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Jim Kim and the Problem of Excess Humility

After reading this Rolling Stone piece about Dartmouth (via Felix Salmon), I now see why the school's president, Jim Yong Kim, who Obama just tapped to head the World Bank, made such a good impression on Tim Geithner: They have very similar views on cultural humility--by which I mean how much you can impose your own values on a foreign culture.  

Here's Kim in Rolling Stone: "'One of the things you learn as an anthropologist,' he said, 'you don't come in and change the culture.'"

And here's Geithner speaking admiringly of his father, a former development official in Africa and Asia, during an interview we did for my recent book: "My father … is a deep believer in institution-building. You’re finding talent and supporting it. You’re not going to tell them the right thing to do" [emphasis added]. 

These can be noble sentiments in the abstract, and such cultural humility has been a hallmark of both men's careers from what I gather. (In my book, I describe it at some length in Geithner's case, including the problems therein.) Unfortunately, in Kim's case, refusing to change the culture at Dartmouth appears to have meant allowing gruesome acts of abuse to persist within the university's fraternity system. The full paragraph from the Rolling Stone piece is as follows:

Kim – who was recently nominated by the Obama administration to head the World Bank – was initially seen as a potential challenge to the status quo. But instead, he's proven to be just the opposite. Not long after he took office, Kim met with Dartmouth alums and reassured them he had no intention of overhauling the fraternities. "One of the things you learn as an anthropologist," he said, "you don't come in and change the culture."

It does sound like the kind of thing that could--and probably should--derail his nomination. 

Update: A reader writes:

I think an alternative explanation is that [Kim] didn't want to piss off some of Dartmouth's major donors and risk harming the school's endowment, and he waved around his "anthropologist" hat to make the decision seem more high-minded and intellectual.

That sounds plausible. I guess the question is whether he ultimately intended to do something about the out-of-control (at least according to the Rolling Stone account) frat scene. It would be savvy to reassure donors and alumni while working behind the scenes to reform the system over time. But it would be pretty spineless simply to reassure the money-men and wash your hands of the problem. The Rolling Stone piece makes it sound more like the latter: "In a strange abdication of authority, Kim even professes to have little influence over the fraternities," the piece says. "'I barely have any power,' he told The Dartmouth in a recent interview. 'I'm a convener.'" But the piece obviously has a point of view, and it may not entirely do justice to Kim's. 

Among other things, there's this: 

Last spring, college president Jim Yong Kim ... established an intercollegiate collaborative known as the National College Health Improvement Project to study high-risk drinking in the same way that Kim approached communicable diseases in Rwanda and Peru. The group is slated to report its findings next year. "We don't expect to have solutions," says Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson, "but what we will have is a ton of data and ways to measure the results."
For many in the Dartmouth community, this data-driven approach falls short. "I just don't see that working at all," says Joe Asch, a former Bain consultant and Dartmouth alum who is the lead writer for Dartblog, a site that covers Dartmouth politics. "It all makes for great PR, but this is about a group of college administrators who've all tried different approaches to a serious problem on their campuses, none of which have made a dent." Even more crucially, such initiatives are not directed at fraternity culture itself, which many see as the heart of the problem.

But, of course, it's certainly possibly to see this as the first step in a longer-term plan to curb the excesses of the Dartmouth frat culture. 

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