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A Dartmouth Journey

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James Wright came to Dartmouth in 1969 as an assistant professor of history. During the years that followed, he became a legendary teacher, scholar, and administrator. In 1998 he was elected the 16th president of the College. On June 30, 2009, Wright will step down; on July 1 Dr. Jim Yong Kim will become the 17th president in the Wheelock Succession.

Through June, visit Baker Library for "An Extraordinary History: James Wright at Dartmouth," an exhibition featuring stories, photographs, and items about Wright's life and career. Not in Hanover? Learn more about Wright's tenure in "Forever New: A Ten Year Report, 1998-2008." Read about Susan DeBevoise Wright, her career, and her impact on alumni.

The Wright Presidency

Dartmouth for All

"Dartmouth seeks to attract a student body that reflects the richness of the world in which we live, and to offer an education that enables and empowers. To this end we must continue to enrich our financial aid and scholarship programs to ensure that we can do this. I pledge myself to this purpose."
James Wright, Inauguration, September 1998


wrights and wildermuth

Susan and James Wright with Claire Wildermuth '08 (center) at a Dartmouth College Fund Scholarship Program event. The Wrights sponsored several students through the program, including Lilly Bertz '07, currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Saint Lucia Island, West Indies. Bertz says, "I would not have been able to afford to attend Dartmouth without sponsors like the Wrights. They were both exceptional mentors through the Scholar Fund Program." (Photo by Medora Hebert)

Commitment to financial aid at Dartmouth has more than doubled since Wright took office. In 2008, he announced a major financial aid initiative that included free tuition for students who come from families with annual incomes below $75,000. For the Class of 2012, 47.5 percent received need-based aid from Dartmouth, with an average scholarship of $33,722.

The Class of 2012 is also Dartmouth's most diverse ever, with 36 percent students of color and 8 percent international students. With Wright's support, several offices across campus have worked to make engagement with multiple cultures and perspectives an integral part of the Dartmouth experience.

The Academic Enterprise
Under Wright's leadership:

  • Full-time equivalent arts and sciences faculty grew from 380 to 439.
  • The student-faculty ratio dropped from 10:1 to 8:1.
  • Sixty-four percent of Dartmouth classes have fewer than 20 students.
  • Students earn more than 1,000 credits each year for independent study with faculty members.
  • Sixty-four percent of students participate in Dartmouth's 48 study abroad options.
  • The Class of 2008 reported 98 percent satisfaction with the out-of-class availability of faculty.

geography class

Students use surveying tools in the Bema for "EarthSurface" (Geography 33). (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"Jim Wright has had an impact on every aspect of the College that can be matched by very few others in Dartmouth's history. His record matches his commitment to excellence, his concern for faculty, students and staff as individuals, and his love for Dartmouth."
Gene Garthwaite, professor of history and the Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor in Asian Studies (for more faculty comments about President Wright, see "Faculty Honors One of their Own.")

Outside the Classroom

The Classes of 1998 through 2008 reported an average 95 percent satisfaction rate with opportunities for extracurricular activities. The out-of-classroom experience at Dartmouth includes:

  • Nearly 300 student organizations
  • 30 Coed, Fraternity, and Sorority (CFS) Organizations
  • 34 varsity and 34 club sports
  • Cultural resources such as the Hood Museum of Art and the Hopkins Center for the Arts
  • Opportunities for developing leadership skills, such as the Leadership Discovery Program of the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, the Undergraduate Advisor Program, Tucker Foundation service projects, and Rockefeller Center Leadership Fellows

wright and CFS students

President Wright (center) with Coed, Fraternity, and Sorority organization members. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"Today, we can point with pride to nine new residence halls, late-night hours at Collis Center, and free student admission at all athletic events. Almost every athletic facility has been either replaced or extensively renovated during the past decade, and we have provided more budgetary and facility support for club sports."
President James Wright

The Physical Campus

More than $1.1 billion was invested in new facilities during Wright's tenure, including $80 million for athletic facilities and fields. The campus saw additional classroom space, athletic facilities, informal spaces, and 14 new residential facilities. 

kemeny hall

Kemeny Hall, opened fall 2006 (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

New academic facilities include:

  • Berry Library
  • Carson Hall (history)
  • Centerra Biology Labs
  • Haldeman Center (academic centers)
  • Kemeny Hall (math)
  • MacLean Engineering Sciences Center
  • Moore Hall (psychological and brain sciences)
  • Rauner Library (special collections)
  • Raether Hall (Tuck)
  • Rubin Cancer Center (DHMC)
  • Sudikoff expansion (computer science)
  • Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center (under construction)

Click here for a complete list of projects.

