Interview with Dartmouth’s First Openly Gay Trustee, John Rich ’80

As mentioned in the Green Light, the following are highlights from our interview with Trustee John Rich ’80.

How did you come to be on the Board? What are the accomplishments of the Board of which you are most proud?

I came to be on the Board in 2008 when I was elected as a Charter Trustee. I can say that it has been a wonderful experience. The Board is composed of very dedicated, loyal folks who have accomplished tremendous things in their careers, and who have deep roots at Dartmouth. One of the things that I was able to participate in was the selection of the new President, and I think of all the things that I was able to be involved in and of which I am most proud was selecting Jim Kim. I knew Jim Kim for several years when I was in Boston, and I thought he was a great match for Dartmouth: (1) to have someone who came from health care and global health, and (2) to be the first Ivy League college to have a Korean American president. So I’m proud that we were able to do that.

What is the role of the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board that you chair?

Generally, the role of the committee is to support the academic mission of the College, to make sure that the Board is involved in supporting the Administration’s efforts to have the most outstanding faculty, to continually review and update curriculum, and to think about the infrastructure needed to support academics, classes and courses. And we’re continually monitoring how Dartmouth improves: to think about how we as an institution move forward and maintain the excellence that Dartmouth is known around the world for.

What are the areas in which you see the College growing or improving in the future and that excite you most?

The College is growing in important ways under Jim’s leadership. A couple of key areas that I think are important include the amazing engagement of Dartmouth faculty in leadership in global issues, and I think the response of the Dartmouth community to the earthquake in Haiti is exemplary of how Dartmouth students see themselves as citizens of the world. And the fact that Dartmouth was leading efforts to get heath care and disaster relief on the ground up and running is very exciting, and with the interest that students now have in global health and global issues, Dartmouth is really leading there.

How have your previous experiences as a student and an alum influenced your perspectives as a Trustee?

My initial perspective was that I grew up as a kid in Queens, New York, who went to parochial schools and I didn’t know much about Dartmouth. So for me it was a very different world, but I loved Dartmouth and some of my deepest friendships that I forged there still remain. For me it was an eye-opening experience because I was not only living for the first time not in a city, but I was living in a community where the professors were so deeply engaged with the students. This background helps me to understand that my job as a trustee is to support maintaining the strengths that are Dartmouth, such as the deep engagement that we have with professors, while also realizing that increasingly Dartmouth will attract a more diverse group of students – how do we make sure that the fundamentals of the experience remains with those students so that Dartmouth has a good link to tradition but also the ability to grow and change as the world changes and as students change.

How have you seen Dartmouth evolve over time, particularly with regard to what the College offers its increasingly diverse student body?

As someone who involved with Dartmouth as a student, then because I was training as a medical student and a physician, there was a period when I was not so in touch in a day-to-day way with what was happening with Dartmouth (I came back for reunion and I was involved with BADA). So since about 2006 when I became more involved with Dartmouth, I’ve been impressed by how much more diverse the student body is and how much more inclusive the environment is. To be a student of color at Dartmouth today is to feel more included; I think that LGBTQA students feel comfortable being out there if they choose to be – realizing that each of these communities is diverse. I think that there also has been an evolution to less of a silo-ed approach to diversity, in that students who are African-American are moving, much more than I did when I was there, across the whole spectrum of Dartmouth, so that they might have involvement with the African-American society, but they also are deeply involved with other campus organization or they may be involved with the LGBTQA community. So I think that there is much more intermixing across various communities.

What are your thoughts about being the first openly gay member of the College’s Board of Trustees?

I feel proud of that. I feel some sense of responsibility, not in the sense that individual trustees are representative of different groups, but because I realize that as a gay African-American man who is on the Board of Trustees and as a physician, that I have multiple identities that I bring to the Board. But I’m proud to be able to know that Dartmouth as an institution is interested in diversity in leadership – is interested in having a variety of perspectives. To me the value of diversity is that you can’t have innovation and you can’t have new ideas if you don’t have a diverse group of people involved in those conversations. I also think it’s important for students of color and LGBTQA students to have a sense of what’s possible for them. To know that I have the opportunity to inspire students simply by my presence here, and I take that seriously; I think that’s important. I would add that I wasn’t out when I was at Dartmouth, in part because I was not out to myself. So when I was at Dartmouth I was much more aware of difference from the perspective of being African-American. But it was clear to anyone when I was there from ’76 to ’80, when I was a student, that to be out was pretty brave. So one of the things that is very heartening to me again is that I think that the environment for students is better and safer today. Of course, there is no way to paint with a broad brush here – the LGBTQA community at Dartmouth is diverse, in itself. To me the most important issue is safety: how do we make sure that people are psychologically safe, physically safe, and that from the perspective of their health they’re in a community that supports healthy sexuality, healthy intellectual development.

