Skip to main content

The President's Plan

Moving Dartmouth Forward

Office Hours

Student Office Hours:

Tuesdays, 4-5pm

Faculty and Staff Office Hours:

Fridays, 3-4pm

Please check the office hours page for details.

Address to the Arts & Sciences Faculty

March 2, 2015

I’m going to finally get to the remarks that I didn’t get to at the November Faculty meeting, where we ran out of time. These are really about things dear to our heart: academic competitiveness, academic excellence and productivity, academic differentiation – things I know you think about all the time, but my intention here is to spark and escalate more conversation, more discussion about these topics, here in this meeting, and at subsequent Arts and Sciences meetings, but also just across campus generally.

To set the stage, let me just define the word “academic.” To me it means of the academy, so it means the combination of teaching and research. I know that you’ve heard much about academic reputation – particularly scholarly reputation – from my recent predecessors, particularly focused on rankings. That’s not the approach I’m taking, I’m coming at it from a different angle. I want to start with the stipulation that there’s an incredible amount of terrific, impressive work being done on this campus, as I’ve discovered over the last 18 or 20 months. I want to recognize our excellence and leadership. Indeed, my happy role in coming to this job has really been to figure out how can we combine your passions, values, interests, and ideas into a coherent institutional strategy – that’s a work very much in progress. What I do want to talk about is the urgency of our academic competitive position.

Let me recall for some of you, or acquaint some of you with, the Red Queen Hypothesis. It’s a principle from evolutionary biology, and it states that an actor in a highly competitive environment must constantly be moving forward, not to gain advantage, but just to keep up. So in other words, your competitors are also moving forward, so if you stand still, you’re going to fall behind. The name of this – if you wonder where this comes from – the Red Queen of the Red Queen Hypothesis is from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The Red Queen at some point says to Alice “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, just to keep in place.

What this is saying for us sitting inside a highly competitive environment, that being the elite end of higher education, is that we always have to be moving forward, we always have to be advancing, we have to be innovating, we have to be doing things better, just to keep up with our peers. In fact, as a nod towards this, it turns out that Caltech has a special fund to support innovation called the Red Queen Fund.

I think we have to be particularly mindful of this hypothesis in all three of our core mission areas:

first of all in our sweet spot, in teaching and learning. We are excellent at that, arguably best in class. But we have strong competitors – Stanford, MIT, Duke, the other Ivies – who are really experimenting with new models for delivering the undergraduate degree. Then we have weaker competitors – state systems in particular – who are experimenting with ways to blow up the undergraduate degree, try something totally different, disrupt the four-year model, do all sorts of things. As one of the most highly respected institutions in this area, we have a chance to lead. We have to lead. We can’t sit by and watch other people define the future.

Second, in research. Our scale and location, of course, are factors here – so it just pushes us to be all the smarter, more strategic in developing our research enterprise, be forward-looking with our investments, and we need to leverage every asset that we have, both on campus and off campus, to be successful.

Third, and probably most importantly, is in the talent area. Brainpower is what fuels any elite college and university and the competition for the best students and faculty is just ferocious. I think you all know that, you experience it. If the Red Queen Hypothesis applies anywhere, it applies particularly in this area. Recruiting, retaining, and developing the best talent is absolutely one of the most important things we do.

At this point it’s all been “mom and apple pie” –you knew how competitive of an environment we’re in, you know that we have to advance constantly to keep up. I’m going to mention six topic areas. These are strategies that come to my mind, again, for how we can be as competitive as possible in the academic arena.

First of all, tolerate greater risk. Institutions have different personalities. Some institutions embrace risk, embrace a lot of change, innovation, new ideas, they’re tolerant of failure. Other institutions are very cautious, they’re fast followers – they say, we’re going to have a campus where we have great technical people who are able to push the envelopes of existing methods, and do that really well. I believe that Dartmouth has to be the former sort of institution. It needs to be a place where we’re really putting a premium on new ways to think about things. Let me give you an example. I had the pleasure of reading some of the work of one of our colleagues the other day. This is someone who has introduced measurable structure and quantitative methods to the study of how a person passes from one emotional state to another. It’s a surprising way to look at this, kind of a game-changing idea. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t work, but it’s taking an issue and looking at it from a whole different direction, rather than just saying I’m going to push our current understanding of that issue a little further along.

