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The Dartmouth
May 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

A man and his mission

First in a series of articles about James O. Freedman.

College President James Freedman is quiet and unassuming, so much so that students say he does not have a strong enough presence on campus.

Perhaps it is because he spends so much time admiring his own heroes, that he has spent little time making a hero out of himself. Year after year, in his Convocation speeches, Freedman speaks bountifully of his many mentors -- judges, writers and heads of state.

But if Freedman has not assumed the epic role of a John Sloan Dickey, then he has traded the hero's mantle for that of a champion -- a champion of books and knowledge, of learning and ideas, and of values and ideals.

Those who know him say they are moved his breadth of knowledge and his love of learning. His personal library contains over 4,500 books and, according to his wife, he buys about a book a day.

In discussing his years at Dartmouth he says his greatest satisfaction has come from helping to establish research and academic programs such as the Presidential Scholars Program, the Women in Science Project and the freshmen summer research programs.

Acquaintances also say they are moved by his sincere commitment to values. In 1991, when a quote from Adolf Hitler was printed in the masthead of The Dartmouth Review, Freedman spoke out quickly, condemning the Review for "appalling bigotry" that he said has no place in today's world.

The following year, the Anti-Defamation League presented him with the William O. Douglas Award for his commitment to free speech amidst racial and ethnical assaults.

For these reasons, and more, James Oliver Freedman has risen from a humble background -- a modest home in Manchester, New Hampshire -- to become not only a highly respected Ivy League president but a visionary educator who says he is committed to raising the College from one level of excellence to another.

That Freedman does not have a larger-than-life presence on campus was evident one afternoon this April when the solitary president was spotted walking along the Green towards Main Street and not one student turned a head.

It was a Freedman sighting that went unnoticed.

Still, students are often heard clamoring about the president's lack of visibility on campus.

"I've never even seen him walk on the Green, or around Baker or show up at a sports event," Sheriff Hassan '96 said. "He only shows up at speeches."

Meredith Katz '92 said student contact with Freedman depends on students' levels of involvement in campus activities. "But for your average Dartmouth student who goes to three classes, eats in Thayer and goes to a random lecture," she said. "Freedman is not a very visible, or accessible presence."

Though he holds open office hours for students every Monday, the apparent mystery surrounding Dartmouth's 15th president often gives the impression that he is disinterested.

"It seems like he doesn't want to talk to you. He's intimidating," Hassan said.

But friends and family members are quick to paint a contradictory portrait of Freedman.

"When my sister and I come home, we barely see our parents. They go to four to five student events a week," said Jared Freedman, the president's 23-year-old son who is presently working as a VISTA agent in Bellingham, Wash. developing housing for the homeless..

Director of Admissions Karl Furstenburg said, "Freedman has a good understanding of students. He thinks a lot about them."

Jared said his father's shyness gives off an impression of general disinterest when in fact, he really admires students at Dartmouth.

"By nature, he's fairly shy and at times hard to know. But he is always saying students are so unbelievably nice and charming there. He raves about the students," Jared said.

Freedman is the first Dartmouth President since 1822, who had no prior Dartmouth connections. But he was born -- September 21, 1935 -- and raised in Manchester and has been called a "home-town boy."His father was a high school English teacher, his mother an accountant. Both parents were very influential in his life.

When he was 16, he had a summer job washing test tubes at a hospital. Freedman said he hated the job. When he decided to quit his father paid him to read for the rest of the summer.

At that point, he bought his first book, "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis, for 65 cents. Since then, he has become an avid reader and book collector and today he has a collection of about 4,500.

In his home on Webster Avenue, Freedman divides his books between a small library and his personal study room. Most of his fiction books, lined floor to ceiling and spanning three walls, are kept in the library. A round table stacked with books stands in front of the last wall. A lounge chair sits next to the table, but it is not the president's reading chair.

According to Jared, the books are alphabetically arranged and no one can write in them, except the authors from whom Freedman has managed to obtain autographs.

Freedman's non-fiction collection is stored in his study. The books are also stacked floor to ceiling in bookshelves lined along three walls. The fourth wall is where Freedman has lodged his desk and a small typewriter.

The president does not yet use a computer word processor, his wife Bathsheba said.

After high school, Freedman applied to Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard Universities. Freedman said even though Dartmouth was considered one of the finest schools his mother encouraged him to go to Harvard. He majored in English.

