Convocation Address by Provost Carolyn Dever


Dartmouth College Convocation, September 15, 2014 Provost Carolyn Dever

Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to welcome again the Class of 2018, as well as all of the new graduate and professional students. We are very happy you are here! Let me also extend a warm welcome home to all returning graduate and professional students as well as ’17s, ’16s, and ’15s.

As Dean Ameer mentioned, I am Dartmouth’s new provost.  I just came on board this summer, and like many newcomers here, I am very much in the process of learning my way around this beautiful campus.

Last January, The Dartmouth, our student newspaper, ran a video feature named—“What’s a Provost, Anyway?”  In the clip, The D asks the question, “What does a provost actually do?” to a handful of keenly perspicacious Dartmouth students.

Now, some of the answers conveyed confusion: “We have a provost?”

Some, a bit of apprehension: Quietly—“Are we supposed to know this?”

And some were just plain humorous. Perhaps my favorite answer was from the student who declared that the Provost is the person who “chooses the college’s lunch meats.”

As it happens, that is not my area.

My role, the role of a provost, is to serve as the college’s chief academic officer, and this means that I work to ensure and build on Dartmouth’s academic excellence. As an Ivy League institution and a top‑ranked college for undergraduate teaching, there is no question about whether Dartmouth’s academics are, indeed, excellent.

But I spend a lot of time thinking about how to build academic excellence for tomorrow. Where, how, and when should we invest to situate Dartmouth most powerfully for the future’s best opportunities?

So, today, I’d like to get a little bit more specific: I’d like to explain what we meanby “academic excellence,” and offer several examples of how we’re committed to it.

Dartmouth’s greatest resource is undoubtedly its people—its world class faculty and you, its students. The most vital work of our institution is what you and the faculty accomplish together: exemplary scholarship, cutting-edge research—your intellectual transformation.

And much of my job is, in turn, how best to facilitate that work. How to develop your inspired, creative academic environment in inspired, creative ways. Often, this is a matter of support, of commitment, and I am deeply committed to supporting your outstanding work.

For example, we know that last year 16 percent of Dartmouth graduates in the Class of 2014 published or presented their original research. That’s amazing—16 percent of 2014s published or presented their original research. This is a number I only expect to go up, but what does it mean really?

By undertaking original research, and by following it through to completion, your peers created knowledge that had never been known before. This is an exceptional fact and an exceptional challenge. Because, as any faculty member or graduate student can share with you, breaking new ground is hard. Asking tough questions and pursuing bold ideas is not easy; it isn’t easy for anyone.

Yet perseverance is inextricable from excellence.

Every great thesis, painting, solution, model, novel, design, theory, or theorem was not the outcome of uninterrupted successes. Rather, each one was the culmination of persistence through an extraordinary number of roadblocks, struggles, and failures. Some call it grit.

Eighteens and new graduate students—for the years ahead, I’d like you always to keep this brief message somewhere in your minds: It’s OK to fail. 

Excellence isn’t the absence of failures; it’s the sum of determinations.

This leads to my first commitment: Supporting your bold ideas from start to finish—from when they’re just delicate ideas in your mind, to when they’re codified and canonized in print or onscreen, or whatever the medium of your choice.

My second commitment involves every aspect of academic and social life on campus: Recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty and a diverse student body.

We must continually aspire toward a robust and diverse campus environment—diversity of thought, backgrounds, beliefs, expertise, and experiences—because just as excellence isn’t easy, it also isn’t one‑dimensional. It demands a multiplicity of viewpoints and voices, and an abundance of healthy discourse. And, while we don’t always have to agree with each other, we must always—both inside and outside of the classroom—respect each other.

So consider it this way: Our differences are what connect us most powerfully to one another when we commit to the challenges of understanding, and that too provides us with a pathway to excellence.

My third commitment involves ensuring the continuity of your academic and social experiences. We strive to foster an environment of inclusiveness, cohesion, and unity that doesn’t have a term or year-long timeline but instead extends throughout your entire Dartmouth career, and long afterwards.

We are in the process of developing a model of living-learning communities known as “houses.” Each house will have a resident faculty director because the academic mission is at the heart of the residential experience. Each of you is a Dartmouth student 24-7-365 and a member of the Dartmouth community for life.

With the new house system, students can live together not only in their first year, but also in upper-class residence clusters for the remaining three years. There will also be the option to live in themed residences that will provide greater immersion in certain key areas, such as entrepreneurship and global learning, and some of you already have the opportunity to live in those spaces.

Put simply, we aspire to cultivate and sustain great community in all of campus life driven by our values of academic excellence.

Before I close, I’d like to share a few numbers about the Dartmouth academic experience: More than 90 percent of students report satisfaction with the quality of instruction, out-of-class availability of faculty, helpfulness of faculty, and level of intellectual excitement on campus. While I’m pleased with these numbers, President Hanlon and I understand that we cannot become complacent with our position, and we must continue to innovate. We must pursue our charge, our commitments, tirelessly, in order to create a sustainable template for academic excellence, now and for all time.

Now, The D’s piece, “What’s a Provost Anyway?” didn’t cover this. But, many years ago, the term provost held a much different connotation. Provost was, in fact, another word for prison warden.

I ask you to remember that my role is actually the opposite of that: I’m here to further your academic development, which is really a matter of liberation. The liberation one experiences in learning new ideas, asking new questions, and forming new answers with other bright, curious, and driven students. This is the heart of Dartmouth’s academic excellence, and I am so eager to see your contributions to it in the years ahead.

Again, warmest welcome to each and every one of you, as together we commence Dartmouth’s 245th academic year. Thank you.  

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