President Barack Obama’s nomination of Dartmouth College President Jim Kim to lead the World Bank rippled throughout political and higher education circles today, leaving many surprised though approving of the choice.
Political leaders had widespread praise for the nomination, noting Kim’s sterling-public health resume and his years of experience at international agencies, including the World Health Organization.
Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary and a Dartmouth alumnus, praised Dr. Kim’s lifetime commitment and passion for development.
“In a world with so much potential to improve living standards, we have a unique opportunity to harness that passion and experience at the helm of the World Bank,” Geithner said in a statement.
But the news left many at Dartmouth feeling unsettled. Kim, 52, has been president for only two years and nine months, and if he leaves his term would be one of the shortest ever for an Ivy League president.
Many Dartmouth faculty members said they did not expect Kim to stay long.
“It’s not clear whether he and Dartmouth were a great match,” said David Blanchflower, a professor of economics. “The scuttlebutt has been that he was using the school as a stepping stone to something bigger and greater. Maybe this is better for both places.”
Kim, born in South Korea but raised largely in the United States, has impeccable credentials. They include a MacArthur “genius” grant, an M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard, and a stint directing the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS program.
He is “willing to go out on a limb and take important and calculated risks,” said Ophelia Dahl, who along with Kim was one of five co-founders of the international global health organization Partners in Health. “The qualities he brought to Partners in Health that will be translatable in this job are a real boldness of vision and a tenacity. He sways and woos people and brings unlikely partners together. That will be important, because some of these institutions are quite staid in the way they do things.”
During his time at Partners in Health, Kim frequently spoke of how his mother, a neo-Confucian philosopher, had shaped his tendency “to question assumptions and lift barriers,” Dahl said. “If someone says something isn’t possible, he says, ‘Tell me why?’ And then he finds out more.”
Kim’s nomination itself represents a lifting of barriers, given that he is the first Asian-American tapped to lead the World Bank.
Among other candidates reportedly considered by the White House were former White House adviser and Harvard president Larry Summers, UN ambassador Susan Rice, and Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi. The prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University, also became a potential nominee after he broke with tradition and openly lobbied for the job.
Blanchflower said Kim’s nomination was actually “not a surprise” in some respects, given his well-developed connections with powerful national and global leaders and his recent visit to the White House for a state dinner honoring the president of South Korea.
“Clearly the White House is going to push the line – and I sort of share this – that politically this is an astute appointment, since he’s the first nominee who’s actually got development experience,” said Blanchflower.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, echoed that sentiment, describing Kim in a statement as “the first qualified [World Bank] president in 68 years.”
The bank -- created in 1944 toward the end of World War II to finance post-war reconstruction -- is a multinational institution headquartered in Washington that gives financial and technical assistance to developing countries. In 2011, its investments in those developing countries totaled $57.4 billion, a spokesman said.
Kim’s appointment at Dartmouth, in Hanover, N.H., was in many ways more surprising because he had no experience as a college administrator.
During a recent interview, gazing at a group portrait of the 16 previous Dartmouth presidents, Kim joked that he differed from his predecessors “in so many ways.”
He did share their major challenge: bringing a tradition-bound campus into line with modern norms.
Kim immediately put his public-health credentials to work on that front, establishing a 31-campus collective to study the longstanding problem of binge drinking – a move that earned him nationwide praise.
But in the last two months, student-life issues have severely tested his leadership skills.
In January, a student went public with graphic accusations of alcohol-soaked hazing in a popular fraternity at Dartmouth. Professors were so horrified by the allegations that within weeks a fourth of the faculty had called on Kim to dissolve single-sex fraternities altogether -- a proposal that constitutes the third rail of academic politics at Dartmouth.
Kim rejected the idea, telling the Globe earlier this month that “the minute you think as an administrator that by fiat you can institute culture change, the only thing you’ll get is mocking and ridicule” -- a result he added would be “well-deserved.”
He added: “I can’t lead on everything.”
Those comments left some faculty members cold.
English professor Ivy Schweitzer said they showed a “severe failure of leadership on addressing the deleterious effects of the Greek system,” though she said Kim has shown leadership on other issues at Dartmouth.
Some faculty have also criticized Kim for spending little time on campus.
Many university presidents travel frequently, typically in the service of fund-raising, and from the outset Kim made clear that a large part of his job would be restoring the university’s finances to health after they took a hit in the economic crisis.
But his absence was sorely felt, said Michael Bronski, a professor of women’s and gender studies.
“There were often many, many times when faculty and students wondered if Kim was on campus and he was not -- as opposed to [previous president James Wright], who made it a point to be seen almost every day walking around campus,” he said. “Many people felt that Jim Kim was conspicuously absent a great deal of time.”
Kim sent out a campus-wide letter today saying he will stay on as Dartmouth president while the confirmation process plays out, despite the fact that he is expected to embark on a world tour to raise support for his nomination. “If I am elected, our board will take appropriate steps to ensure continuity of leadership and determine the timing of a search,” it read. “For now, I remain president of Dartmouth.”
A final decision on the World Bank job will be made next month.
College presidential searches typically take much longer than that, lasting anywhere from six to eighteen months, and the effort to replace Kim could be complicated by the fact that several other prestigious university presidencies are currently open.
Erin Ailworth of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mary Carmichael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.