of success and relevance-yet remained true through time to its founding principles." I would like to reflect on this a bit tonight as it relates to Dartmouth's history-and more importantly as it relates to our - yours and my - enduring responsibility.

Over two and a third centuries ago, before there was an American nation, Eleazar Wheelock and a handful of supporters struggled to establish a college in the wilderness. Less than 150 yards from where we now assemble, where the forested plateau above the river started to slope up again near what is now Reed Hall, they began a historic task. It is hardly likely that President Wheelock truly understood that his efforts were the beginning of an enduring institution. He was simply founding a school in the wilderness that would provide instruction for "Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land" "and also of English Youth and any others."

His problems were fundamentally the practical ones of survival - beyond enticing students to follow him here and retaining faculty capable of teaching them, he needed to shelter and provide for students and faculty in this sparsely settled place and in a complicated political environment. His community and the New Hampshire colony would be in rebellion against his benefactors before the college had scarcely begun.

Indeed the task was one of survival for some time. In 1786 John Flude, a London pawnbroker, sent to John Wheelock a silver medal that has become a College heirloom worn by Dartmouth presidents. The inscription on the medal reads: "to/ the President of/ Dartmouth College/ for the time being/ at Hanover, in/ the State of / New Hampshire." Whenever I put on the chain and medal for convocation or commencement, I am reminded by its inscription that we should never become too secure. We are still here, Mr. Flude! We endure.

The Dartmouth College Case in the 1810s, the sharp divisions between the Trustees and the president during the American Civil War, the fight in the 1880s over the nature of the curriculum, with the defenders of the classical course of study resisting the increasing role of science and technology and social science in higher education-these all challenged the College's resilience. In each case the College needed to respond to issues shaped in the broader world, and the College endured because of a willingness to define and redefine what Dartmouth meant and what Dartmouth promised in response to these matters. This task has always been about more than maintaining those lovely buildings that by the late 1830s rested on the hill looking out over the cleared common-this was about filling them with people who were enabled here to excel-and who carried with them for a lifetime a commitment to make certain their college excelled.

When William Jewett Tucker assumed the presidency in 1893 Dartmouth had limited resources-a situation made worse by the financial panic later that year. The College was essentially a finishing school for New Hampshire and Vermont boys, one lacking a system for sewage disposal, with uncertain water supplies, with inadequate housing and other facilities, with no central heating and no electricity. Over the next 16 years President Tucker began construction of the modern campus beyond Dartmouth Row and he recognized that Dartmouth needed to compete nationally for students and that in education, of all things, the status quo was inadequate. He embraced the modern curriculum and sought to hire and support faculty who could define the fields that shaped that curriculum.

President Tucker set a course for Dartmouth that would help define the College into the twentieth century. The College moved from simply surviving to competing on a national scale. The twentieth century posed problems of a different order - and the College needed continually to consider mission and purpose. The First World War ushered in a period of greater national emphasis on practical education and the Great Depression brought with it a set of economic challenges. In these years, President Hopkins defended the fundamental relevance of a liberal arts education and he worked to expand the campus physically.

Following World War II. President Dickey turned Dartmouth's focus outward - the world's problems were our problems, he said. Mr. Dickey moved to the head of the agenda the great tasks of the second half of the twentieth century- democratization of access, the professionalization of the faculty, defining excellence in a world of change, and embracing the role of the graduate schools at the College. Certainly these challenges and opportunities have shaped the work and the legacy of the presidents under whom I have served-John Dickey, John Kemeny, David McLaughlin, and James Freedman.

And now we find ourselves in a new century, not simply in it but so quickly one twentieth of the way through it! And already we have forcefully been reminded of the lesson of the last century-and the century prior to that: we are part of the world and its challenges and opportunities. Dartmouth can never pretend that self-absorbed, splendid isolation suffices for us.

