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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: A Rocky Road

The Center must recommit to its original guiding mission.


In 2019, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy will be celebrating its 35th anniversary serving the Dartmouth community. Envisioned as a place that would train and realize leaders like Nelson Rockefeller, the 41st Vice President of the United States and the Center’s namesake, the center was to be a “physical monument which will house the intellectual challenges [Rockefeller] loved,” according to the family. 

At the Center’s inauguration in 1983, Rodman C. Rockefeller, the son of Nelson, made the Center’s mission plain. “The challenge can be stated simply,” he said. “Fill these physical spaces with intellectual excellence. Build a true center of dynamic inquiry, controversy and cross- fertilization. Realize within these walls the excitement and the stimulus of the life of Nelson A. Rockefeller.” 

In the interceding 35 years, the Center has succeeded in becoming an important institution and resource to undergraduate students and faculty at the College. Yet while the Rockefeller Center’s focus on undergraduate life has been unwavering, and its commitment to public policy firm, it’s dubious whether the Center has maintained its mission of instilling dynamism and service in those who pass through its halls. Much can be praised about the work conducted by the Rockefeller Center, yet if the institution’s next 35 years are to be as substantial as its last, certain course corrections may be necessary. 

The inaugural director of the Center, Frank Smallwood, proudly stated in 1983 that the Rockefeller Center would be in line with the spirit of the College, proclaiming “We’re not a new, big graduate public policy center analogous to the [Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin] or the Kennedy School at Harvard.” Rather, the Rockefeller Center would endeavor on an almost romantic mission to, as The New York Times wrote, “enrich life and study for young men and women here at the stage of life where Nelson Rockefeller was when he “came of age at Dartmouth.”

There are many functions of the Center that may be considered in line with this goal, and consequently lauded. The Class of 1964 Policy Research Shop, for instance, is a widely-touted program that provides students with both substantive skills in the crafting and analysis of policy while also providing an enriching academic background. The Center’s exchange program with the University of Oxford’s Keble College is an impressive opportunity for students. Indeed, much of the education that occurs in the Center is praiseworthy: courses in the public policy program, especially well-supported seminar courses, represent the direction that most courses in the social sciences should be taking.

Yet while much of the substantive education the Rockefeller Center provides is a truly world-class education in public policy and social science, these programs impact an incredibly small portion of campus. The Center itself has boasted that its collective programming impacts over a fourth of the undergraduate student body each year, a statistic that is dubious both in its accuracy and its significance. This unfortunate doubtfulness is because in many ways the Rockefeller Center adopted the very strategy it originally eschewed. 

Much of the Rockefeller Center’s identity has been constructed around the notion of “leadership.” It may be argued that the clear majority of the Center’s programming is now designed with instilling the qualities of leadership in students. Whether it is the Dartmouth Leadership Attitudes & Behaviors Program for first-year students, the Management & Leadership Development Program designed to hone the “skills employers seek,” the Rockefeller Global Leadership Program meant to “further develop intercultural leadership competencies” or the Rockefeller Leadership Fellows Program, it is clear the Center is obsessed with the concept. What “leadership” means, however, is often far less clear. 

The Management and Leadership Development Program is perhaps the biggest offender. The program’s curriculum is transparently designed to educate students in basic professional vernacular, albeit with an aspirational tone that encourages students to “discover their strengths and areas of needed growth.” Such programs are ubiquitous in business and professional policy schools around the country, and are more effective for not needing to mask their true purpose. Programs like MLDP, and arguably RGLP and RLF, are exactly the vague and vocational training programs the Center was never to be a home for. That each program peppers its curricula with the language of academic and civic engagement is a disservice to the mission of the Center. 

Though it stands out among undergraduate public policy programs as a model, the Rockefeller Center achieved this status not by accepting the mission endowed to it by the Rockefeller family, but instead by demurring from it. RGLP, for instance, is designed around the notion of “tri-sectoral” development, the idea that a public servant should be fluent in the language of the private, public and non-profit sectors simultaneously. This concept was introduced and perfected by administrators at the Harvard Kennedy School who sought to make the skills of public service and leadership marketable to a wider audience. Rather than pursuing the unique mission of developing students by enriching their understanding of the public discourse, the Center instead lowers itself with these missions. The common perception among students that such mass-produced programs are pre-professional at best is not an endorsement of the education given.

Leadership is not something that can be taught, but rather a quality that is cultivated through enriching and challenging students in creative and ever-evolving scenarios. The Center’s current strategy is misguided in both its aims and means. Great leaders in the private sector, including business, academia and medicine, would be better served by programs better tailored to their interests and needs, while aspiring leaders in the public and non-profit sectors require their own respective programs to match their ambitions. The problem with the Rockefeller Center’s current approach is that it disservices all while claiming to benefit the many. Though the Center should welcome students from a wide array of fields, it should do so on the terms of the intellectual mission originally espoused by the Center. 

Hazy allusions to “leadership” and “service” are disservices to the work the Center is charged with carrying out. 

 Senior administrators no doubt privately acknowledge the incongruence of the Center’s programming with its mission; a core promise of the College’s current Call to Lead capital campaign is to create a comprehensive four-year leadership program to be used by all undergraduates. That this program is to be modeled after the Rockefeller Center’s myriad courses may either serve as a testament to the universality of their utility or the indistinctness of their goals, depending on how one wants to spin it. 

The Rockefeller Center is no doubt an impressive institution that any university in the country would be lucky to call its own. Yet Dartmouth is a unique place; one set at the nexus of the research university and liberal arts college; an institution that has prided itself on creating dynamic leaders and thinkers like Nelson Rockefeller for over 250 years. Though students may require a center on campus designed to further their vocational training, that place must not be the Rockefeller Center. Its mission is too important to sacrifice for a goal so mundane. 

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.