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Posted at 4:00 PM ET, 09/21/2009

Dartmouth Chief Is Ivy's First Asian-American President

By Washington Post editors

The Ivy League took another step into the present today when Dartmouth College officially inaugurated the first Asian-American to lead one of the eight prestigious schools.

Jim Yong Kim, 49, an internationally renowned health expert, educator and anthropologist, is now president of the New Hampshire school after winning the job he sought with no expectation of success. He came from Harvard University, where he was an official in the medical school. He won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and is on various lists of the most influential people in the world. He is married to Younsook Lim, a pediatrician. They have two young sons.

Here are excerpts of a conversation Kim had with The Answer Sheet about his new job and the issues confronting higher education.

Q) Some people are surprised that Dartmouth, with a conservative reputation, was the first Ivy League school to have an Asian-American president.
A) So was I. .... I had no inclination about being a college or university president at all. It wasn’t a daydream as recently as a year ago.... When I was invited to interview for the job, my mentor at Harvard [Medical School] said I should go and tell them what I would do. ... I told my wife... She said, ‘It’s Dartmouth College. They are never going to offer you the job. So go ahead and interview. It will be a good experience for you.’... We had this conception of Dartmouth as a very conservative place. Hiring an Asian-American president, we thought was not likely. But my predecessor, Jim Wright, has created one of the most stunning diverse colleges in every way. I had a lot of serious misconceptions about what this place is....
I am the first male president of color in the Ivy League. Ruth Simmons [of Brown University] was the first person of color to lead an Ivy institution.

Q) What took so long?
A) I don’t know.

Q) What did you on your first day as president?
A) I administratively took over on July 1. The first thing I did was spend two days shaking about 3,000 hands, meeting a lot of people from the janitorial staff to the faculty and trying to figure out how this wonderful place works.

Q) What have you identified as your biggest challenges?
A) All institutions of higher education--colleges and universities to communities colleges, are being challenged to rethink our value proposition in a way far more fundamental than we’ve ever faced. ..... I think when you are going through the kinds of cuts that some colleges and universities are talking about--5, 10, 15, 20 and even 30 percent--it is time to reassess priorities from the ground up.

Q) What do you mean by “value proposition”? Are you talking about the cost of an Ivy League education?
A) Yes. Why should you send your child to an Ivy League institution that costs $60,000 rather than a state institution or even a community college? To me it is clear--we offer the best teaching and other opportunities not available elsewhere--but we have to be more rigorous in explaining what we offer.

Q) You said schools are reassessing priorities. What are you reassessing?
A) Dartmouth has taken quite a different path from a lot of schools. We have professional schools but our focus is on undergraduate education. .. We have a special commitment to undergraduate teaching. And I think that is right... Our job is to train the majority of our students--we have 4,000--to get a liberal arts education that will prepare them to tackle the most difficult problems in the world .....

A big challenge for me is how to take the number one school in undergraduate teaching and take it to new heights. So people come out of here ready, willing and capable of tackling problems like HIV and tuberculosis and malaria and global warning and environmental sustainability.

Q) A lot of people question whether studying the humanities is the way to train young people to attack those problems. Business related majors are the most sought after in undergraduate schools today.
A) I spent years training young people to tackle the problems of global health and then realized that waiting until graduate and medical school was too late. We have to start earlier.... And yes, the best way to do is through the humanities....

The real rocket science is the science of how human organizations work together. The problems we have today require that people work together to find a solution. And the greatest insights into human beings are in literature and art, more so than in some of the more quantitative sciences.

You have to be able to understand and do the numbers. That is critical. We need to have scientists and statisticians who are looking at the world from that perspective... But the humanities are critical, too, to understanding the human condition so one can go out into the world and be effective...

What we really need are more effective people who can think across problems in a really productive way. Engineers who understand how human social organizations work. Investment bankers who are so well trained in Shakespeare and ethics that they both drive the economy forward and raise the ethical standards of any organization that they walk in to.

By Washington Post editors  | September 21, 2009; 4:00 PM ET
Tags:  dartmouth college, ivy league, jim yong kim  
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