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Column: Inaugurations, Past and Present

Presidents Emeriti Jim Yong Kim, left, and James Wright pass on the Wentworth Bowl to Philip J. Hanlon,  Dartmouth's 18th president at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2013.  The bowl, which was given to the college at the second commencement in 1772, is handed down to each president of the college. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Presidents Emeriti Jim Yong Kim, left, and James Wright pass on the Wentworth Bowl to Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth's 18th president at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2013. The bowl, which was given to the college at the second commencement in 1772, is handed down to each president of the college. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

One Dartmouth College story that “everyone” affiliated with the school supposedly knows is that a debating team from England, touring America early in the 20th century, brought some unwanted publicity to the college through a newspaper report that Dartmouth was the only institution it visited in which the gymnasium was bigger than the library. The perceived insult led President Ernest Martin Hopkins to put “Get a bigger library” at the top of his to-do list. Another well-known story recounts how he got George Fisher Baker to put up the money for it.

The first Dartmouth president I knew was inaugurated in Baker Library; the second in the gym. From the ceremony for John Dickey in 1945 to the one this fall for Phil Hanlon, the event has grown in size and splendor — but not, I think, in impact. Watching the ceremony from many miles away prompted some thoughts on past inaugurations and how Dartmouth has changed, for better and worse.

Whereas Dickey’s audience consisted only of trustees, some administrative officers and a few faculty members, Hanlon’s audience was numbered in millions, at least potentially. I watched it on Youtube from England.

John Kemeny’s inaugural address in 1970 was delivered in Alumni Gym because his term of office began in the winter. Its content would have been momentous regardless of the setting. His profession of a commitment to coeducation and to renewing the college’s focus on the education of Native Americans was the sort of college-transforming announcement that will come, I suspect, once a century at most. Hanlon’s swag-bag of promised innovations could not possibly compete.

For me, the most memorable part of Hanlon’s inaugural address came when he, the 18th president, spoke of having been taught by the 13th. That link to Kemeny makes Hanlon a direct beneficiary of Dickey. The most widely acknowledged of Dickey’s many achievements during his 25 years in Parkhurst Hall was the creation of a faculty that could compare with the faculties of at least some of the other Ivy League colleges. He transformed Dartmouth from a place whose basic “product” was men who mostly went into business and commerce into a college that could aspire to be an authentic seat of learning. To oversimplify matters, Dickey’s presidency made Dartmouth more like a Princeton and less like a Middlebury. And Kemeny was Dickey’s most stellar appointment.

Kemeny and Hanlon are superficially similar in that both are mathematicians and both have insisted on teaching while in office. A more significant connection is that in appointing Hanlon, the Dartmouth trustees, wittingly or not, have brought into play the best aspect of the “Wheelock succession.” Dickey, the son of a Pennsylvania mill worker who went from Dartmouth to Harvard Law School and then to the State Department, was passionate about the role of higher education and the potential for Dartmouth to inspire its students to serve genuinely useful lives. Kemeny shared that belief in the transformative power of Dartmouth. His valedictory at every commencement over which he presided ended, “All mankind is your brother, and you are your brother’s keeper.”

What moved me most profoundly about Hanlon’s address was the way in which it echoed Dickey’s innate modesty and expressed the Dickey-Kemeny faith in the potential of Dartmouth to transform students during their college years in Hanover. To the extent that the Dickey-Kemeny-Hanlon link can safeguard the continuity of that spirit, the choice of the new president has the potential to make Dartmouth even more vibrant and influential.

The optimism I felt while I watched the ceremony on Youtube was dampened somewhat by two things. The less important was the fact that the counter at the bottom of the screen indicated that the remote video audience never reached 500, a tiny percentage of the Dartmouth alumni roaming the Earth. Much more a cause for concern for all who love the College on the Hill was the display of narcissism and self-congratulation. Appropriate as boosterism may be to a major ceremony such as an inauguration, there are limits. Or should be.

Kemeny’s valedictory message brings me to my final thought about the colorful ceremony I witnessed on that gorgeous autumn day. Surely Dartmouth is the very last liberal arts college to need an “innovation center” and “new venture incubator” to encourage entrepreneurialism in its students. Whatever else may be said about Dartmouth, it is undeniably a magnet for those who want to “get on” in the world. Surely a great many students apply for admission largely because they know that, according to Wikipedia, graduates have among the highest average starting salaries ($58,200) and the second-highest average income 10 years after graduation ($123,000), placing after Harvey Mudd College and tying with Princeton. One only has to note that the Hanover Inn has been transformed (at huge cost I’m told) from a hotel into a resort in which millionaires instantaneously feel right at home to see how completely Dartmouth has been taken over by the kind of materialism that makes billionaires feel comfortable.

What a shame. How uncomfortable Dickey would be, along with most of the alums who were trustees in his day — including most of the millionaires. A result of living simpler, less self-involved lives.

If I had money to donate to Dartmouth, it would be given to provide a sign for every classroom and dorm room, every library and center, for the Hood and for the Hop, on which are John Ruskin’s golden words, the only six words among the millions he published that he put in capital letters: THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE.

Peter Williamson Smith, the emeritus dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, is a former director of Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center. Now retired, he is pursuing a doctorate’s degree at the University of York in England.