Foundation for the Future

Wright's legacy to Dartmouth includes the Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience, which has raised $1.18 billion. Sixty-seven percent of all alumni have contributed to the campaign that has resulted in 20 new endowed professorships and more than 500 new endowment funds.

As Dartmouth Life went to press, the College announced that new gifts totaling $15.5 million had been made in honor of the Wrights. Led by the campaign's executive committee, the fund-raising effort resulted in $12.5 million for scholarships and the Dartmouth College Fund, and $3 million from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation to establish the James Wright Professorship.

Early Years

Jim Wright in the Marines
James Wright as a young Marine. (Photo courtesy of James Wright)

James Wright joined the Marines immediately after graduating from high school and served for three years. One of his first jobs following his discharge from the Marines was as a powderman, lighting dynamite charges in the zinc mines of his hometown, Galena, Ill.

He enrolled in college and sought to become a history teacher. To pay tuition at the local university, Wright worked as a janitor, a night watchman, a bartender, and even took a job in a cheese factory.

Immediately after receiving his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wright drove across the country in the summer of 1969, invited by a college that had a position in U.S. history.

A Teacher and Scholar

Jim Wright faculty picture
Wright's first faculty portrait as an assistant professor of history, 1969. (Photo: Dartmouth College Library)

A scholar of the American West, Wright quickly gained recognition as a standout teacher. His "History of the American West" course was one of Dartmouth's most popular for 15 years.


"What I loved so much about having Professor Wright as a teacher was not just his ability to make complex material understandable, but his obvious decency and integrity."
Annette Gordon-Reed '81, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, professor of law, New York University law school, and professor of history, Rutgers University


As a scholar, he has written or edited four books:
The Galena Lead District; Federal Policy and Practice, 1824-1847
(1966, published from Wright's undergraduate honors thesis)
The West of the American People (1970, co-editor)
The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado (1974)
The Progressive Yankees: Republican Reformers in New Hampshire, 1906-1916 (1987)


Little Bighorn Battlefield
Wright at the graveyard of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. In the 1970s he helped produce a public television series on the Great Plains. (Photo courtesy of James Wright)

In 1973, Wright received a Guggenheim fellowship. He served as senior historian at the University of Mid-America from 1976-77 as well, helping to produce an award-winning public television series on the history of the Great Plains. In 1980-81, he was a Charles Warren Fellow at Harvard University. And in 1988, he and Susan Wright took the history Foreign Study Program to London.



Leadership and Service

Prior to becoming president, Wright held leadership roles including associate dean of the faculty (1981-1985), dean of the faculty (1989-97), acting president of the College during the first six months of 1995, and provost (1997-98).

Semper Fidelis award
The Semper Fidelis award Wright received from the Marine Corps for veterans' advocacy. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

In his role as dean of the faculty, Wright chaired the committee that, in 1993, worked to pass the College's first comprehensive change to degree requirements in 70 years.

Wright also chaired:

  • The 1971 committee that established the Native American Studies Program
  • The 1978 Committee on the Curriculum and Year-round Education
  • The 1987 committee that examined residential life and how it could be improved

In recent years, President Wright has advocated for veterans' access to education, helping secure passage of a new GI Bill. For this work, he received the Semper Fidelis Award from the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which is presented for outstanding patriotic service.


Sources: "Forever New: A Ten-Year Report, 1998-2008," by James Wright, and "An Extraordinary History: James Wright at Dartmouth," co-curated by Susan Warner and Dennis Grady. Additional reporting by Sarah Maxell Crosby '04 and Sarah Memmi.

Last Updated: 7/24/18