Interim President Folt: Leading Through Change

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She’s at performances and exhibitions, athletic events, alumni celebrations, and in the hall during student thesis defenses. Provost Carol Folt—who on July 1 takes over as Dartmouth’s interim president—is everywhere.

Carol Folt

Provost Carol Folt will take over as interim president beginning July 1. An environmental biologist, Folt is currently contributing to collaborative studies of arsenic in rice and the potential health effects on mothers and infants. (photo by Rob Bossi)

“I love the dynamic nature of our campus. We are at a pivotal time in our history and new possibilities arise every day,” says Folt. “Students, faculty, and staff all fuel this world of creativity and discovery. My job is to help them achieve their ambitions to make a difference in the world. Our community has enriched my life and I want all our students, faculty, and staff to feel that same sense of enrichment.”

Folt says urgency and opportunity lie ahead for Dartmouth.

“I feel I can be most helpful by focusing my energy and attention on making this a productive year, maintaining our strong momentum, establishing an effective transition for a new president, and setting the scene for a powerful future,” she says.

“One of my main goals will be to help bring the strategic planning process to fruition,” says Folt. “Hundreds of faculty, students, and staff have been thinking creatively and boldly about the future, and looking across the world for best practices and new ideas. I will ensure lively discussion continues about these ideas as they coalesce into a compelling vision for Dartmouth’s future. And I’ll spend a lot of time talking with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, to involve them all in developing this strategic vision.”

That work will set Dartmouth apart, she says. “The dynamism, creativity, and reach of this planning process, along with the excellence and impact of the activities always taking place, should be very attractive to the best presidential candidates. The process has brought about a determined consensus on campus that we must push ourselves, challenge assumptions, and above all act to ensure Dartmouth continues to innovate and remain a leader. Such a climate is attractive to everyone who cares about the future.”

Folt, too, has been an innovator at Dartmouth. When she joined the faculty as an environmental biologist in 1983, she was one of a handful of female scientists. She inherited a laboratory with virtually no equipment, and was told—somewhat grudgingly—that she was the first faculty member to ask for a desktop computer. Support for incoming faculty has changed radically since then, and Folt has helped spearhead that progress.

She has also helped pioneer a cutting-edge interdisciplinary graduate program and several major research centers. She’s trained more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students in her lab, developed new courses, was one of the first faculty involved in the Women in Science Project (WISP), and led a lively research team in emerging areas of inquiry supported by millions of dollars of competitive federal funding. Folt is still an active scientist, focusing currently on collaborative studies of arsenic in rice and potential health effects on mothers and infants. She says this keeps her in touch with the pace of progress in research and what it takes for students and faculty to be successful. In 2010, she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in recognition of her innovations in science and higher education.

As graduate dean, dean of the faculty, and provost, Folt has been at the leading edge of academic innovation, including integration of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, establishing courses for undergraduates taught by Tuck faculty, the creation of minors in international studies and sustainability, and a new program for digital humanities. She distinguished Dartmouth by ensuring health care and mandatory ethics training for graduate students. She was dean of faculty during a period characterized by an unparalleled increase in the size of the faculty and in the number of women department chairs and holders of endowed professorships.

“My entire career has taken place during a time of unprecedented change, not only in the explosion of discovery in the modern life sciences, but in the inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities in our enterprise, and in the rapid evolution of education preparing students to face an increasingly global and technological world,” says Folt.

Fast forward to Folt’s appointment as interim president, and she’s still breaking new ground, this time as she prepares to become the highest-ranking woman in Dartmouth’s history. It is a role she told the Board of Trustees she would take on for a year, but not permanently.

Folt expects the next year to be “filled with buzz, talk about innovation, new ideas, and engagement like we’ve never seen on campus before. We’ve set this up to be a very exciting year,” she says. “Dartmouth’s best times come not only when we read the signs of change, but also when we lead in developing new frontiers.”