"The day he was born, his mother said her son was going to Harvard," Bathsheba said.

Freedman explained that his mother valued education and to her, Harvard embodied that value.

His days at Harvard were filled with philosophical discussions in Lowell House. He did little in terms of extra-curricular activities because academically, he said he did not shine. Instead, he was a B student.

"I found Harvard so demanding academically. I was always scrambling to classes," Freedman said.

But he did learn an important lesson from his Harvard experience.

"Many students are late-bloomers. The College years come very early," Freedman said. At a recent college reunion, Freedman said he found that many of the high achievers in college have since become very complacent in their lives. He also said he saw many other unknowns, average, mediocre students who have gone on to outstanding careers.

After graduating from Harvard, Freedman entered Harvard law school.

"He left after one year. He wasn't terribly happy. He thought he made the wrong choice," Bathsheba said. But Freedman did not leave until after he had won the moot court, a first year culminating activity in which students debate cases in mock trials.

Freedman spent the next two years working as a reporter for The Manchester Union Leader. "It was my first experience in the real world. My first major job," he said. He said he learned how to really produce and write on deadline.

Eventually Freedman found his way back to law school. He went to Yale. After graduation , he moved to New York City where he became a clerk for Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court justice who was then a federal appeals court judge.

"Justice Marshall taught me the indispensability of legal craftsmanship and the moral obligation to put that craftsmanship in the service of a significant public cause," Freedman said in his convocation address to the Class of 1991.

While riding on the subway, to his first day of work, Freedman had a memorable encounter with an old friend from Yale.

"He had met Ed, whom I was going out with, on the metro. Jim asked Ed how do you get dates in this city and Ed gave him my phone number. Ed and I weren't really dating anymore because I had decided he wasn't the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but I was still cooking dinner for him sometimes on Friday nights," Bathsheba recalled.

"When Jim called, I knew he was the one. He was kind of shy, very intelligent and very considerate," she continued. "We were married 16 months later."

After clerking for Marshall, he worked for a year at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. Then in 1964, he went to the University of Pennsylvania and became an assistant law professor.

During Freedman's 16 years at Penn, he did a number of jobs: professor of law, professor of political science, university ombudsman, associate provost and dean of the law school.

He also taught law as a visiting professor at various other colleges and universities like Michigan, North Carolina, Cambridge, and Georgetown.

Then the offer of a Presidency came from the University of Iowa in 1982. For the next five years, Freedman devoted much of his time to strengthening a writer's workshop, starting the Iowa Critical Languages program, promoting study abroad programs and leading one of Iowa's largest fund-raising efforts. Initially the campaign targeted $100 million but by the time Freedman left, funds totaled more than $150 million.

In July 1987, Freedman was inaugurated at Dartmouth.

After all those years of sitting in the presidential seat, Jared said the burden is easing up, which helps his father's relationship with others.

"People have gotten to know him better and he's gotten to know them," Jared said.

Bathsheba said she knows the difficulty Freedman has had meeting people in the past. "Small talk is not his strong suit," she said. "He jokes and relaxes with people he knows well."

Most of Freedman's colleagues have the utmost respect for him as their leader and they find him to be a very sincere friend.

"He's a pleasure to work for. He let's you do the job. He has complete confidence in you and he never injects himself. He shows great leadership and sense of direction," Furstenberg said.

Provost John Strohbehn said within the first couple of hours of talking to Freedman, he knew he was going to have more than just a President-Provost relationship.

"I feel I can go to Jim and ask him anything. He's one of the best listeners. It's clear he's listening to you because his eyes aren't darting around the room. He doesn't want to be anywhere else," Strohbehn said.

College Spokesman Alex Huppe, who spends a great deal of time with Freedman, gave a more personal account of the president as a good friend. "When my father died four years ago, James Freedman came directly up to me after a meeting and we talked about what the loss of my father meant. Nobody comforted me more than James Freedman," Huppe said. "It was a completely unasked for gift."

Princeton University President Harold Shapiro met Freedman when he was president of Michigan University and Freedman was in Iowa. Shapiro was inaugurated at Princeton just a few months after Freedman took over at Dartmouth and they have come up through the Ivy League together.

"He is one of the most thoughtful, principled and committed persons in higher education," Shapiro said in a recent telephone interview. "He's one of the people I always appreciate talking to."

"I consider him him in the category of people of the highest intellectual caliber," Shapiro said.