Trustee Laurel Richie ’81 Champions the Liberal Arts

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The board chair speaks at town hall meeting about values she calls “distinctly Dartmouth.”

Rick Mills and Laurel Richie sitting next to each other on a stage
Executive Vice President Rick Mills and Laurel Richie ’81, chair of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, speak at Monday’s town hall meeting. (Photo by Robert Gill)

Laurel Richie ’81, chair of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees, spoke Monday at a community meeting about her deep commitment to Dartmouth’s academic mission, explaining what makes Dartmouth special—a vision that builds on the institution’s strengths.

More than 200 faculty, staff, and community members came to hear Richie, who took over as board chair in June, at a town hall meeting hosted by Executive Vice President Rick Mills in Spaulding Auditorium.

Richie recalled when she first saw Dartmouth, coming to Hanover from Shaker Heights, Ohio, where she grew up in the first African American family to integrate a traditionally white neighborhood of the Cleveland suburb.

“I have a very, very vivid memory of crossing the Connecticut River—it was a glorious day—going up the hill, getting to the Green and thinking, oh my God, if I imagined what a College should look and feel like, it was the Dartmouth Green and Dartmouth Row on the horizon with Baker Tower,” she said.

Richie majored in policy studies at Dartmouth “because it seemed to be the quintessential liberal arts major, allowing me to take the broadest range of classes. And, in my mind, it was the study of how people make decisions.” This training served her well when she was preparing for her first press conference as president of the Women’s National Basketball Association—a 5-foot 4-inch woman who had never played a game of basketball.

“I remember in that moment channeling Dartmouth. I remember saying to myself, I’ve really learned how to stand on my feet, and I can find my way through anything.”

When Richie was elected to the board in 2012, after three decades of work in marketing, management, and corporate governance, she thought the College could do a better job of communicating a consistent message to the world. 

Working for several years with faculty, staff, alumni, and students as head of a new trustee communications committee, Richie led the articulation of a strategic framework that defines Dartmouth’s distinctive characteristics. She explained the five qualities at yesterday’s meeting:

  • Liberal arts at the core. “That is our history. That is our DNA,” Richie said.
  • The scholar-teacher model. She recalled a note she received from her professor in a class where she had consistently challenged the majority view. “My professor wrote to me, ‘keep swimming upstream, your ideas are valid, and never ever lose your voice.’ I’m forever grateful for that gift and for that professor.”
  • Base camp to the world. “To me it conjures up the idea of people ascending to great heights from a small tight-knit community. And the great thing about base camp is you always come back.”
  • An adventuresome spirit. Richie said outsiders who hire Dartmouth graduates say things like, “You’re great team players … you play well in the sandbox, you have great ideas, you’re fearless in how you approach things, you’re curious, you’re tenacious." The shorthand became “adventuresome spirit,” she said.
  • A profound sense of place. “There’s something profound about this town, how rugged it is. I’m choosing to no longer apologize for its size or its remoteness, but to celebrate that.”

In the question-and-answer period at the end of the meeting, several people said they recognized their Dartmouth in these core concepts, but asked how the College can communicate this to the outside world.

“We have to own it, and we have to be ambassadors of it. Quite frankly, it is all of us who live and breathe it who can bring meaning to it as well. It’s not about just giving people these five concepts, it’s talking about the experiences that we have,” Richie said. “I’m really optimistic because I think we know who we are, we have confidence, and we can be really proud of this special place.”

Bill Platt