In this new century surely we can take satisfaction from our deep heritage of survival, of enduring in the face of challenge; we can take pride in our legacy of competing with the best for the best and of excelling in the face of challenge. As I reported to the faculty a month ago, the state of the college is excellent: "there have been few times in Dartmouth's history when the school has been so competitive, when the learning experience for our students has been so strong, when the faculty have been so accomplished, and when our financial situation has been better."

As you look around the campus you will observe physical evidence of our strength, construction projects that will substantially enhance our residential experience, new academic buildings and centers for engineering, for mathematics, and for our academic centers, and new and renovated athletic facilities. You will see facilities that will honor Presidents David McLaughlin and John Kemeny and that will house the international program that so effectively honors and continues the work of John Dickey.

These construction projects and the ongoing success of our capital campaign underline our strength but they do not define our being - they do not constitute a purpose. As gratified as I am by these long-awaited projects, I am not satisfied. My focus is on sharpening and expanding Dartmouth's ambitions still further. Our generation must step up to the next task - we have inherited a tradition of survival, of competing, of excelling. What is next? Now we should do no less than lead. For this we turn not to buildings and balance sheets but to the strength of our faculty and our students. Leading is about quality and focus and about a culture of learning and learning more.

American higher education, our Ivy League, is marked by exceptional schools. Within this pantheon, this hierarchy, our niche is clear - it shouts out from our history - and we need to be far more assertive in claiming and protecting and enhancing this niche. And leading. Doing this requires us again to define - but the definition now is less reflecting upon who we will be and more asserting who we are. Here we seek to provide the strongest undergraduate experience in the country.

My sense of definition and purpose surely relates to my own values, freely articulated in this and other forums over many years, my own sense of Dartmouth's history, my reading of what those who have preceded me have sought and understood, and finally my own recognition of the demands that are now imposed upon academic institutions and our own competitive place within this context. But my ambition for Dartmouth also relates to my own experience.

The Dartmouth that I came to in 1969 was a smaller, more homogeneous place, an institution caught up in some of the tensions relating to the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam that marked America at that time. There were great, defining, debates here over affirmative action and coeducation and about the role of residential colleges in a time of assertive student independence from rules and constraints. And I loved it here - I was caught up in a culture that valued me as a historian and demanded that I excel professionally - and that was unambiguous about the central importance of teaching. When I became Dean of the Faculty in 1989 I had taught some six or seven percent of the living Dartmouth alumni.

I was captured as well by a community where there was a true sense of belonging, where real friendships endured for a lifetime. Dartmouth encourages teamwork, enables leadership, and encourages responsibility. What wonderful things-and how easy it was to embrace them. And what a privilege - after seven plus years, still seeming a dream - it is to sit in Mr. Dickey's office at Mr. Dickey's desk and advance them as institutional values and purposes.

I hold matriculation ceremonies in that very office so that students will know where to find me-and what a pleasure it has been over the last few years to welcome there a dozen or so students in each incoming class whose mother or father I taught in a history course in the 1970s. All of these things, my experience here over thirty-six years now, these are more than a source of memory, they drive my ambition for Dartmouth.

Some thirty years ago President Kemeny and the Board of Trustees described Dartmouth's goal in a way that still resonates well: "The fundamental purpose of Dartmouth College is the education of men and women who have a high potential for making a significant positive impact upon society." Dartmouth has some qualities that are uncommon in higher education, but more importantly we have a total package that shouts out Dartmouth: here we seek a transformative student experience, here we expect and enable academic excellence, and here we are marked by a profound sense of place and of spirit. If we are less homogeneous, larger, more complicated, than the Dartmouth of 1969, even as we celebrate the diversity that marks Dartmouth today, we still value those things that marked that Dartmouth. Here our students learn to cross boundaries of difference, a skill that will be essential in the world in which they will live their lives.

