Sian Leah Beilock literally wrote the book about performing under pressure—“Choke”— and is bringing her research to bear after shattering an ivy-covered glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to be elected president of Dartmouth College in the institution’s more than 250-year history.
Beilock, a cognitive scientist whose 2017 TED Talk about “Why we choke under pressure and how to avoid it” has been viewed more than 2.5 million times, started her tenure as Dartmouth’s 19th president in June.
Her ability to perform under pressure is just one of the reasons that NH’s most prominent university tapped Beilock to lead it’s 4,600 undergraduate, 2,200 graduate students and 4,100 employees. Her research into leadership and why people and organizations succeed or fail under pressure has made her a sought after adviser by leaders, Fortune 500 companies and sports teams.
Beilock previously served as the president of Barnard College at Columbia University, where she led the college to record fundraising as well as increased admission applications and diversity. Beilock also served as executive vice provost at the University of Chicago, where she created and led UChicagoGRAD to prepare graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for leadership roles.
Beilock is focused on helping Dartmouth enhance its own performance. The foundation of that is making the college a model for the difficult conversations and the discourse needed for students to learn and grow. An opinion piece she wrote for The Boston Globe in June with her predecessor Phil Hanlon explored how the fear of speaking up is driving discourse down. In the piece, they argue that it isn’t what is being said on campus that is a problem but rather self censorship “that has eroded our ability to seek deeper truth through the interchange of ideas — in academia and beyond.”
“It starts both at the top, from presidents penning articles to training students and faculty to have difficult conversations and teach contentious material,” Beilock says. And she holds herself and her leadership team accountable to that as well. “It’s important to create a team around me who can push back,” Beilock says. “I want to create a brave space instead of a safe place.”
Beilock is also looking to strengthen the college’s leadership role in the Upper Valley and the state. “What is important to me is our connections to Hanover and the Upper Valley. We cannot just be in the area, but we need to be of the area,” she says, explaining she wants Dartmouth, as an innovation hub, to contribute to solutions to local as well as global challenges, including housing, child care and climate change. She created a new position at the college, vice president for government and community relations. “Working together gets us further,” Beilock says.
Considering the mental health crisis among young people, Dartmouth convened a discussion with all the living U.S. surgeon generals in September about the crisis and developed a plan of action. “We will lead discussion about how to have a tangible impact on young people,” not just for Dartmouth, she says, but for institutions across the country.
On the day of the interview, The New York Times reported about a study that found students with parents earning in the top 1% attend elite colleges at a much higher rate than similarly qualified students, with Dartmouth having the highest share of one-percenters among its student body. Beilock says the college is “remarkably diverse” and committed to increasing student aid.
She says Dartmouth is one of only seven institutions in the country to extend its universal need-blind admission policy to international students. “Dartmouth has made strides in [need-blind admissions] in the past few years, and I look forward to doing this at a higher level moving forward,” she says. A college spokesperson pointed out the data in the Times article was from 2015 and prior.
The college forwarded statistics to demonstrate Dartmouth’s commitment to cultivating a diverse student body. Of its class of 2026, 16% are the first generation of their family to attend college while 10% are legacies, 15% are foreign citizens and 45% are students of color. The college’s most recent fundraising raised more than $500 million for financial aid, and since 2015, Dartmouth increased its financial aid budget 73%. And last academic year, Dartmouth eliminated undergraduate loans from its financial aid packages. Beilock she says it is not enough to admit a diverse student body. “We need to support them through their journey and connect them to our alumni group,” she says.
On a personal level, Beilock says she applies lessons she has learned as a mother to make her a better leader. “It’s the ability to know not everything needs to be perfect. The goal is to get things directionally right. Listen to feedback. Nothing is more humbling than taking harsh feedback from my 12-year-old daughter, and no doubt it gives me a perspective as a leader as well,” she says.