An Interview with Nate Fick ’99

By Adam I. W. Schwartzman

The Dartmouth Review: In what capacity have you been involved with the College since graduation? 

Nate Fick: I’ve ben on the Board of Visitors of the Rockefeller Center since 2006 or 2007. Rocky had a big impact on my life—I went to see a talk there in the late ‘90s when a journalist named Tom Ricks, who was then the Wall Street Journal’s Pentagon correspondent, came up to campus and talked about the Marines. Attending his talk when I was an undergraduate was actually one of the things that led me to join the Marines after graduation. Rocky played such a pivotal role in my life that when I had the chance to stay involved as an alum, I jumped at the chance.

TDR: You’ve highlighted administrative transparency as an essential component of Dartmouth. As a trustee, what steps are you interested in taking to ensure such transparency?

Fick: I run a small company right with about 50 employees and a 15-person Board of Directors. When I was in the Marines, I ran military organizations of between 50 and 100 people. I’ve always found that better policies resulted from a more inclusive process and you got more buy in when people knew what was going on. I think its human nature. We want to be included in decision-making, we want to understand what’s happening, and I think transparency makes for better decisions and results that stick. As philosophi cal principle, I think its something that’s part of good management and good leadership. In terms of what you can do, from the standpoint of a trustee, frequent interaction with all of the different constituent groups on campus is important: students, faculty, administrators. I respect that there are decisions that have to be made within the privacy of the boardroom—that’s just part of governance—but my hope is that I can be a very present and very engaged member of the Board, whether it’s giving out my personal email address or my personal phone number, just making myself available to students. I want to be free and willing to engage with people anytime.

TDR: Are you concerned about President Kim’s departure?

Fick: I’m not concerned about President Kim’s departure. I had been looking forward to working with him, frankly, and I have met with him a couple of times throughout [the trustee election] process. His nomination to lead the World Bank surprised me, but I think—and this is going to sound like a cliché—I’ve gone through enough leadership transitions to know that no single person is ever indispensible. Even when you have a respected and valued leader move on, that open seat represents an opportunity. I think we need to focus now on filling the president’s seat with the best candidate we can find and I think we’re going to attract a lot of great candidates.

TDR: What qualifications are important to filling that role?

Fick: President Kim was a non-traditional candidate. He brought with him a background that was different from most university presidents. He’s also younger than most university presidents. It would be easy for us as a community to be gun shy about non-traditional or young candidates who, because of the stage in their career, are going to move onto something else eventually. I don’t think we should shy away from them. We should still look at the non-traditional, young candidates. Beyond that, you need someone with impeccable academic credentials. You need someone who is a capable manager and has demonstrated leadership ability. Management and leadership are two different things: you manage an organization, but you lead people. There are people who are great managers but not very good leaders and there are people who are good leaders but not very good managers. We need to hold out and find someone’s who’s both.

TDR: Does that involve looking internally, externally, or both?

Fick: Both. Drawing on my own experience—I’m doing a leadership search in my company right now—we’re looking both internally and externally because both kinds of candidates are valuable for different reasons. Internal candidates know the culture, they’ve come up in the organization, and they’re lower risk in a lot of ways because they’re more known to you. It also sends a valuable signal to demonstrate that you can promote from within and that upward mobility exists inside a company or university, but at the same time you shouldn’t limit yourself. Dartmouth is a respected enough institution that the world is our body of candidates. Bringing someone in from the outside injects a fresh perspective, new energy, and new enthusiasm. At the beginning of the process we should consider both internal and external candidates. 

TDR: Now to switch gears a little bit, you said in your statement to the Association of Alumni that you wanted to embrace traditions while innovating constantly, what did you mean by that?

Fick: I guess I’m shaped in that regard by time in the Marines. I don’t want to overdraw the comparison between the Marines and Dartmouth, but they’re about the same age. They were founded within six years of each other and they’re both organizations that pride themselves on their history and they draw a lot of their strength from their traditions and their culture. At the same time, if they’re going to win in what they do, if Dartmouth is going to win in what we do—in recruiting, retaining and educating the best students—and the Marine Corps is going to win the nation’s battles, it requires innovation. So, your tradition has to be a source of strength, it can’t be something that holds you back. And you have to simultaneously do both. You can’t lose sight of what made you great, but you can’t rest on your laurels, either. Doing something a certain way just because it’s the way you’ve always done it, in my book, isn’t a good enough reason. There’s inevitably a balance there you got to strike.

TDR: In that spirit, what traditions do you hold as the most important personally, and what do you hold as most important for Dartmouth? 

Fick: I’m a big fan of the D-plan. My sophomore summer meant a lot to me. It was one of the great bonding experiences of my life. One of Dartmouth’s defining competitive advantages is its geography, its place in Hanover, and everything that has to do with being in Hanover. The traditions having to do with Mount Moosilauke, freshman trips, and, getting back to the D-plan again, having an entire class up there in relative isolation for a summer, those things mean a ton. They make Dartmouth different from any other school. There isn’t any other school that brings world-class reputation, faculty and facilities to a remote location in Northern New England. So, I think that we need to play off that strength.