What do you believe Dartmouth does well to support its LGBTQA students?

I heard that we just are having a really successful PRIDE week. I think that Dartmouth support of activities like PRIDE – the PRIDE flag is hanging in front of the Collis Center, that there was good participation across the community – I think that that is important and that reflects the strength of the community as well as of Dartmouth. And I think that Dartmouth’s commitment to LGBTQA students is evidenced in the full-time position at OPAL. [Advisor to LGBTQA Students] Pam [Misener] and I met together after I joined the Board of Trustees to get a sense of what some of the issues are and how Dartmouth was supporting that. I know that DGALA, working with the College, supports the Bourne Fund to help students after they come out. I think that those are the kinds of support that allow students, that provide them with a safety net if issue arise for them as a result of their sexual identity, but making sure that there also is someone to go to, someone who is clearly identified as support to them. My observation of the Dean of the College Office overall is that they are very culturally competent and that they are looking to find better ways to support all students, particularly LGBTQA students. I’m amazed at the students and the entire community of folks who are committed to making Dartmouth a supportive place and a diverse place, despite the challenges of being where Dartmouth is. Dartmouth because of its location will always be looking for unique folks who really want to come to a place like Dartmouth. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity that we have.

What do you hope for LGBTQA students at Dartmouth today and in the future?

What I hope for LGBTQA students, and what I hope for all students, is that through this kind of support they have a greater sense of belonging and social safety. I know that we Trustees, and I in particular, are interested in making sure that we think about the diversity of the faculty and the student body and how they complement each other and as we recruit new faculty we’re thinking about diversity in every possible way. And I hope that students will also see the potential for their future and that they can in very safe ways engage in debates about important and pressing issues of the day, like gay marriage. That they can have the opportunity to engage and to develop their leadership skills, because I think Dartmouth is a place where you really can hone your leadership skills, so that when you get out into the real world you have confidence about your leadership. Folks like [DGALA Director] Jamal Brown [’08] who is obviously a young leader and who I imagine developed a lot of those skills while he was at Dartmouth.

What do you see as the value of LGBT-related academic studies, and is this an area that it might be desirable for the College to expand its academic offerings?

This is an issue that we’ll be talking about more as I begin to lead the Academic Affairs Committee. I think that LGBT- related studies are valuable. It does require that we think about making sure that we have the faculty in place to support those academic offerings and that we see them as cross-disciplinary with other critical areas of study so that we make sure that students across the school, whether they’re concentrating in those areas or not, have access to them.

Does any of your current professional or academic work relate to LGBT issues?

My current professional academic work relates in a broad sense to LGBT issues. I have been very interested in the health of African-American men and boys, and while most of my most recent work, including my most recent and first book, “Wrong Place, Wrong Time,” is really about interpersonal violence and the impact of trauma on young African American men, actually in Boston. More broadly from a public health perspective, I’m very interested in how we address issues that particularly affect young men of color. And the issue of HIV is really approaching crisis proportions, particularly among young men who have sex with men. Even at a time when we have tremendous treatments for HIV disease, the infection rates in many major cities are unbelievable. And so we are trying to understand the relationship between poverty, stress, adversity, racism, homophobia and health. And that’s a broad area of inquiry within public health, where we’re turning away from being so much about individual behaviors (which are critical to understand), and we’re thinking more about the impact of the environment on health, and how it is that the places you live and the experiences that you have relate specifically to your health. And so in thinking about primary care and how we configure primary care and prevention, the issues of stress, poverty and urban violence come together in very important ways.

What is your view of affiliated alumni groups like DGALA, BADA and others?

I think affiliated alumni groups are very important for a couple of reasons. One, they really inspire undergraduates, because a critical part of the Dartmouth experience for me, and probably for others, was the ability to connect with folks who had gone on before me. But without these affiliated organizations, it would be hard for LGBTQA students to find LGBTQA alums. I also think that it is important to have diversity as part of the community because, with regard to issues that arise out in the world, it is really important that affiliated organizations are there to bring those to the fore and to keep Dartmouth on the cutting edge of what’s happening across the country. And even around best practices as they relate to student recruitment or faculty recruitment, and actually doing the work of recruitment of students, I think they’re really critical. They also very much add to the sense of inclusion that might have been lacking for students who graduated in our times, where they couldn’t have been out or where there were pressing issues of race. So it keeps people engaged as the College improves and grows, enabling us to see the change that has happened and that gives a sense of the College to the alumni over time.