Creating Better People

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / May/June 2009
May 18th, 2009

Jim Yong Kim thrives on intractable problems. As students at Harvard Medical School, he and Paul Farmer founded Partners in Health to fight AIDS and poverty in Haiti. Kim followed that by revamping the treatment of multi-–drug-resistant tuberculosis worldwide, and, as a top World Health Organization official, he led its drive to deliver antiretroviral drugs to millions more AIDS patients around the globe.

Scott Kingsley
In 2006 Kim returned to Harvard to teach and to run its global health program. He and the Ivy League apparently clicked: this summer he becomes Dartmouth's seventeenth president.

Kim, the subject of the November/December 2006 BAM cover story, won a MacArthur "genius" award in 2003 and a William Rogers Award from Brown in 2008. He returns to College Hill over Commencement Weekend this year to address the graduating class of the Alpert Medical School and to receive an honorary degree.

In April, the BAM checked in again with Kim to ask about his decision to leave global health for higher ed.

What on earth made you want to be a college president when endowments are down, and Dartmouth, like Brown, is facing layoffs?

It wasn't that a university presidency came along and I threw my hat in the ring. That's not how it happened at all. I had a chance meeting with Al Mulley, the chair of the search committee [and an associate professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School], and he asked me to look at the job.

And the reason I looked at it was because my mentor, Howard Hiatt, the former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me, "Jim, whenever somebody asks you to look at an important job, it's your responsibility to the community to go look at it. Hearing how you would do the job—it helps the people running that institution to shape, in their minds, what they're looking for."

But why Dartmouth?

I had so many misunderstandings and misconceptions about Dartmouth, and when I started reading deeply about it, I really felt I understood what they were trying to do. I'd never understood the almost unparalleled devotion of Dartmouth alums before.

At Harvard I was teaching medical students and had my hands on the wheel, but I was only affecting a few dozen students at a time and was not in a position to shape their whole education. And along comes Dartmouth and says, "We have always been committed to providing the best undergraduate education in the world."

[Former Dartmouth President] John Sloan Dickey told students, "The world's troubles are your troubles, and there is no problem in the world that cannot be fixed by better human beings." When I read that, I thought, "Whoa, that is different!" And I went back and asked, "Is this what you want me to do—to have my first and foremost goal be the creation of a new cadre of people who can solve the world's most difficult problems?" And they said, "Absolutely." The search committee was amazing. This was a risky, bold move for them.

Do you see education as a different way to accomplish the same goal you've been pursuing through global health: solving the world's problems?

For the past twenty-five years I've thrown my body at problems—WHO, Peru, HIV, and multi–drug-resistant TB treatment—I literally went out there every day advocating for change, raising money. The question for me was: Am I going to have a bigger impact by doing that again, or by inspiring young people who will be equipped to take on these problems far more effectively than I am?

And that's what it came to, a choice between throwing my body at these problems again or taking on the creation of a cadre of inspired young people. I've learned a bit about how to inspire and guide young people to take on these problems. This is not a lifestyle choice. It's a major life choice for me. At Dartmouth I can take a shot at creating hundreds and thousands of young people who are equipped to take on the world's troubles.

Just a few days after your appointment was announced, a Dartmouth student sent an anonymous e-mail to the college community calling you a "Chinaman" and satirically referring to your appointment as an example of yet another immigrant taking jobs from American workers. How did you respond?

When that happened, I had an idea of how to respond. But I called [President] Ruth [Simmons], and she called me right back and was so full of warmth and wisdom. She talked me through some past incidents and gave me wonderful advice about how to think about incidents like this.

World Health Organization
 In Nairobi, in 2003, Kim kicked off an ambitious World Health Organization drive to get HIV drugs to three million new patients by 2005. While it didn't meet the goal, more than a million new cases were treated.
What did she suggest you do?

 Her advice was more about what it means to become the president of an Ivy League institution and how much people hang on your every word—about the importance of setting the tone early on. She said that at first there's no question that racial issues might come out, but, she said, that changes over time as you make decisions. At this point, people know her as Ruth, the president of Brown, and not Ruth, the African American president of Brown.

Ruth Simmons was the first African American to become president of an Ivy League school, and you'll be the first Asian American. Did she have any insights into the historical significance of your new job?

She said, "Your community is going to be wildly excited about this." And it happened. The news just exploded in South Korea. It was on the front page of the papers and on the evening news. I was deluged with interest from not only the Korean media but also the Asian American media.

But she said being a university president is a complicated job, and your race is going to go into the background. She gave me a very practical way of dealing with the e-mail incident: She said you're not the president; you're the president-elect, and you should let the president take the lead, which he did with great skill.

She was the voice of experience, then.

She said this is what a university president's life is like, and she told me how she has dealt with crises like this before. She had a very calming influence. She gave me ... wisdom is the only word I can use to describe it.

In Asian culture we have very well developed ways of talking about people like Ruth. We call them sages, people who are brilliant to start with but because of their experience and the number of difficult bumps they've battled, they just have a wisdom so deep that people flock to them.

