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William H. Neukom '64Chair, Dartmouth Board of TrusteesPartner, K&L Gates LLP

William H. Neukom '64CW: What would you describe as the Board's most significant achievements while you've been chair?
WN: This Board has maintained the balance that distinguishes Dartmouth from its peers. It's an advantage of scale. We're small enough to offer undergraduates an intimate learning experience they won't find at the bigger schools and to provide a scope not found at purely undergraduate colleges. We have laboratories, a broad array of research opportunities, and access to high-quality professional schools and graduate programs.

We're one of the few need-blind financial aid elite schools in the country. This is a strategic commitment because it improves the quality and diversity of the students we get. We're doing a terrific job in a fiercely competitive market to hire and retain faculty who are world-class scholars with a passion for teaching. And the Student Life Initiative, which was intended to create a marketplace of extracurricular opportunities, is coming together very nicely. Students are getting a better education because of it.

[That has led largely to this amazing construction era that is evident on campus today. We're doing pretty much what we ought to be doing in terms of the in-classroom learning experience, but we want to provide more comfortable, accommodating space for an even larger percentage of our students to have more options for how to spend their time out of the classroom. It's been a remarkable step forward for the College. A lot of credit goes to Susan Dentzer '77 and Peter Fahey '68, Thayer '69 who were the co-chairs of the Student Life Initiative Committee.

I also think we're doing a better job of really focusing on just a handful of President Jim Wright's priorities. We weathered the recent recession pretty darn well. We made a concerted effort to hire more faculty to make sure that we have small classes and offer students a reasonably accommodating schedule towards satisfying their major requirements. It's never perfect, but it's quite good, I think. In the last couple of years with Carol Folt as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, we've had some smart analysis of the situation. It's a difficult procedure because if economics and political science are hot right now and you hire to that because enrollments are up, then five years from now, it could be computer science and psychology, and you've got tenured faculty in what had been popular fields and now need more in these other fields.

We're just getting remarkably talented students to apply. Part of that is financial aid, and part of it is the learning experience that we offer. People say time and time again, you just step onto the Green and there is this energy. Again, Dartmouth has a scale advantage. When we're doing it right we are small enough so that even with our good graduate programs and professional schools, we can provide undergraduates an opportunity to do scholarship and research that they couldn't do at the bigger schools. Our professors still want to do research and scholarship—need to—and the beauty of that scale is that we can offer those opportunities to undergraduates who are remarkably competent.

On the other hand, purely undergraduate colleges just don't have the scale for the laboratories, for example, or the diversity of offerings, or the positive influence of our professional schools and graduate programs. Dartmouth's scale is something that we're paying more and more attention to, and it's more than a niche. It really does offer us an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from our competition.]

CW: Every time I've seen you in a photo, you're wearing a bow tie. Can you trace that back to your Dartmouth experience?
WN: I think I admired well-tied bow ties in those days but never wore one. And I don't always wear one. Every now and then I wear something different just for the heck of it.

CW: What's the most enjoyable thing about coming back to Dartmouth as a Trustee?
WN: I have the opportunity to feel Dartmouth's inescapable magic: intellectual curiosity, high energy, fellowship, and the physical beauty of the place. It's a high honor to be a Trustee and to help in the stewardship of an alma mater. Just stepping onto that Green, walking the campus, and getting all the data—being immersed in that data—reminds me what a remarkable school this is.

[CW: Obviously, consensus is an important goal to which Board members aspire, but can you think of an issue where the discussion started out with disagreement, but you moved towards consensus? Did the initial disagreement lead to a better or healthier resolution of the issue?
WN: The most important part is that we have a rational deliberation based on reliable information, not on a snippet, not on an anecdote, not on somebody's long-held view of what is good or right, but based on those pesky facts. That's the key to constructive deliberation. If all we're doing is coming and sharing opinions and insights that are based on less than reliable information, then the process goes off the rails.

But consensus is also important and it's part of the tradition of the Dartmouth Board. We all come to the facts, we all come to the evidentiary record with somewhat different points of view, and that's all to the good. So when I talk about reaching consensus it's not everybody having to think the same way, it's everybody going through the same rational, fact-based deliberation and coming to a decision. If the decision is consistent with your own, then fine. If it isn't, and that's the Board's decision, then I think responsible trusteeship requires that you stand behind it.]

