Monday, January 03, 2005

Enduring Institutions

Via Newmark's Door, I see that Dartmouth College was recently named by Booz Allen Hamilton as one of the ten most enduring institutions over the past century. Read for yourself:

McLean, VA, December 16, 2004 — Why is it that some institutions endure for decades or even for centuries while others disappear into history? Booz Allen Hamilton has sponsored a novel project identifying ten of the world's most Enduring Institutions over the past century. The list celebrates those institutions that have managed to reinvent themselves time and again — and remained market leaders — as the unique circumstances of their founding have given way to changing conditions.

The ten institutions chosen within each category are:

  • Academic Institutions — Dartmouth College; Oxford University
  • Arts and Entertainment — The Modern Olympic Games; the Rolling Stones
  • Business and Commerce — General Electric; Sony
  • Government Institutions — American Constitution; International Telecommunication Union
  • Nonprofit Organizations — The Salvation Army; the Rockefeller Foundation
From the press release, here's the blurb on Dartmouth:

Dartmouth College demonstrates by its often-challenged yet ultimately triumphant existence a set of internal systems for managing risk. Dartmouth has literally had to fight for survival from its earliest days, time and again emerging a stronger, more viable institution whether facing a legal threat to the college charter, or an internal threat from misguided leadership. Its risk structure has enabled and empowered this institution to survive these crises and emerge the stronger and the better for it.
I have no idea what "risk structure" they are talking about, and the story in the whole report doesn't provide any clarification. The first part deals with Dartmouth's history in the 19th century, including the landmark 1819 Supreme Court case, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, in which the Court upheld the sanctity of the college's charter against interference by the state of New Hampshire. When it gets around to the late 20th century, it notes:

Illustrative of Dartmouth’s ability to maintain a sense of community is that in 1970 during the nationwide campus unrest associated with the student deaths at Kent State University and Jackson State University, Dartmouth asked each of its current undergraduates to write a personal letter to assigned alumni. The result was that, whatever differences of opinion within the Dartmouth family, they were in touch across generations. On another front, Dartmouth showed that its historic buildings need not be at odds with the most modern curricular innovations. Thanks to the initiative of a president who was a mathematician and a pioneer in the new field of computer science, Dartmouth became the chosen site for state of the art innovation in computer technology—and computer-based college learning in the United States. Dartmouth acknowledged its colonial roots and original royal charter with the inscription “Vox Clamantis Deserto”—“A Voice Cries Out in the Wilderness!” That historic message resonates well today.
So I infer from this discussion that "risk structure" must be consultant-speak for "John Kemeny," and the inclusion of John Kemeny in any mention of what is enduring about Dartmouth is entirely appropriate. Dartmouth is an institution that thrives on being at the interface of a major research university and a small liberal arts college. It strives to have the best of both worlds. This revitalized mission of the college is one of John Kemeny's legacies.

Dartmouth will soon have a new mathematics building to memorialize him, and that will be a great visual reminder. But the best way to understand Kemeny's contribution to Dartmouth in particular and higher education in general is to read his words for yourself.

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