September 25, 2020
Dear Tuck Students,
A few years ago, I had the chance to orchestrate a research project for Bill Gates. Mr. Gates was interested in learning more about why some U.S. cities thrive and others struggle amidst the forces of globalization and technological change.
Our research team selected four cities that have been thriving on many metrics (Charlotte, Houston, Indianapolis, and Seattle) and five that have been struggling (Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Rochester, and St. Louis). For each city we conducted detailed surveys of a representative sample of its residents, we moderated focus groups of its residents, and we interviewed its civic and business leaders. We wanted to learn people’s sentiments about whether their cities were succeeding or struggling, about what forces and leaders were responsible for this performance, and about what public policies people would support to help create a stronger future.
One main finding was that human capital is the most important economic foundation for cities’ success, and in turn that the political value of trust is an essential determinant of cities’ investment in human capital—and therefore in building resilience to technological change and globalization. Trust we defined as citizens’ belief and confidence in each other, in leaders, and in institutions. In all cities, individuals with greater trust are more likely to support building human capital for their community. And thriving cities tend to have more citizens who self-report high levels of trust.
A second main finding was the essential role that leaders can play in building – or tearing down – trust. Trust is not immutable. Leaders can build trust by acting in the interests of those who have granted them belief and confidence. Conversely, leaders can damage trust through harmful actions.
Consider the remarkable example of Detroit.
A century ago, Detroit was much like San Francisco is today: an epicenter of innovation in the high-tech industry called automobiles. The city was brimming with many of the world’s most talented entrepreneurs – Henry Ford, David Dunbar Buick, the Dodge brothers – all sharing ideas and striving for success. But by the middle of the 20th century, this flourishing creativity had given way to something much more ossified. Between 1950 and 2008, Detroit lost over a million people—58% of its population. And then the World Financial Crisis accelerated the decline. On July 18, 2013, Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
And yet, despite all this economic damage, our surveys and focus groups in Detroit revealed the surprising twin facts that a majority of its residents believe the Detroit economy has improved (not worsened) over the past decade – and that, on many measures, Detroit scored as a high-trust city. How could this be?
The single most important factor cited for this trusting turnaround was one person: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Mayor Duggan was elected four months after the city’s bankruptcy filing, having run on the slogan, “Every neighborhood has a future.” He came to office from the private sector, where since 2004 he had been president and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center.
Upon taking office, one of Mayor Duggan’s biggest priorities was to rebuild trust in the city government’s commitment to the health and well-being of the community. In Detroit’s slide into bankruptcy, many of its basic public services broke down. 911 emergency-response times grew dangerously long. Potholes didn’t get filled. Street lights that burned out didn’t get repaired. Mayor Duggan recognized that without sufficient trust in safety, any grander aspirations of economic investments and growth would never materialize.
So, he set about to repair the street lights, to fill in the potholes – and, to fix the fire hydrants. Here is how he described these painstaking trust-building investments.
“This stuff just sounds soooo boring … Twenty per cent of the fire hydrants in the city did not work and when you looked at why, firefighters would open them up and check them and then type up a list and email the list to the water department, but none of the addresses that the fire department used matched the ID tags that the water department used … Now our firefighters have handheld devices [that] immediately transmit to the water department, which is on the same system [and] probably 1 per cent [of fire hydrants are out of service] … If you talk to the firefighters who have the tablets now, they’re excited … We are trying to bring back idealism … Turnaround occurs not because one or two leaders do some brilliant thing – turnaround occurs when everybody in the organization performs better.”
In November 2017, Mike Duggan was re-elected mayor in a landslide, winning 72% of the vote. And, thanks in no small part to his efforts, Detroit’s economic fortunes have been turning. Business leaders have made large new investments to expand their local operations; an uptick in entrepreneurs have started new businesses there; and a wave of talented young people have moved to the city.
The Tuck School is (obviously!) not a city. I have shared this story with you because, like the most resilient cities, what has made the Tuck School so strong over its 120 years has been trust: the belief and confidence among students, faculty, staff, and alumni that we all will invest together in the creation, teaching, and application of ideas that better the world through business.
And what makes the Tuck MBA experience so distinct is that every student can become a leader in our community like Mike Duggan. That is, every student can take tangible actions that build – and, when needed after mistakes, rebuild – trust in our learning community. Actions in the classroom, actions outside the classroom, and actions across the Upper Valley. Actions that are personal to each student’s learning goals, connected to each student’s aspirations, and transformative for each student’s journey of developing the aptitudes of wisdom and decisiveness.
In the last presentation our research team made to Mr. Gates, we talked a lot about how the United States might build more collective trust and thus save globalization. Fast forward a couple years to today, and that need for collective trust is all the greater – starting with every one of us doing our part for public health and well-being. In our shared Tuck community that is our home today, and in the cities of the world that will be your home tomorrow, from building trust through our actions, great things can follow.
Have a safe and restful weekend.
Dartmouth has formed a high-level task force to plan for and manage possible disruptions related to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, monitor federal and state recommendations, implement guidance, and communicate with our community.