A Profound Sense of Place

It was a day of gratitude and hope at the 2018 Prouty. Photo by Bruce Denis.

As Gail and I rode the 50-mile bike route in the Prouty a couple of weekends ago, it was heart-warming to meet so many Dartmouth students, faculty, staff and alumni along the way.  We joined together that day with shared purpose – to recognize and support the scientists, clinicians and patients of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center who together are leading the fight against cancer.

At Dartmouth, we hail “a profound sense of place” as a hallmark of our institution.  In doing so, we often talk about the ways in which Dartmouth’s singular setting forges community and builds character.  The amazing beauty of the north woods inspires and humbles, reminding us that there are much grander things in life than ourselves. The challenge of those cold February mornings and the serenity of sophomore summer are shared experiences that bind us together.  At the same time, the welcoming towns of the Upper Valley, with their outstanding schools, safe environments and easy access to the outdoors, help Dartmouth attract and retain high quality faculty and staff.  Indeed, the Dartmouth experience is enhanced and differentiated by our profound sense of place.

Gail Gentes connects with fellow participants at the 2018 Prouty in Hanover.  Photo by Herb Swanson.

This place is defined not only by the ways in which we draw benefit from our magnificent setting, but also by the ways in which we give back.  The Dartmouth campus is an artistic and intellectual hub for the Upper Valley.  The same weekend of the Prouty also featured a major conference celebrating the 25thanniversary of Cornel West’s Race Matters, as well as a sold out advanced screening of Ken Burns’s documentary on country music.  Dartmouth’s Division I intercollegiate athletics bring great pride to our local communities.  As one of the state’s largest employers, Dartmouth contributes robustly to our local and regional economy.  Together with its trusted partner Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the Geisel School of Medicine serves as a first-rate academic medical center, delivering advanced care to patients across northern New England.  Beyond these highly visible contributions, the Dartmouth family has a long and distinguished history of helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

At the 25-mile mark in our Prouty ride, I met Rose and Emma – two Dartmouth students who had taken time out of their sophomore summer to support the critical work being done at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.  They exemplify the notion of service above self while appreciating the profound sense of place that defines the Dartmouth experience. I have no doubt that what they took that day from a breathtaking 50-mile ride along the Connecticut River and what they gave back to the local community through their effort will stay with them long after their time at Dartmouth is through.

I urge all of you, in the upcoming year, to join Gail and me in making a point to give back to the local community that perpetually gives so much to us.  Whether it’s through projects sponsored by the Center for Social Impact, participation in events like the CHaD and the Prouty, campus-wide giving to Dartmouth’s annual United Way Campaign, or leveraging Dartmouth’s new staff policy of providing a paid day off for volunteer service, may we each do all we can to honor and support the place we call home.

On the Slopes of Big Sky

There’s nothing like Winter Carnival to awaken the spirit, and today marks the start of our 106th Annual Winter Carnival at Dartmouth. At the center of that storied tradition is, of course, competitive skiing, and I hope this weekend will be marked by yet another victory by our Big Green ski teams! For more on the competition, check out this piece in Dartmouth News.

Gail and I had the pleasure of doing some skiing of our own in Big Sky, Montana, over winter break. Ski conditions were fantastic. But the highlight of our trip was a Dartmouth event, a “Gathering of the Green” generously hosted by Dave Mott ’86 and his wife, Alice. Notably, 120 Dartmouth faithful joined us that evening in Big Sky. Yes, you read that right. Dartmouth folks turned out in full force — alumni from across the generations, including a number of recent graduates, as well as current students and families. We even had three newly admitted students into the Class of 2021 and their families join us for the occasion.

As the evening closed, I was puzzled as to why so many Dartmouth people would congregate at Big Sky. But it strikes me that inherent in skiing, and outdoor activity, in general, are some of the very same values shared by our institution: an adventuresome spirit, an appreciation for the inspiration and humility that come from magnificent surroundings, the sense of community born out of confronting a shared challenge, whether physical or intellectual.  

Perhaps that’s what led Fred Harris from the Class of 1911 to rally our campus around the great outdoors more than a century ago. Fred, of course, founded our beloved Dartmouth Outing Club in the winter of 1909-10 – an organization that, today, is more than 1500 student members strong and part of the very fabric of our Dartmouth community – before masterminding the first-ever Winter Carnival the following year. It’s no wonder that Money magazine recently ranked Dartmouth among the Top 10 Colleges for people who love the outdoors.

The Dartmouth community knows all too well the thrill that comes from forging new paths, on the slopes and trails, in the classroom, and in their fields. It’s what binds us together. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dartmouth’s impact on skiing, itself.

