The Obama Effect
When it was announced that College President Jim Yong Kim had been selected to be Dartmouth's next president, a stranger asked me in passing whether or not I agreed with the assertion that Kim seemed to call to mind President Barack Obama. At the time, I concurred with that stranger. After all, the two men had an uncanny number of similarities with respect to their backgrounds as minority "outsiders" from the Midwest.
But as time passed, I increasingly had trouble drawing the connection. Obama had many vocal critics and Kim, it seemed, had none. And, athough the media was enthralled with both men, Obama and Kim struck different tones. Obama spoke of changing crass political ways; Kim, of preserving beloved Dartmouth traditions.
This year, however, I think I'm starting to see the resemblance once again but not in a good way. That is to say I'm becoming increasingly worried that Kim is headed towards the same pitfall of celebrity status that Obama finds himself in now media overexposure ripening into a reputation for self-centeredness.
For Obama, this overexposure began as soon as he took office. Trying to tackle all of America's problems at once, Obama made headline after headline, followed by speech after speech and appearance after appearance. Yet in trying to deliver on many of his campaign goals, Obama's media stunts reinforced speculation about his ego. The problem came to a head this past week when Obama and his wife traveled to Copenhagen to deliver speeches on why Chicago should host the 2016 Olympics. According to a count by George Will of the Washington Post, those two speeches included the personal pronoun "I" or "me" 70 times in their combined 89 sentences, leaving many Americans wondering whether the bid was for America or solely for Obama's ego. Having made the world's issues his own issues, Obama, it seems, accidentally made the issues and politics all about himself.
For Kim, it appears that a similar fate may lie in the distance. Every day there is yet another story about our new president in this newspaper and in others. On YouTube, there exists a growing collection of videos he has shot with sports teams and student groups. He has been nationally televised and has spoken with major political figures. Search "Dartmouth College" in Google News and Kim's name will undoubtedly be featured in almost every story.
While it is obvious that Kim is attempting to get his face out there to prove to the Dartmouth community that he "fits in," through no fault of his own, his media appearances are verging on giving our College president the same perceived self-centeredness through which Obama has recently been trudging. As Obama has shown, being out in the media limelight may make you a celebrity for a while. But, eventually, constant exposure may breed unintended consequences.
The unintended consequence Kim faces concerns how the rest of the world views Dartmouth. Whereas the pre-Kim Dartmouth was known for its strong alumni, brilliant professors and unparalleled students, it seems as though Kim's Dartmouth is increasingly becoming overly concerned with just Kim. This problem is compounded by the fact that Kim was famous before he came to the College, and is reinforced by the new College president's belief that his role should be more than that of college president that he should be the "Chief Advocacy Office of Dartmouth College."
The problem with that role, however, is that even as he tries to increase Dartmouth's stature, Kim's grand profile and media exposure seem to leave him in the foreground, and the College in the background. Kim wants to make Dartmouth's problems his own problems. He wants to deliver a better alcohol policy and reinvigorate the study of the world's great issues. He wants to help us find our passions and help us become leaders. And he certainly wants our alumni to contribute.
Perhaps he wants too much. Perhaps, like Obama, he is trying to tackle too many issues and is placing himself center stage in the process. Although it is very early in Kim's career, I fear that the intense media coverage now hints at overexposure in the near future. I fear that Dartmouth is becoming the college of Jim Kim and not the college of its tremendous undergraduates.
Dartmouth is, and will hopefully always remain, a small college made of those who love it. Let's not allow Dartmouth to become a small college where there are those who only love him.