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Dartmouth President Sian Beilock: Moving Dartmouth Forward With A Focus On Wellness, Innovation, and Community

Nov 14, 2023 03:37PM ● By Katherine P. Cox

Dartmouth College President Sian Beilock

A new president was inaugurated at Dartmouth in September with all the traditional pomp and significance that heralds a new leader. What is not traditional is that this president, Sian Leah Beilock, 47, is the first female to lead Dartmouth in its 254 years and the youngest president in the Ivy League. She wears both distinctions with pride and sees them as assets as she leads Dartmouth forward.

“It’s something I bring front and center. Being a woman, being a mom, really does impact how I think of leadership. I focus on having really great people around me who push me to be better.” She says she’s a Gen-Xer, “and I think it’s a great time to have Gen-Xers in leadership. It adds another dimension to who I am. A lot of my research has looked at this idea of having multiple selves. Being a researcher, being a president, being a mom, all those things contribute to great perspectives in terms of being a leader.”

A Unique Background

Liz Lempres, chair of the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth and a 1983 graduate, says the search committee included trustees, faculty members from across the college, staff, a student, and a graduate student. “We went into the search with a pretty clear profile of what we were looking for because we had done a lot of listening tours with various constituents—faculty across different divisions, staff, students both graduate and undergraduate, alumni. We were looking for someone with the experiences [that Sian has], someone to inspire and communicate the Dartmouth story internally and externally, and someone with high ambitions and a track record of trying new things. Sian really fit that description perfectly,” she says.

President Beilock, born and raised in Northern California, received a Bachelor of Science degree in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and doctorates in kinesiology and psychology at Michigan State. She was an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Miami University in Ohio from 2003 to 2005 when she joined the faculty at the University of Chicago as a professor of psychology and later executive vice provost. In 2017 she became president of Barnard College of Columbia University in New York, where she served until coming to Dartmouth in June.

A cognitive scientist, she is a renowned expert on performance anxiety. Her research into what causes some people to buckle under pressure, whether in sports, academia, or work, and what influences performance was published in her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

“I study performance under stress—what happens when we’re stressed out and why we don’t perform up to our potential. I want to know why it happens, what changes in the brain and body, and how to fix that.” At Dartmouth, she wants to bring that focus on health and wellness to the community, “especially among young people. I bring to bear 28 years of research looking at how anxiety affects performance and how you can develop communities to help people perform better.” To that end, “this year we’ve rolled out a new time away policy for students who need to take leave to make sure they can stay connected. We’re rolling out a strategic plan around student mental health and hiring a chief well-being officer that will sit on my senior cabinet to think about student, faculty, and staff, focusing on issues like childcare and housing, which are all part of wellness. We need to be thinking about the solutions to help young people perform at their best.”

She also authored How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel and says that as she settles into Dartmouth and the Upper Valley, she’s been out running and hiking and living what she wrote about nature’s positive effects on the mind.

Helping Students Succeed

“Dartmouth is such a unique educational environment. For me, the world’s challenges and opportunities are going to be solved at intersections, whether it’s climate change or mental health, you can’t think about just one discipline. Dartmouth’s size and scale and the fact that people talk across different schools, from the medical school to the business school to undergrads, is really exciting.”

She sees Dartmouth as a “Best in Class” institution that goes from discovery to impact and wants to further that approach. “There’s such a history of coming up with novel ideas and insights, and I’m excited to push on that.” With students approaching college as their ticket to a rewarding career, many are wondering where the liberal arts land in an increasingly technological society. “I don’t see them as mutually exclusive,” President Beilock says. “Our students major in everything from art history to computer science and are successful in getting jobs and going on to do great things. We’re teaching students at Dartmouth how to think, not what to think, which is important. Our students get a great amount of knowledge across the arts and sciences and also very concrete skills, whether it’s around computing, business, or working in a hospital. A liberal arts education gives such an advantage in terms of how they think about the world.”

The ability to communicate with others who may not share the same beliefs or experiences is an important goal for Dartmouth’s new president. “A ‘brave space’ is what I want to create at Dartmouth—the ability to talk across differences and being okay being uncomfortable. That’s how you learn—by being uncomfortable, by hearing perspectives that are different than your own. We have to underscore that that’s okay.” Being comfortable enough to express a perspective that others might not like and being challenged is how one hones important life and career skills, she says. “I’m focused on making sure that our faculty and students are taught how to have those dialogues. You have to learn how to separate your emotions, and I want Dartmouth to be the place where people can have different ideas and voices.”

Beyond the Campus

After President Beilock arrived on campus in June, she went on a listening tour. “I’ve heard really positive responses about the power of the Dartmouth community and the special place we live in. I think there are opportunities to partner even closer to places like Dartmouth Health and other Upper Valley institutions. I’ve heard we have more work to do to really help push the community further on housing, childcare, and all our pain points in the Upper Valley, and I think Dartmouth needs to be part of the solution.”

President Beilock says she is also excited about expanding the school’s focus beyond the campus to include what’s happening in the Upper Valley. “I’m excited to think about how we are part of the community and how we have really porous boundaries.” One of the first positions President Beilock created was vice president for government and community relations “to make sure we have the connections to the community and open dialogue that we should.” Emma Wolfe, a colleague of President Beilock’s at Barnard, will oversee Dartmouth’s relationship with state, local, and federal governments and other local partnerships.

“I think Dartmouth needs to be of the Upper Valley, not just in it, which means we have to make a concerted effort to ensure we’re supporting our community and doing everything we can to be really good citizens,” President Beilock says. “I’ve been enjoying getting to know the Upper Valley and all the different towns. I raced in high school so I’m going to get back on skis. It’s beautiful being here.” 

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