Retrospective on Jim Kim's Presidency

The editors of Mouth sent me a provocative e-mail:


"For our next issue we're going with the theme of (Ir)Rational Hatred, and trying to unpack why certain things (Nickelback, Crash) are commonly accepted as terrible by just about everyone.

And with that we wanted to look into why basically everyone on campus still hates Jim Kim. The '16s and '17s never even knew the guy, and as a rule don't know much about his time as president. So seeing as you have strong opinions on this subject, and are better informed than most students on the issues, we were wondering if you could write an article for Mouth explaining why Jim Kim was a bad president of the College.

Can budget misappropriations (albeit embarrassingly visible misappropriations like the VAC, Hanover Inn renovation, choosing Microsoft Outlook over Gmail, &c.) really explain his journey in the public mind from bad president to bad person?"


Hate is the wrong word here, one much too strong for the likes of Jim Kim. I’d go with something like derision, contempt, disdain, or disrespect  – words strong enough to show that we look down on Kim in an emotional and moral sense. There is no need to summon up hate, which should be reserved for true evil.

Jim Kim is not evil. He is just a liar -- an ambitious liar unburdened by conscience. That’s why people feel intensely about him. Not that he is much different from Jim Wright or Carol Folt; it’s just that he lies much more, and people can see through him more quickly.

I recall sitting at a faculty meeting in the first months of Kim’s administration, when I had real hope for him. He made a statement, and the faculty member in front of me turned to his neighbor and said, “There he goes again.” That remark was my first clue as to Kim’s game, and from then on I kept my ears open. As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." I wasn’t disappointed.

A few weeks later at another faculty meeting, Kim was asked about the College’s community-destroying housing policy that shunts students from dorm to dorm each time they return to campus. His reply:

I hear very different kinds of responses to that: there are people who really don’t like it, moving so much; there are others who think that it makes them live lightly. You know, they are used to moving. So, I have heard different things at different times...

How clever. So some people really like being moved around? Living lightly? C’mon. Not only is that a lie, it is a bad lie.

Kim also set a standard for the administrators under him, one that they picked up on quickly. The estimable Lieutenant Brian Holekamp ‘12  once put together a list of Kim administration lies on Facebook that is as good as any:

Lie #1: “I don't know why a lot of people think I want to take a job in Washington. I am absolutely 100% committed to staying here as Dartmouth's President for the 250th anniversary in 2019.” -- Jim Kim, April 5, 2011.

Lie #2: “Dartmouth Dining Services did not make any profits in 2009, 2010, or 2011. Let me be clear, we broke even. We did not make a profit” -- Dave Newlove, October 10, 2011.

Lie #3: “The Hanover Inn Renovations will cost 13 million dollars.” -- Dartmouth Board of Trustees, November 7, 2010.

Lie #4 “The next frat to be caught hazing will be derecognized, no exceptions. Likely the next two or three organizations will be derecognized” -- Wes Schaub, January 30, 2012.

Lie #5 “I would like to be clear that we are not canceling the Dimensions welcome show.” -- Maria Laskaris, February 25, 2013.

Lie #6: “We have conducted an extensive safety review of the Dartmouth College River dock and determined that it is not safe for swimming” -- April Thompson, June 23, 2010.

Lie #7: (Responding to a question about new alcohol policies) “Sure they do, although an extensive data survey would be unnecessary given the predominance and widespread use of such policies.” -- Dean Charlotte Johnson, September 19, 2012.

Lie #8: “I was the first faculty member to ask for a desktop computer.” -- Interim President Folt, over an over again.

Lie #9: “I immediately stopped and dialed 911 while exiting the car.” -- S&S Officer Shane Harlow, December 12, 2012.

Lie #10: “Younsook Lim, you are an insightful, committed, and centered pediatrician who has dedicated herself to improving the health of young people around the world... your generous heart and distinctive intelligence will be missed by the entire Dartmouth community.” -- Steve Mandel, June 10, 2012.

One could go on and on with examples like these, almost without end. There certainly is a patter and a pattern here, don’t you think?

Recall Kim’s wonderfully timed “important phone calls,” the ones that would regularly come in on his cellphone about five minutes after he’d join a Take Back The Night march or some other student event. He’d be “urgently called away” with such predictable timing that students began to anticipate the calls.

Most of Kim’s lies related in some way to budget cuts. The College would announce a new policy, and justifications were duly put forward that the change in question was, of course, only for the good of students. Except that it never really was. I have heard directly from members of the faculty, and from administrators high and low, that the Kim modus operandi was to figure out a way to save some dough by cutting student services, and then he and his subordinates would sit around a table trying to come up with a justification for the change. Kim had absolutely no scruples about inventing facts and referring to studies that did not exist. Even the editors of The D, normally as credulous a bunch as it gets, saw through Kim. Look at this conclusion from a Verbum Ultimum on September 14, 2012: “Overreliance on nebulous and private ‘data’ proved to be a weakness of College President Jim Yong Kim’s tenure.” Translation: Liar, liar, pants on fire!