TDR: What about the Greek system?

Fick: I’m a fan of the Greek system. I know a lot of my social life at Dartmouth revolved around the Greek system. People are going to naturally associate and the efforts to ban or end the Greek system when I was an undergraduate were misguided. All you’re going to do is drive that activity off campus. You’re better off recognizing that adults—and students over 18 are adults—are free to associate. Obviously there are elements of it that need a little bit of oversight. Again, I was a member of an organization, the Marines, where there are rites of passage, rites of organization, and they actually have a valuable place in forming cohesion and building teams and building relationships. Then again, you’ve got to be attentive. They can cost a lot, and if you’re not using good judgment, you’re going to end up causing a lot of problems and hurting people. I think that gets back to that tension between tradition and innovation, and recognizing that traditions matter, but at the same time, you need to be careful that they evolve in the ways that our norms and our society evolve.

TDR: I’d like to tie that thought to something you just mentioned and also wrote about in your statement, which is the importance of attracting good talent to Dartmouth, whether it’s students, faculty, or administration. Do you think that goal is undermined by the recent hazing controversy?

Fick: I think that press matters and attention matters. In the same way that one student’s experience may not, in any way, reflect the experience of the broader student body, winning a football championship, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have a better experience at school because of the positive press that surrounds something like a high profile athletic victory. Dartmouth has to be really careful about how it is portrayed in the public mind. We do have this negative stereotype that we continue to adhere and play into the whole “Animal House” image, and it’s a cheap, easy trope for journalists to use. It’s an easy laugh line and it’s an easy metaphor to build a story around. I think it has negative repercussions and I think that it influences some of the college counselors, some of the high school teachers, coaches, some of the parents. It does matter, and I think we have to be careful about our public narratives and be conscious of our public image.

TDR: One thing you’ve mentioned in relation to both Dartmouth and the Marine Corps is “cultivating habits of the mind.” What do you—as a Classics and Government Major—think of that principle in light of your background and in light of Dartmouth’s commitment to the Liberal Arts.

Fick: I was a classics and government double major, and I have a deep, visceral belief in the value of a liberal arts education. The cliché is that the whole point of an education isn’t to teach you the facts; it’s to teach you how to think and to ground you in an intellectual tradition, to give you a framework with which to assimilate new ideas and think about new information. I haven’t encountered anything that beats a classical liberal arts education at doing that. I think that one of the great things about Dartmouth is its commitment to undergraduate teaching, its commitment to the undergraduate experience, and its commitment to a broad-based liberal arts education. I don’t think that that education and undergraduate commitment are mutually exclusive factors. I actually think that these two things are very closely tied, and are increasingly closely tied. Have you read the Steve Jobs biography by any chance? By Walter Isaacson?

TDR: No, I haven’t gotten a chance to yet.

Fick: One of things that really struck me in that book was Jobs’ sense that where he wanted to be was a nexus of the liberal arts, science, and technology. He wanted to combine technology and aesthetics in a way that would transform how human beings interact with technology and how they would access ideas. He makes a very compelling case in that book that science and the arts are not at diametrically opposed ends of the spectrum; they’re actually related. So, when Dartmouth invests in its hard science programs and invests in research, I actually that that strengthens the liberal arts curriculum.

TDR: So, I take it that you’re not wary of that trend towards the hard sciences?

Fick: I’m not, because I think that Dartmouth is strong enough to accommodate both. The old laugh line for decades has been “Don’t turn Dartmouth into Harvard!” I spent time at Harvard in graduate school, and I’d agree with that—don’t turn Dartmouth into Harvard. But I don’t think that strengthening our science programs and providing greater resources for research poses any risk of turning us into Harvard. The difference between Dartmouth and Harvard is not primarily one of research and science; it’s a difference of culture. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to losing that defining culture that makes Dartmouth special.

TDR: We’re winding down here, but is there anything that you want to jump in on immediately as a trustee? Something at the forefront of your mind?

Fick: I guess there are two things. One is something that is very near and dear to me, and one that is more a factor of circumstances. The factor of circumstances is the presidential search. I think that we all are going to find ourselves involved in a search for Dartmouth’s next leader, and that’s going to have be a top priority from Day 1. The second thing has been very much on my mind through this whole process and is one of things that Jim Wright did a great job of: encouraging veterans, especially wounded veterans, to continue their education, and to do it at Dartmouth. A Marine I served with is among those guys who came to Dartmouth and graduated after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that’s important. It’s important to Dartmouth and it’s important to our whole society. I think that’s a moral obligation, and it’s something that I’d like to be attentive to as a new trustee.

TDR: Thank you very much for your time, Nate