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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

JAMES FREEDMAN, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, DIES AT 70

WEB UPDATE, March 22, 7:10 a.m.

James Oliver Freedman, 15th president of Dartmouth, died Tuesday after more than a 12-year battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 70 years old.

Freedman was a staunch advocate of intellectualism, ethnic diversity and gender parity at the College, while orchestrating an extremely successful capital campaign during the 1990s.

Current College President James Wright noted the prowess of the Freedman presidency, which lasted from 1987 to 1998.

"In his 11 years as Dartmouth's president he affirmed and extended the College's commitment to providing a premier liberal arts program and to excellent graduate schools. He left Dartmouth stronger and more confident than ever, and he was an eloquent national spokesman for the value of liberal learning."

Freedman excelled at Dartmouth in a wide range of areas. Yet alongside his tangible achievements, Freedman's legacy at Dartmouth is marked profoundly by the impact of his characteristic modesty, warmth and humor.

An academic leader, a bold outsider

Freedman arrived at Dartmouth as one of only three presidents without previous connections to the College.

Although his outsider status incited wariness among some alumni, Wright told The Dartmouth in an interview Tuesday that Freedman had no trouble acquainting himself with the College, easily making many new friends.

"Obviously it took some time to get to know some of the people, but he was a New Hampshire boy who had gone to an Ivy League school," Wright said. "He was a shy man ... but he made friends easily, he made people feel comfortable when he was with them. I think it became a non-issue for most Dartmouth people quickly," Wright said in reference to his lack of Dartmouth connections.

The Board of Trustees hired Freedman, desiring an academic who would strengthen the College's academic life.

Norman McCulloch '50, who was chairman of the Board at the time it was searching for former College President David McLaughlin's replacement, said the search committee chose Freedman to redirect the College's "Animal House" past and emphasize academic life.

"The Board felt we needed to refocus on what we're in the business for," McCulloch told The Dartmouth 10 years into Freedman's presidency.

Wright also recalled the motives behind the Board's decision to hire Freedman in 1987.

"I do think different presidents are brought in with different charges and challenges," Wright said. "The Freedman challenge and charge focused more specifically on academic life."

He said Freedman was involved in the continual process of "making Dartmouth a stronger place," and that the former president had really accelerated a positive movement toward a more intellectual College.

Freedman quickly made known that he desired for Dartmouth to be an institution that accepted a range of students from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. His famous inaugural speech stated that the College should be more hospitable for "those creative loners and daring dreamers."

In what became almost a mantra for his tenure, the newly inaugurated president told the audience, "We must strengthen our attraction for those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry, or mastering the cello, or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus."

Wright reflected on the aftermath of the well-known address and its impact on the College at the time.

"I think the faculty were extremely pleased and applauded the speech," Wright said.

Although some critics became concerned that the College would become home only to the lonely poet, Wright emphasized that Freedman never had this intention. He said that today's student body is proof of Freedman's true objectives.

"I don't think Jim Freedman was ever saying that the campus should be filled with certain type of people, but that Dartmouth needs to be hospitable to all," Wright said.

Statistically speaking, Freedman successfully made Dartmouth a more inclusive place. When he arrived in 1987, women constituted only 38 percent of the undergraduate population. Eight years later, the Class of 1999 entered the College with more women than men, illustrating that Freedman had finally made Dartmouth truly coeducational. Moreover, when Freedman departed in 1998, the College boasted more tenured female faculty than any of the other ancient eight.

Freedman also increased the number of minority students at the College. Only 18 percent of students were minorities when he began compared to the more diverse Class of 2001 that featured 25.6 percent minority students.

The former president created the E.E. Just Program, providing junior-year research internships, science forums and workshops and a visiting scientist seminar program for black students. Freedman also established the Women in Science Project in 1990. Moreover, women's studies became a major, and new programs in linguistics, cognitive science and Latin American and Caribbean studies kicked off.

The Presidential Scholars program, now a staple of Dartmouth life, was founded in 1988 as an opportunity for undergraduates to work side-by-side with Dartmouth's scholars and researchers on individual research projects.

Focusing on academics in the classroom, Freedman headed a 1993 comprehensive review of Dartmouth's curriculum, the first such overhaul in 70 years; two years later, U.S. News and World Report ranked Dartmouth first for excellence in teaching.

Before a six-month sabbatical in 1994, Freedman told The Dartmouth he believed intellectualism had made strides at the College under his leadership.

"It's been eight years and it seems to me there has increasingly been a growth in intellectualism since I came," Freedman said at the time.