When I use the words innovation, risk-taking: please don’t interpret that as being about the sciences, about engineering. In any field of inquiry, you can either push current methods, current thinking further, do it a little better, or you can take a brand new perspective on things. We need to be an institution which, to some significant extent, really relies on the latter, of taking brand new perspectives on things. The reason is because of our scale. If we just incrementally advance things, we’re at a scale where we’re not going to make a big mark on the world. To make a big mark on the world, we really need the game-changing ideas. Again, I say that along every field of academic inquiry. This is true of our teaching, not just our research. I was really heartened by the presentations we heard earlier, they were kind of a set-up for this. We have the new teaching innovation fund, the work that’s being done in DCAL [Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning] to push new ways to think about new innovations in teaching.

Lastly, on the risk-taking side, it’s really important that we’re willing to take greater risks in recruiting talent. I’ll come at this from a personal anecdote. The reason I moved early in my career from Caltech to the University of Michigan was because just three years past my PhD, Michigan swooped in and offered me a tenured position. They took a chance, a calculated risk. It’s a tactic that they used not infrequently, they didn’t do it foolishly, but in special cases they said, this person looks like they’re going to be a homerun, let’s not wait six years to make sure, let’s act now. That kind of aggressive, early, energetic move is something we need to be willing to do. We need to tolerate some risk in recruiting talent. The competition for talent is just ferocious. If we wait to watch someone blossom so that they’re on the radar screens of not just us, but Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Yale, we’re in a much tougher spot. I would urge us to be a place that embraces more risk.

Second, shared effort. Help out with spousal recruitments. Even if you’re unsure that your department is going to get the payback for that, with some other department helping you, we’ve got to do it together. Think about ways that we can think about centers and institutes that can pull resources from across the institution. Think about ways that we can partner with the professional schools. We’re stronger if we’re all in this together than we are if we’re a bunch of silos.

Third, mechanisms to allow us to move quickly and creatively. Let’s think about low-barrier mechanisms for funding creative ideas, so that if someone has an idea that’s a little bit out there – don’t make them wait a year and a half to get funding, because they’ll lose their enthusiasm. So let’s think about low-barrier ways to get funding to creative ideas, think about how we can hold resources centrally at the Dean’s Office to deploy for particularly special hires – and at the Provost level as well.

Standards and expectations – this is again, kind of “mom and apple pie,” but if we’re going to be academically competitive we need to hold ourselves, our colleagues, our students, to the highest academic standards when it comes to tenure promotion, when it comes to allocations of resources like salary and space.

Discipline around resources: this comes back to the very first discussion we had today. There are three factors that make demands on resources: increased cost of current operations, investments in innovation, and investments in excellence.

If we’re going to be competing at the highest levels, we need resources for innovation and excellence. That’s where we’re going to have our competitive edge. That comes back to reallocation, but it also comes back to great success in sponsored research and in philanthropy. My job, of course, is the philanthropy, along with Mike’s and Carolyn’s, and I can guarantee you that we are going to bring more money to the table in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in history from the philanthropic side. We need to match that with internal discipline around resources.

The last is focus and intentionality. Coming back to the Red Queen Hypothesis, we do need to advance this institution, we need to advance it aggressively if we’re actually going to outstrip our competitors. We need to be hungry, smart, aggressive, forward-looking. We aren’t going to get there unless we actually think about it and talk about it. I loved today’s faculty meeting – coming back to something Lisa [Baldez] said, she said she loved us talking about teaching. We talk about a lot of things in these faculty meetings, and my experience over the last 20 months is we don’t spend enough time talking about academics and core academics. I would love today’s conversation to be the start of a new regime where these meetings–where you join the President, the Provost, the Dean of the Faculty, and many of the faculty members together–this is a forum where we really talk about our core, we talk about our academics. 

Last Updated: 3/31/15