[CW: In talking about the workings of the Board, what would be the most salient differences between governing a nonprofit institution like Dartmouth, with a very broad mission, and governing a for-profit institution, whether it's Microsoft or any other publicly-held company?
WN: President Wright has worked hard on a mission statement with the Board. We spent some time on that in March (2007), not because the existing mission statement is weak or bad or misguided, but because it's useful to dust it off and reflect on it with fresh eyes every now and then. I think the mission of the College is quite a complicated subject. I tend to just break it down into a few essential elements. A lot of people can put a lot of words around it, but it all has to do with a transformative learning experience, much of that in the classroom, but some of it extracurricular—the kind of transformative learning experience that results in Dartmouth graduates who are well prepared to be productive in the workplace and useful as citizens. The University of Chicago has this wonderful term: useful citizenship. What that means is the ability to sift through a blizzard of information to find those things that are reliable, accurate, and pertinent—the facts that bear on the question at hand, and to bring critical thinking and sensible principles to bear and come to defensible conclusions. So I think it's all about the learning experience, and you can fold everything into that.

With that said, I agree that the mission and strategies for a higher education enterprise are complicated. Are they more complicated than at Microsoft? Well, Microsoft is a very high technology company, so that's a hard comparison to make. Are they more complicated than at McDonalds? With all due respect, I think so.]

[CW: Is there some broad challenge that you've been wrestling with as a Board that's likely to be a problem common to higher education, particularly higher education at competitive institutions?

WN: I have organized an informal meeting of the chairs of the boards of the Ivy schools, by the way. We've met twice. We do it semi-annually. We'll do it again this spring. And then it will be up to my successor and my opposite members to see if they want to keep it going forward. In the course of those discussions, for the most part we talked about how our Boards are organized and how we govern ourselves, in terms of trying to learn from each other about better practices, or better ways to structure ourselves. Discussing how you compose a Board and how a Board performs in order to advance the interests of the enterprise is a fascinating subject common to all of us.

It's just more expensive to provide the sort of education that is the Dartmouth learning experience today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. We need to be very careful about our costs, and we need to be generous about our financial aid. One thing Dartmouth has to be careful about is getting involved in an arms race. We simply have to get more done with less than Harvard, Yale, or Princeton because of the difference between their financial resources and ours.

Of particular importance at Dartmouth is delivering on the promise. If it's going to be a transformative learning experience, either at the undergraduate level or in the graduate programs or professional schools, we have to continue to attract and retain faculty who are great, hungry scholars and researchers on the one hand, while on the other have enough energy and instinct to be passionate teachers. Again, that's our advantage, certainly relative to the larger schools in the Ivy League, where students are just not as likely to spend as much time at the feet of the tenure track professor who's a leader in her field and still knows how to stimulate a learning experience.]

[CW: If there were an alumnus on the wall of a Board of Trustees meeting, what would he or she see most of the time?
WN: Well, I hope what they would see is a presentation of reliable information about strategic matters to be deliberated and resolved at that Board meeting—and in a way that's rational and respectful of differing points of view—but which culminates in a decision by consensus which is then the decision of the Board and behind which each member of the Board should stand. ]

[CW: The most provocative question on my Dartmouth application was: "Now that you've answered all these other questions, ask and answer your own question." What is it that I've not asked that you feel needs to be answered?
WN: We have a terrific, talented set of Trustees. I'm devoting a lot of my time and interest to trying to get us to agree on a set of standards and guidelines for performance so we can provide the kind of stewardship that Dartmouth deserves from us. When we're doing it right, we all learn a lot. This whole "insider-outsider" categorization is very frustrating to me. I think it's a myth. There's no one on our Board who's there, either by the alumni route or the charter route, beholden to anyone or any institution or any ideology. Certainly among the people labeled as insiders, none of us is beholden, and each of us is independent and thinks things through for ourselves. I do think it's been very unfortunate that some people have taken facile positions around the flashpoint issues where the facts just don't support the allegations, and then blown those way out of proportion. That has misportrayed Dartmouth, and certainly its Board and its senior management.]

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Last Updated: 7/24/18