Despite Freedman's innumerous successes, his intellectual priorities met occasional criticism. Most notably, he periodically tussled with The Dartmouth Review, a publication still in its first decade of existence at the time of his inauguration. At a special meeting of the faculty in 1988, he spoke out against four Review staffers who allegedly harassed a music professor by decrying the Review's "personal attacks upon members of the community."

He also condemned an issue of the Review in 1990 in which two paragraphs from Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" were inserted into "The Review Credo" -- a tagline below the publication's logo -- on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Review editors maintained the offensive banner text had been the result of sabotage. Freedman said, "For 10 years, The Dartmouth Review has consistently attacked blacks because they're black, women because they're women, homosexuals because they're homosexuals and Jews because they're Jews."

Freedman never contested the Review's right to free speech, but said, "Racism, sexism and other forms of ignorance and disrespect have no place at Dartmouth."

Beyond academics and intellectualism, Dartmouth thrived financially under Freedman. His administration helped increase the endowment from $520 million in 1987 to over $1.1 billion at the end of 1996. Furthermore, he shattered the Will to Excel Capital Campaign's initial goals of $425 million by raising $586 million and secured an enormous bonus gift for the new Berry Library.

The Dartmouth campus also experienced a facelift during the Freedman administration, with construction projects including the completion of Burke and Sudikoff Laboratories, Byrne Hall, the Roth Center for Jewish Life and the Collis Student Center. When he left in 1998, work had begun on the monumental addition of Berry Library, the Moore psychology building and the transformation of Webster Hall into Rauner Special Collections Library.

Technological innovations were an important part of Freedman's tenure, and Dartmouth notably became the first university to require all students to own a personal computer in 1991.

The early years

Freedman's love of diversity and passion for the liberal arts education in a time of an increasingly profession-oriented world were cultivated by his upbringing in Manchester, N.H.

Born in 1935, his father was an English teacher who taught him a love of literature and intellectualism, while his first-generation American mother inspired ambition and drive.

He remembered being the only Jewish child in his classes from kindergarten through the eighth grade, often speaking in later years about the experience of growing up as outsider, and the importance of holding onto one's Jewish identity.

"I think it was part of who he was, it defined him intellectually, defined how he thought of the world," Wright said of Freedman's Jewish background. He emphasized, however, that Freedman was always a "Dartmouth president" first, not a "Jewish president."

His father taught in a classroom populated by students of Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Armenian, Polish, French-Canadian and old-line Yankee ancestries -- demonstrating the value of diversity to Freedman at a young age. He later told the American Jewish Committee that the school almost seemed to be "a little United Nations."

Leaving home in the 1950s, Freedman excelled in his academic career. He graduated from Harvard College cum laude in 1957 and continued his education at the Yale School of Law where he again graduated cum laude in 1962.

After law school, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and for a short while was employed at a New York law firm.

In 1964 he became a member of the University of Pennsylvania's faculty and quickly rose among the ranks, ultimately becoming dean of the law school beginning in 1979.

From 1982 to 1987, he served as president of the University of Iowa. Freedman's accomplishments at Iowa included advocating international participation by U.S. universities, in East Asia and elsewhere. He also urged the use of academic research as a tool for economic development.

After Dartmouth

Freedman never left the liberal arts education's public arena, even during his last years in Cambridge, Mass.

In 1998, the same year he left Dartmouth, the Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary society rewarding achievement in the sciences and humanities, elected Freedman to its ranks. Two years later he became president of the organization.

The American Jewish Committee became another important organization of Freedman's post-Dartmouth life as he worked to strengthen the greater Jewish community.

Freedman worked ardently for the AJC. In 2002, he joined a taskforce that drafted a statement denouncing anti-Semitism on college campuses. Three hundred college presidents ultimately signed the statement, which was printed in The New York Times.

When the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies drew fire and came before the Supreme Court in 2003, Freedman's prose appeared twice in an amicus brief filed by the AJC.

Without strong diversity programs, Freedman cautioned at the AJC tribute dinner, Americans will "fail to meet our own aspirations" as a society.

From the start of Freedman's battle with cancer began in 1994, he approached the illness with his trademark grace and wit.

At a 1998 speech at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Freedman explained the identity conflict that followed his diagnosis.

"You suddenly realize you have moved from one definition of self to another when you have cancer. I had moved from one realm to another, where I was vulnerable, and where treatment might not work." He compared the lifelong nature of the change to becoming a parent.

In addition to his wife Bathsheba, Freedman is survived by two children, Jared and Debbie.

Senior staff writer Tara Kyle contributed to this report.