Without a doubt, Dartmouth has made its mark on competitive skiing, from hosting the first-ever U.S. intercollegiate ski meet in Hanover in 1915, to producing more than 100 Olympic and Paralympic skiers and snowboarders since the Winter Olympics began. But in addition to competitive success, Dartmouth alums have applied their trademark innovation, leadership skills and pioneering spirit to nearly every aspect of the ski industry. They designed the very first overhead j-bar cable ski lift, constructed at Dartmouth’s own Oak Hill in 1936, and invented the first grooming equipment in 1952. They’ve founded, developed and managed of over 40 ski areas across the U.S. They’ve even proven the impossible possible, as Bill Briggs, a Dartmouth ’54, successfully descended from the summit of Grand Teton in the early 1970s when no one thought it could be done, literally paving the way for the modern extreme skiing movement. (Those of you interested in learning more about Dartmouth’s ski history should check out the book Passion for Skiing by Stephen Waterhouse.)

Today, the DOC, our Skiway and Oak Hill venues, and events like Winter Carnival continue to build community, provide opportunities for experiential learning and leadership, and foster innovation.

So, I hope to see you embracing the Winter Carnival tradition this weekend. Take in the ski races. Try your hand at ice carving. Take a dip in Occom Pond as part of the legendary Polar Bear Swim. And for those of you inclined to take to the slopes and trails, I can promise you’ll like where they lead. 

When a House Becomes a Home

This fall, our brand new House Communities were brought to life, thanks to the truly extraordinary efforts of Rebecca Biron, Mike Wooten and their Student Affairs colleagues, as well as our Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Provost’s Office, Campus Services, and countless other individuals and departments across campus who helped make them a reality for our students.

It’s been great to see students congregating in their new House Centers, to hear of our outstanding House Professors hosting intimate dinners to discuss the great issues of the day, and to watch inter-House competitions unfold on the playing fields this fall, with School House claiming the first-ever IM House soccer championship, edging out West House in a hard-fought final.

As we were preparing to launch the House Communities – the centerpiece of Moving Dartmouth Forward – I was consistently asked, by students, alumni and staff, why we were introducing a “new” residential model. To answer that question, let me start with a little history.

When I was a Dartmouth student, back in the mid 1970s, residential life was quite different than it was when I became Dartmouth president in 2013. We formed strong bonds through student organizations – including the Greek system – much like we do today. But in addition, our dorm-mates and residence halls functioned as a family and home base. (For me that was Ripley Hall.)  Dorms competed against one another in intramural sports, we debated issues great and small with our fellow residents, made lasting friendships, socialized together and developed a strong a sense of identity with where we lived throughout our four years in Hanover.

Yet when I began speaking with students, either individually or in small groups, during the first three years of my presidency, it became clear that much of this had been lost. In so many of those conversations, students praised the strong bonds built in their dorms during their first year on campus, but mourned the lack of continuity in housing after their first year as a weakness in their overall residential experience.

Indeed, as more and more students took advantage of the D-Plan over time, pursuing valuable study abroad, internships and off-campus experiential learning opportunities, we witnessed a slow and steady erosion of that dorm-based community, with a large portion of our student body having to change residences every term to account for the constant influx and outflow of students from campus.

With the new House system, we’re not only recapturing that much-needed continuity and stability in our residential experience, we’re bringing that experience to entirely new heights. Through the addition of faculty and graduate student connections and an infusion of academic, artistic, intellectual and social programming determined, in large part, by the students themselves, our House Communities are making learning a 24/7/365 proposition and becoming a key part of our entire community’s social and intellectual growth.

So, when Jane Hill, our House Professor at Allen House, tells me that an informal conversation she had with a ’20 from Allen the week before fall classes began enabled her to direct the student to a Professor at Thayer, where the two are now working together on their shared passion for biofuels….or when Dean Biron tells me about the lively and pointed discussion that took place between students, faculty and staff at a North Park House post-election analysis dinner with Professors Joe Bafumi of the Government department and Don Pease from English and American Studies, each of whom provided an interpretation of the election results from the point of view of his own discipline….I am reminded of the magic that can happen when the lines between living and learning are not only blurred, but obliterated.

It’s exciting, to say the least, and we’re not even half way through year one.  And while these early days of our House Communities will be characterized by a lot of experimentation and learning, it will only make the system better every year.

What are the chances?

Forty-three years ago, I was a first-year student at Dartmouth. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long since my Dartmouth journey began – though delightful for me to say that it’s still continuing today.

Among my most lucid memories as a student are those of John Kemeny. He was, of course, Dartmouth’s president at the time, but he was also a professor in one of my classes. I remember him as a meticulous lecturer, very formal in style, and already the stuff of legend on the Dartmouth campus – known for having been Einstein’s assistant, having worked on the Manhattan Project. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by his image that I never worked up the courage to actually speak to him during my time at Dartmouth, though in hindsight, I wish I had!

Professor Kemeny was, indeed, a brilliant man. And I had the good fortune of taking Introduction to Probability with him my sophomore summer. This was one of the courses that ignited my passion for the subject and set me on the mathematical journey that has led me to where I am today. Though I must confess: if he had asked me then about the chances that I would go on to a career in mathematics and one day teach Probability at Dartmouth as President of the College, I’d have likely answered that probabilistic question with a dismissive, “not a chance in hell!”