One of the things Ruth pointed out was that you can't help the fact that race will be an issue. These are very old institutions that have had people of color in leadership roles only very recently. It's just what Obama said: we are not in a post-racial era, and won't be for a very long time. But now that people of color are taking leadership roles, the conversation will change. The discussion of race on campus will take on a different feel because I'm there.

Many people in the global health community were surprised by your decision to accept the offer from Dartmouth. Some thought you might join the Obama administration.

I was involved in discussions with the Obama administration—that's true—and it's also true that Harvard students had mounted a campaign for me to take a job in the Obama administration. In fact, early on I had hoped to find myself there, but then this happened. Who would have guessed six months ago that Dartmouth would ask me to be president?

You have a doctorate in anthropology. Do you ever get to use it?

When I was at WHO, being a doctor helped me on many days, but being an anthropologist helped me every day. Some people interpret politics as personal and take attacks personally. But if you approach politics as an anthropologist, when someone attacks you the first thing you have to think is: "Who are these people? What are their motivations? How do they fit into the social and cultural mix here? How much power do they have? And if I respond this way, what are the ripples going to look like?" You have to go through that exercise.

I'm not saying I do it all the time, but that's the kind of ethnographic discipline that you get as an anthropologist—to try to understand social organizations deeply before taking actions. Most anthropologists understand organizations as deeply as possible and then write about them, but I've always had to do ethnography and then act on it. It's a bit different.

Will you be an anthropologist in Hanover?

I've heard that one of the Dartmouth anthropologists has studied fraternities and sororities and their drinking culture. I'm guessing the faculty will have some very interesting and entertaining takes on the culture there. It will be great fun to do my own ethnography of the College.

Partners in Health
In 1995, Kim started a clinic in a slum outside of Lima, Peru. When multi-drug-resistant TB broke out, he challenged WHO's policy of letting it go untreated in poor populations. 
What skills do you want to give college students?

One is, when you walk into a situation not to look at it in a unidimensional way but to try to capture the whole complexity of the situation. Many brilliant young kids have taken a lot of classes—and usually the ones who've gotten into Harvard Medical School have done very well in those classes—but life doesn't present itself in the form of syllabi or academic disciplines. I've become a big believer in the Dewian notion that the best way to learn is by doing. And if you can have your mentor at your side while you're doing, that's about as good as it gets.

In John Sloan Dickey's time, Dartmouth had a Great Issues class for seniors. The leader of the American Communist Party might come one week, and very conservative politicians another. I'm all for robust departments and a strong focus on disciplines, but I also think there's a role for engaging an entire class of students with problems of great complexity so that when they leave college they've had some kind of shared experience. I'm going to try to teach a great issues course somehow.

What about nonacademic skills?

I've come to believe that leadership is something we have to try to teach and foster. Some people would say, "How do you define it? It's not really a discipline. It's so vague." I disagree. Leadership is not just how an individual stands up to give stirring speeches. It's about the nature of social institutions, and in difficult times getting a group of people to do things that they would not even want to do otherwise.

How do you do that? I had wonderful mentors in my medical career, people who really helped me with leadership. In academia, we probably don't do as well with that. Many academics are loners, or work in very small groups.

Another thing is being part of our democracy. In my own struggles to get the U.S. Congress to care more about things like global health, I have learned that I knew almost nothing about civics. I probably studied it in second or third grade and never again. We are not very informed citizens overall. And it's too bad because participation is everything.

These are all things that I have noticed in my own efforts to change things in the world, frankly.

You and your wife, Younsook Lim, have two sons, eight-year-old Thomas and Nicolas, who was born February 27, just days before your new job was announced. How are you going to balance your family life with the travel and other demands of the job?

People say that being a college president is really difficult because of all the travel, but I've been doing that my whole life. The travel will actually be easier for me.

What about raising money? So much of a college president's time must be spent raising money these days.

I have never in my life raised funds from a dedicated constituency. I have always been trying to get people—Irish Catholics in Cambridge, people who live on the upper west side of New York City—to care about poor people in Haiti and Rwanda. It turns out that there's a natural constituency of die-hard devotees to Dartmouth College, and I've got to inspire them about something they already love.

I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but I'm looking forward to the opportunity for the first time in my life to fund-raise from people who love the place and are inclined to give-, people who want to be inspired.

Academic politics can be notoriously nasty. How will you manage that?

When I came back to Harvard, people said, "How are you going to deal with such complicated politics?" I said, "Complicated politics? Compared to WHO?" At WHO there were knives and daggers coming from people from every country in the world, in fifty languages, from people who wanted to keep their jobs, people who felt terribly strongly about one thing or another, people who hated America. I got to spend three years conducting my own informal ethnographic study of politics. And I can tell you, having everyone speak English is a great advantage.

Another thing most academic administrators don't look forward to is managing sports teams.

But you're an athlete. Growing up in Iowa, you were quarterback and captain of your high school football team.

[Laughing] I love it! The Dartmouth football team was 0–10 last year, and we've got to fix that! I'm going to love trying to create great sports programs.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.

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May/June 2009