The story of the closed swim docks is a good case in point. In the spring of 2010, erstwhile Dean of the College Sylvia Spears was casting about for ways to save money in the midst of the budget crisis. She and her staff did not know the College well – they had just downsized by eliminating a good many, (mostly male), experienced staffers from her office. So cutting the swimdocks and saving on lifeguarding costs seemed a good idea to her little group.

The administration swung into action in the usual manner: it put forward the thought that a muddy, swift-flowing river, one that might have submerged obstacles in it, made swimming in the Connecticut a risk that the College could not countenance. Kim himself made these points in a speech in Bentley Theater. Everyone nodded in understanding, until more energetic minds took the time to examine the facts. For one, there had never once been a swimming accident in front of the lifeguards at the swimdocks since 1972, when summer term began. In fact, a group headed by Economics Professor Bruce Sacerdote found data showing that each year in the entire U.S.A. there is on average less than one fatality at a lifeguarded, fresh water swimming area -- and that statistic includes areas where babies and grandparents swim, not just fit Ivy League students. (Note: there have been two drownings in the past decade in Hanover, both involving non-Dartmouth students, one who was intoxicated and one who could not swim. Neither event occurred in a lifeguarded area.) However, even when this information was published, Kim would not go back on his position. Instead, a new swimdock was built in an inconvenient, but supposedly safe, location at a cost of over $300k. That’s a lot of money to spend just to save face.

The story of today’s much-hated dining plans is similar. All-you-can-eat dining is cheaper to provide – none of those super-expensive DDS checkout workers – and the football team gets to eat its fill. But rather than telling the truth, the administration put out stories about students running out of DBA by the end of term, and how all-you-can-eat meal plans are healthier. In reality, DDS management had come up with an effective à la carte plan, but it did not make as much extra profit (DDS was already very profitable) for the College, so their proposal was ruled out by Kim and his finance people. Students, who know that there is free Boloco/pizza/EBA’s to be had somewhere almost every evening on campus and who manage their DBA balances well, were not fooled.

Beyond any direct understanding that they were being lied to, individual members of the staff and faculty confirmed for students that they were hearing lies. Each time Kim and his administration trotted out another fib, there were people employed by the College who knew that the truth was being abused. Even in these cynical times, when a President like Bill Clinton can look into the camera and say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” many people still maintain a residual respect for the truth. Each time that most College employees heard a lie, or were asked to tell one, they winced. Over time, and after many lies, word of Kim’s habitual mendacity filtered out to students like a spreading cancer.

Of course, Kim’s biggest lie was why he was at Dartmouth in the first place. From the start, and despite  Kim’s denials and protestations of love of the College, everyone who knows how the world works could see that he was in Hanover to punch his ticket and move on to bigger things. During his presidency, he spent a huge amount of time down in Washington hobnobbing with Congressmen and Senators, ostensibly about the College’s needs, except that nothing positive for Dartmouth ever came to fruition from these trips. Kim’s real goal was facetime with the powerful who might elevate him to his next big job. All of this effort came at the cost of his commitment to the College. For example, longterm-relationship-building with wealthy alumni, the kind of patient work that leads to big donations, was not a priority for Kim. He often told staffers in the Development Office that he could not travel due to family commitments – an admirable goal, to be sure, right up until you look at Kim’s endless foreign schedule of visits at the World Bank. His five-year-old son is less important to Kim now, I guess. 

Beyond students, many people in Hanover had the strongest possible negative feelings about Kim. At a Dartmouth Forum fundraiser in June of this year, Trustee Bill Helman ‘80, the head of the Presidential search committee that brought Phil Hanlon to Dartmouth, said, “The faculty hated Jim Kim.” Helman isn’t wrong, even if he was guilty of hyperbole.

All that said, I expect that Kim has been trading on glib lies for most of his career. A while back, the freshman class read Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and many people in Hanover said that they came away thrilled at the achievements of our President. Except that anyone reading the book at all closely could see that the real achievements detailed in it were hardly Kim’s. The full title of the book is Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. There is no doubt that Paul Farmer has accomplished a great many things with Partners in Health, but in the book itself, Jim Kim is at best a bit player:  he’s not even mentioned until page 99 in its 301 pages of text, and in total his name appears on only 44 pages (Amazon’s Look Inside function does this calculation automatically.) We should keep in mind that during his time at Partners in Health, Kim was also a student at Harvard Medical School and he was studying for his Ph.D. in anthropology. I expect that he had only minimal time to travel to the Third World to do real work, though he would have had the opportunity to make plenty of speeches about PIH’s achievements to influential East Coast audiences who had no way to check up on his actual role in the organization.

Let me end with a broader question than why Kim is held in such low esteem. Ask yourself the following: if a slick-talking salesman like Jim Kim can use Dartmouth to go on to the Presidency of the World Bank, and a plodding, utterly ineffective  bureaucrat like Carol Folt can leave Hanover to run one of the country’s finest state universities – and both are lauded in the press for their many supposed achievements -- how many other leaders of our large institutions are similarly fake? We’ve all seen these two people up close, and we know them for what they are. Can we now take at face value the reputations of other major leaders?

Addendum: For further reading about Jim Kim, former Student Assembly President Max Yoeli ‘12 and Class Day Orator Kathleen Mayer ‘11 wrote incisive, no-holds-barred pieces that merit your attention.