Yet here we are, in the fall of 2016, and I have the privilege of teaching that very same class – Math 20 – in a building that now bears his name. It’s truly an honor for me to teach at Dartmouth at a time when our commitment to undergraduate teaching is as strong as it ever was – and even sweeter to be teaching one of my most favorite subjects, which has also been the feature of some of my research.

Probability is a true blend of basic and applied. Combining concepts from algebra, analysis and combinatorics, Math 20 fully features the beauty and elegance that have drawn me to pure mathematics.

At the same time, it is a subject that comes into play, over and over again, in everyday life. When Professor Kemeny said, “The man ignorant of mathematics will be increasingly limited in his grasp of the main forces of civilization,” he was right, particularly when it comes to probability.

Indeed, we see applications for it in nearly every field, from business and economics to politics and public health. It is used to predict behaviors and outcomes, like presidential elections, as well as to assess risk and make better and more informed decisions. In fact, there’s not a major league sports franchise today that’s not using statistical inference to make personnel decisions, design game plans and make real-time play calls – a concept brought to the forefront of American conscience in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and the impetus for a Sports Analytics class I co-taught with Michael Herron of our Government Department last fall.

There are about 30-35 students in my class this term – a combination of upper-level undergraduates and some graduate students. The objective is to give them a framework in which to think about probabilistic questions. Questions relevant to their lives today like how to interpret election polls…including how to consider things like margin of error and the impact of decisions made by pollsters in analyzing the data. (Nate Cohn explained how the same raw data could yield different results quite brilliantly in a recent New York Times Upshot post.) And questions of more historical interest, like the decryption of an actual correspondence sent to General Gage by one of his lieutenants during the battles between the British and French over control of North America.

There is no question that we live in an increasingly data-driven world. As a professor, I want my students to have an edge by knowing how to make sense of it all. Any time they hear an argument based on data, I want them to challenge the conclusions. I want them to ask questions about the factual basis and the statistical methods employed.

For nearly 250 years, Dartmouth faculty have inspired their students to look at the world in new ways, to think about their lives differently. And I know that tradition is alive and well – I hear from students all the time about the life-changing classes that they’ve had here at Dartmouth.

I experienced this first-hand as a student at Dartmouth. In Math 20 and any number of other courses across the curriculum, Dartmouth professors like John Kemeny had that kind of impact on me. Like John Kemeny, I hope to pay it forward to a future generation of Dartmouth graduates.


It’s great to be back! Gail and I have just returned from two more trips to round out our summer travels: one to Peru, where we had the privilege of spending time with Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor TU’88, one of our newest Trustees, and meeting with education leaders and alumni living and working in Peru, and the other to San Francisco, where I took part in the Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum, an impressive gathering of more than 500 Dartmouth alumni entrepreneurs.

While I was traveling, our incoming students were on trips of their own – First-year Trips, of course, organized by our terrific DOC trip leaders. And just last week, I welcomed our newest class of students – the Class of 2020 – at its first class meeting.

Talk about high-energy!

In Peru, in Silicon Valley, and back here in Hanover, the energy and enthusiasm for Dartmouth is palpable. It’s what I love most about being part of this institution. Eager students, passionate educators, engaged alumni. It’s a truly magical combination that invigorates our entire campus community, including me, at the start of every academic year. You can’t possibly walk by Robo Hall the week before classes begin without sharing in the excitement of our trippees, dancing up a storm with the “H croo” in their colorful attire with a style all their own.

And as I listened to our talented alumni in Peru and San Francisco talk about their experiences, I was struck, once again, by how they carry that excitement with them as they disperse from our Hanover home to every corner of this globe to make a profound and positive impact in their chosen fields.

Yet the journeys of our alumni don’t begin after they graduate from Dartmouth. They begin upon arriving at Dartmouth.  While many students will travel the woods of New Hampshire and around the globe during their time at Dartmouth, the most life-changing part of their journey will come via the intellectual exploration and personal growth inherent in a Dartmouth education.

Dartmouth’s amazing faculty, distinguished by their commitment to the teacher-scholar model, offer students the opportunity to delve into new subjects, to grapple with complex problems, to test their assumptions and to discover new passions.

It is this cumulative journey through Dartmouth that leads to an enlightened, conscious mind and gives our students the confidence to take on the challenges of the world with the same unbridled energy they bring with them to their very first day on campus.

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of meeting every member of the Class of 2020 – all 1100 of them – during matriculation ceremonies in my office to mark the official start of their careers as Dartmouth students. And as they begin their Dartmouth journeys, I emphasized the importance of the Dartmouth Citizenship Pledge, which states, in part:

We learn together. We teach one another. We create knowledge together. We treat ourselves and each other with dignity and respect. We recognize that our diverse backgrounds broaden our understanding of the world. We appreciate that an honest and civil exchange of ideas – especially conflicting ones – strengthens our intellect and makes for an inclusive community.”

It is an excellent creed for Dartmouth, and I hope and expect that every member of this community will live up to its aspirations.

Fall term is here. And just like that – the journey’s underway.