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Hanover Talks with Dr. Jim Yong Kim

Nov 22, 2010 08:01PM ● By Erin Frisch

Dr. Jim Yong Kim

Lessons in Life at Dartmouth

By Mark Dantos

Dr. Jim Yong Kim became the 17th president of Dartmouth College at a rather precarious time. The College’s $100 million budget shortfall was just coming to light and finding a sustainable solution would dominate much of Kim’s first year in office. Meanwhile, earthquakes devastated Haiti and he drew upon his international humanitarian experience to help rally the Dartmouth community in response. But while the crises showcased Kim’s penchant for tackling local and global problems, he came to Hanover with his own agenda too—for Dartmouth and beyond.

In May, Dr. Kim secured $35 million from an anonymous donor to found the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science. It will make Dartmouth the epicenter of a new field concentrated on improving the quality and lowering the cost of health care. In a former life, Kim co-founded the nonprofit Partners in Health, and later ran the Department of HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization. Now the anthropologist and former Harvard Medical School professor plans to start teaching again.

Born in Seoul and raised in Muscatine, Iowa, Kim (51) left his job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for Dartmouth and a new opportunity to help cultivate some of the world’s future leaders. A year and a half into his tenure, Kim is making his visions a reality. And this husband and father of two young boys is loving life in Hanover.

You have high expectations for yourself, your colleagues, and for Dartmouth. How do you manage those expectations and any shortcomings you encounter?

I once spoke with a person who said, “We set goals every year, and every year we meet our goals!” and my immediate response to him was, “Then you’re not setting your goals high enough.” There’s no question that if you set really high goals, you are going to fail at some point, but you are going to learn so much more than if you had set a low goal and achieved it. So I think it’s extremely important to set very high expectations, even if you do not reach them. Even in failure, you learn more.

Coming from Cambridge, what are your impressions of the Upper Valley?

Many of my friends in Cambridge and Boston come here for vacations. So we’re living in a place that other people come to in order to escape from the city. In the summer, I don’t think there’s a more beautiful place on the face of the earth. In the winter, the winter sports and the snow are really great, especially for my son Thomas, who learned to ski this past year. But there’s more to the Upper Valley than just the great outdoors. We have an excellent hospital. The social and cultural opportunities here are phenomenal. The people here in the Upper Valley are committed to service—just look at the amazing success of the Prouty—and to lifelong learning and growth. ILEAD (the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth) is a great example of that. And the Hopkins Center for the Arts brings world-class performers right here to Hanover. We really have everything you could want, without having to put up with any of the negative aspects of city life. I love it here.

You have two young sons. What lessons have your children taught you recently?

My son Thomas, who is ten, has been really affected by the focus on sustainability here in the Upper Valley, especially in regards to sustainable farming and organic food. He recently read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and he’s now reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. He’s been teaching me a lot about farming and food and how important it is for us to try to live and eat in a way that is consistent with sustainability. That’s been a tremendous lesson for me and for him as well.

From Nico [nearly two years old], I’ve been learning once again about patience and about how important it is to simply be there for your kids when they are growing up. A lesson I’ve learned over time is that a lot of people say, “I’m not around much, but when I am with my kids, it’s quality time.” I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that’s possible. I think quantity time is really important. You just never know what your kids are going to do or say on any given day, and you want to be there when things happen. I’ve worked hard to structure my job in such a way that I am home a lot. It’s my job to give little Nicolas a bath every night, and I’m very happy to say that I don’t miss many nights.

What are your plans for teaching at the College?

Next summer, I hope to teach in what will be the first iteration of our new Great Issues course. When John Sloan Dickey was president of Dartmouth, he created a mandatory course for seniors called Great Issues, which brought the class together with the great thinkers and leaders of the day to discuss current events. The alumni who took that course rave about it and say that it prepared them to take on the most complex, real-world challenges. I am very excited about reinstating Great Issues. The format may be a little different, but the goal will be the same. I have told the students many times that I expect them to use their Dartmouth education to go out and take on the world’s greatest problems. I think the Great Issues course will play a key role in preparing them for that task.

What life lessons do you remind yourself of each day?

The most important thing that I remind myself of each day is that everything we do here has an impact on some of the most extraordinary young people on the face of the earth. We have people here who are so impressionable, so eager to learn, and everything we do is going to have an effect on the kind of person they become. So I try to think very hard about every single thing that we’re doing and make sure that we’re moving a direction that is good for them.

The other thing that I remind myself of is that our people have to feel supported in order to be successful. The students need an environment where they can grow, learn, and evolve. The faculty need to feel that they are on fire, making world-changing discoveries. And in order to support the students and faculty in those goals, the staff need to feel that they are valued and that they are recognized for the important work that they do. When the faculty and the staff feel that they have our support, they can do their best work and their impact on the students will be most profound.

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