Freedman to Resign: After 11 years at helm, the College President will step down; Cites heavy toll of presidential duties on private, academic life

by Charles Davant | 9/26/97 5:00am

College President James O. Freedman announced last night that he will step down after Commencement in June, citing the job's heavy toll on his personal and intellectual life.

Freedman, who has been the College's top administrator since David T. McLaughlin resigned in 1987, will remain a member of the faculty and will stay in Hanover.

Freedman said he is stepping down to gain more control over his schedule, which is currently filled with the weighty demands of a university president: travel and fundraising, politics and pomp.

"I have enjoyed all that, but I have reached a point where I want to spend more time with my family and set my own schedule," Freedman said. He will take a year-long sabbatical to finish his second book on liberal education.

Freedman, who was inaugurated as Dartmouth's 15th president in July 1987, is the longest-standing chief executive in the Ivy League. He will remain president until the inauguration of his successor, which should occur during the summer of 1998.

The Board of Trustees is likely to announce his replacement during the spring.

Freedman, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1994 and underwent six months of chemotherapy following the removal of a malignant tumor, said his health is good and affected his decision "only in a small way."

"Anyone who has cancer lives with the fear of recurrence," he said. "I would not want to have a recurrence and regret that I had not had time to do things with my family and personally."

Freedman is announcing his departure at an opportune moment. The endowment has ballooned to more than $1.2 billion, riding a wave of prosperity on Wall Street. Last year, the College earned a 23 percent return on its endowment.

Dartmouth has become one of the nation's most selective schools: In 1997, only 20 percent of applicants were admitted. Dartmouth also has the highest percentage of female faculty members in the Ivy League.

The number of women and minorities on campus is at an all-time high, due in part to Freedman's liberal leadership. Women now make up 49 percent of the study body, up from 38 percent in 1987. Minority enrollment has risen from 19 to 29 percent.

"This is a very good moment to retire, since the College is in good shape right now," he said. "I will not be bequeathing a mess of problems."

That was not the case in 1987, when Freedman took over for McLaughlin. Along with the symbols of the presidency -- the Dartmouth Charter, the Wentworth bowl and the Flude Medal -- McLaughlin passed on a host of grievances.

Faculty who were disillusioned by the businesslike presidency of McLaughlin hailed Freedman as an intellectual who would redefine Dartmouth. Most of them now say he succeeded.

One of Freedman's most radical acts as an intellectual leader was to overhaul the curriculum, which had stood unchanged for more than 70 years. Freedman switched the emphasis away from the three traditional divisions -- humanities, natural sciences and social sciences -- instituting new requirements in eight fields.

More recently, Freedman has been instrumental in conceiving and raising money for the Berry Library, the $50 million, 80,000-foot structure being built behind Baker Library.

College Trustee David Shribman '76, an assistant managing editor of The Boston Globe, said Freedman's legacy puts him among Dartmouth's great leaders, like Eleazar Wheelock, Daniel Webster and John Kemeny. Shribman said Freedman will be remembered for far more than the Berry Library.

"This was a College that was founded by Wheelock, saved by Webster, reshaped by Kemeny and given an astonishing leap by Freedman," he said. "He'll be remembered not only as someone who set in motion an enormous building on campus, but as someone who built a stronger college in Hanover."

In a letter to faculty and staff that will be delivered this morning, Freedman wrote, "These have been, for me, years of satisfaction and stimulation, and I thank you all for making them so."

"It has been a privilege to serve as president of Dartmouth, and I am grateful for your friendship and support."

Freedman said he has been thinking of resigning for several months, but did not make a decision until this week. He notified the Trustees, then prepared his letter to the faculty and staff.

When Freedman agreed to become president in 1987 he told the Trustees he would serve for eight to 10 years -- a relatively long term for a college president. He had already served five years at the helm of the University of Iowa from 1982 to 1987.

His long tenure makes Freedman something of an expert on the enormous personal and professional pressures on college presidents, a topic he writes about in his first book Idealism and a Liberal Education. Earlier this year, Freedman authored a column in the Boston Globe on the same subject.

"The truth is that college presidents today face a proliferation of administrative responsibilities and internal pressures created by the ethic of constituency participation and consultation; that ethic was far less expansive a half-century ago," he wrote.

It was this ethic that lead to the resignation of Brown University President Vartan Gregorian in July. Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine took a leave of absence in 1995 due to the physical exhaustion incurred running the $2.1 billion capital campaign the school started in May 1994.

Both Columbia University President Michael Sovern and Yale University President Benno Schmidt resigned under pressure from faculty because of cost-cutting attempts.

The daunting responsibilities of a college president has resulted in a dramatic decrease in their professional longevity: The national average is between five and six years.

Dartmouth has had only 15 presidents in 227 years, but that number is slightly distorted by the long presidencies of John Wheelock, Ernest Hopkins and John Dickey, who served terms of about 30 years each.

In any year, about 20 percent of universities are searching for a new chief executive. Dartmouth's Trustees will now dedicate themselves to this task, but they already have a full plate.

Before Freedman announced his resignation yesterday, the Board was looking for a College provost, medical school dean and engineering school dean. Now they face the task of finding replacements for four of the five most powerful administrators on campus.