We compete with the best and we follow none. Our diverse, energetic, creative students, our exceptional faculty whose research and creative work gains them and us international recognition know that at Dartmouth teaching our students is not a cost of appointment but a bonus of being here. We have strong interdisciplinary culture and a heritage of embracing the out of doors, athletics, the arts, international programs, and technology - this is not a collegiate museum but a place marked by lovely facilities that energize, encourage, and enable. Together, in a noisy, boisterous, energetic, assertive, never satisfied package, this is Dartmouth. Our students are exceptional in their eagerness to find ways to make the world better - and our graduates spend their lives doing just that.

We seek always to have here the finest undergraduate program in the country. This is our niche, our legacy and our ambition. But this is not something narrowly constructed. We need to embrace the comprehensive strength of Dartmouth. This is not a stand-alone undergraduate college and it has not been since 1797! For we also have in the Tuck School the best business school in the country - in the world. And we have medical and engineering schools and focused graduate programs in arts and sciences that are engaged in research that will make our world better - and healthier - and set the model for graduate education. Each of these enables the other, and our undergraduate program derives much of its unique strength by the opportunities that are available to these students in the schools of engineering and medicine. There is no counterpart for this. No College can provide such opportunities and no university will provide them. This is Dartmouth leading.

Does our ambition to lead, to have the best, exceed our means? Of course it does-but such a reach comes with having a place in the Wheelock Succession, with wearing the Flude Medal, with being rooted in this place.

Dartmouth did not become Dartmouth through modest aspiration -remember the band of innocent souls who joined Eleazar Wheelock here for their first Hanover winter and cleared sites for Dartmouth Hall. If they had not been dreamers, they could have built a school in Connecticut.

My ambitions so often seem wrapped up in our capital campaign and in our facilities projects. We are in the middle of a decade-long billion dollar renovation and construction program, the most significant in our history, and we are at the halfway point of a $1.3 billion capital campaign. These could take our breath away-but they won't. We need our breath to continue to reach and stretch our ambitions. The volunteer leadership, the generous donors, do not give their time and money in order to encourage satisfaction.

Never stop dreaming and never stop reaching. This is the legacy that we have received and it will be the legacy that we pass on. My hopes are pretty basic, albeit audacious. I want here financial aid packages that will make Dartmouth fully affordable and will make all elements of the Dartmouth experience available. I want here to provide support for faculty and students in a way that will sustain their scholarship and reduce further our average class size, and will fully secure the Dartmouth experience as transformative. Despite the historic amount of construction currently underway on campus today, I want here to provide a life sciences facility, a new arts building, and two new dining facilities and I want to complete the renovation or replacement of our athletic facilities. Doing these things will make the difference - and that is why I spend time raising money and that is why I will settle for no less than meeting and then exceeding our campaign goal. If we stay on course, no one should doubt that we shall lead the way in providing the finest student learning experience there is. I believe we are already there - but stepping up will remove all doubt. We shall lead - and we should share this news and this ambition proudly.

My hopes for Dartmouth need you - I need your guidance on ways to better engage and to enable our graduates to affirm a historic sense of ownership over protecting and promoting the Dartmouth experience, an ownership based on a legacy of responsibility and a true sense of pride rather than adversarial relations. I need you to return to your class and constituents and friends and to share with them the excitement of Dartmouth today. In turn, share with us their advice and concerns. We need this dialog. We have too good an enterprise; we have too much to do together, to get caught up in the feuds about peripheral misunderstandings that sap our energy and erode our purpose. Help me to help you bring us together. The Hill Winds Call.

I trust that these things will explain why when someone asks me what I wish for my presidential legacy, I respond that it is presumptuous for me to define it - and it is premature for anyone else to do so. We have much to do. But I hope these reflections also convey to you my gratitude to you for all that you do to enable to advance the good work of this good place. And I hope you understand full well why I think I have the best job in the world. As I say each year to undergraduate students at Convocation, "we have work to do, you and I." So we all do. Let us continue this work.

Thank you and happy holidays.

Last Updated: 8/21/08