President Obama nominated Jim Yong Kim, the Dartmouth College president and highly respected pioneer in global health, to lead the World Bank on Friday.
Political and public health leaders had widespread praise for the nomination, even as the news left many surprised, especially at Dartmouth. Kim, 52, arrived at Dartmouth less than three years ago amid high hopes and quickly helped the school attain solid financial footing after the economic crisis. But his tenure has been rockier in recent months.
If he is confirmed to head the World Bank, his Dartmouth term would be one of the shortest for an Ivy League president in modern times. Dartmouth’s previous three presidents all served for more than a decade each.
“It’s not clear whether he and Dartmouth were a great match,’’ said David Blanchflower, a Dartmouth professor of economics, adding that the World Bank job seemed like a more natural fit. “The scuttlebutt has been that he was using the school as a steppingstone to something bigger and greater. Maybe this is better for both places.’’
The bank, which provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries, historically has been headed by an American. The bank’s executive board is likely to choose Kim, although some developing nations have thrown their support behind Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister, and Jose Antonio Ocampo, former finance minister of Colombia.
“I think in Kim, the US is presenting a really strong candidate - he’s no Larry Summers,’’ said Kevin Gallagher, a Boston University professor of international relations, referring to the sometimes controversial former Harvard University president and Treasury secretary who was a rumored candidate. “Places like the World Bank need to put global health more at the core of what they do.’’
On the other hand, Gallagher said, Kim “has never been an elected official. It’s important to have that legitimacy when you’re moving around with world leaders.’’
Kim, who was in Washington for Obama’s announcement Friday, was born in South Korea but raised largely in the United States. He already has some close connections with powerful leaders, exemplified by his recent visit to the White House for a state dinner honoring the South Korean president.
His resume includes a MacArthur “genius’’ grant, an MD and PhD from Harvard, and a stint directing the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS program. He is widely credited with improving the treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis in developing nations.
“Jim’s appointment to the World Bank is pioneering because of his lifelong commitment to delivering first-class health care to the world’s poor,’’ said Betsy Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Kim previously worked. “His demonstrated ability to forge strong teams and create innovative approaches to complex global problems make him an excellent choice for this role.’’
Ophelia Dahl, who along with Kim was one of five cofounders of the aid organization Partners in Health, said Kim frequently spoke of how his mother, a neo-Confucian philosopher, had shaped his tendency “to question assumptions and lift barriers. If someone says something isn’t possible, he says, ‘Tell me why.’ ’’
“He sways and woos people and brings unlikely partners together,’’ she added. “That will be important, because some of these institutions are quite staid in the way they do things.’’
In his nomination speech, Obama highlighted Kim’s background, saying that “it’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.’’
Kim’s appointment to lead Dartmouth was also an unexpected choice, given that he had no previous experience as a college administrator.
During a recent interview on the Hanover, N.H., campus, Kim gazed at a group portrait of the 16 previous Dartmouth presidents and 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. The school - with a generally liberal faculty, a conservative board of trustees, and an oft-rowdy social scene - is famously hard on its leaders.
On arrival at Dartmouth, Kim immediately put his background to work, launching a major global health initiative and taking on student-life issues as leader of a 31-campus collective to study binge drinking - a move that earned him nationwide praise.
But in the last two months, his skills have been tested.
In January, a student went public with graphic accusations of drunken hazing in a 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 Greek organizations.
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.’’
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 added that Kim has shown leadership on other issues.
Some faculty members have also criticized Kim for spending little time on campus.
Many university presidents travel frequently to raise money, and from the outset Kim made clear that a top priority would be shoring up the university’s finances.
But his absence was sorely felt, said Michael Bronski, a lecturer in women’s and gender studies. Previous president James Wright “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 the time.’’
Kim released a campus-wide letter Friday saying he would stay on at Dartmouth while the World Bank’s board votes on the nomination.
“When I assumed the presidency of Dartmouth, I did so with the full and deep belief that the mission of higher education is to prepare us for lives of leadership and service in our professions and communities,’’ he wrote. Though “the prospect of leaving Dartmouth at this stage is very difficult,’’ he added, he said he would “embrace the responsibility’’ if elected head of the World Bank.
A final decision on the appointment will be made next month. The current bank president, Robert Zoellick, is scheduled to step down June 30 at the end of his five-year term.
College presidential searches typically take six to 18 months, and the effort to replace Kim could be complicated by the fact that other prestigious universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are also seeking new leaders.
Several Dartmouth professors said they expected that the school would appoint an interim president, possibly provost Carol Folt.
For now, the campus’ administration is basking in the nomination. “Today’s announcement is not only a tremendous honor for Jim personally, it is also a source of great pride for Dartmouth,’’ Steve Mandel, the school’s board chairman, wrote in a campus-wide letter Friday. “The World Bank is one of the most powerful tools the international community has to raise standards of living in some of the poorest countries on our planet, and I cannot think of a more fitting nominee to lead it.’’