Samwick: Leadership at Rocky

The Center’s programs enhance the Dartmouth experience.

by Andrew Samwick | 1/29/19 2:20am

 In its Verbum Ultimum on Jan. 25, The Dartmouth editorial board asserted that “The [Rockefeller] Center must recommit to its original guiding mission.” The contention in the editorial is that “much of the Rockefeller Center’s identity has been constructed around the notion of ‘leadership.’” In this response, I will explain why the second of these assertions is true but the first is not. I will also argue that rather than being a detraction from the liberal arts experience at Dartmouth, leadership programs of the sort offered at the Rockefeller Center are an essential element of Dartmouth’s mission to prepare its students for “a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership.”

The editorial begins with excerpts from speeches and news articles produced at the Center’s founding 35 years ago that describe the initial vision for the Center. As the Center’s director for the last 14 of those years, I would contend that our leadership programming is consistent with those aspirations. For the purposes of argument, however, we can note that the founders didn’t just make speeches about the Center’s mission, they wrote it down. The “History of the Center” page in the "About the Center" section of the Center’s website lists the six elements of the Center’s mission, one of which is to “Develop undergraduates’ potential for leadership.” This is the mission as it was passed down to me from my predecessor, and no one has any business directing the Rockefeller Center who cannot fulfill this critical element of its student-centered mission.

The editorial then claims, after listing the different purposes of the Center’s four core leadership programs, that “what ‘leadership’ means, however, is often far less clear.” A lack of clarity in communication could be a failure of the sender or the receiver, but the standard practice in both academic and journalistic settings is for the receiver to ask for that clarification. Had the editorial board asked for our definition of leadership, they would have gotten the same answer that I gave in a Dartmouth News story in 2017 featuring our leadership programs: Leadership is the ability to mobilize a group and its resources to achieve a common goal despite a variety of competing interests. The editorial board would have gotten substantively the same definition from reading a summary of a presentation I made to the Academic Affairs committee of the Alumni Council in 2011 or, for that matter, from anyone working at the Rockefeller Center to design and implement our leadership programs. 

The same sources shed light on the more important question of why the Rockefeller Center devotes its resources to leadership development. Quoting my remarks in the Dartmouth News story cited above: 

“We do not see how it is possible to improve public policy without developing leadership capacity. … It was my experience in the year I served at the Council of Economic Advisers that the lack of subject knowledge is seldom the constraint in effecting better public policy. The binding constraint is that too few policy makers have the ability to translate knowledge into socially beneficial outcomes. That translation requires leadership.”

I would pose the question to the editorial board as to whether they see the validity of this claim. To inform their thinking, they might read the discussion of climate change by governor Washington Jay Inslee, whose visit was reported by their newspaper on the same day as this editorial appeared. Quoting the governor, “The young people of this nation understand science, they know there is no debate about climate change, and they know they are the ones that will be living with the degradation of their lives … if we do not act.” 

The Rockefeller Center’s leadership programs cultivate the mindset and capacities to act when action is called for. That the ability to do so will make students more effective not only in mobilizing for action on climate change but in whatever their chosen field is an added benefit of these programs, not a basis for the editorial board to demean them as “vague and vocational training programs.” They have pedagogies and curricula that are described on our website and in other materials freely available at the Rockefeller Center. Our deputy director, Sadhana Hall, has even co-written a book, “Teaching Leadership: Bridging Theory and Practice,” that has been described as an “essential guidebook for faculty members who are involved in leadership education.”

There is no need to wait until graduate school or early years in employment to develop leadership capacity. Quite the contrary, the public policy challenges facing our society demand otherwise. The Rockefeller Center aspires to help students develop as leaders during their time at Dartmouth, so that they graduate better prepared to make progress in the world beyond Hanover. Our success in doing so is evident in the testimony of students who have taken advantage of these opportunities. Each year, we collect their stories in the “Rocky and Me” series on our website. I invite the editorial board to read for themselves about the impact of our leadership programs on the Dartmouth experience.

Samwick is the director of the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences.

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