Interview: College President Phil Hanlon

by Jessica Avitabile | 9/8/15 7:57pm

Compared to your time at the College as a student, what would you say are the most important things that have changed and the things that have stayed the same?

PH: Without a doubt the biggest change that hit me when I came back is the student body. It’s really a much richer, more robust feel to campus. There’s a lot of international students, students from geographically all over the U.S., very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, since I was here as a student. Things that are the same — the things that make the heart and soul of Dartmouth are the very strong community, and I think it’s a community that’s really built around its core intellectual engagements, and that really begins with the faculty who today are as deeply committed to the undergraduate experience and intellectual growth of undergraduates as when I was here, so the community part really built about intellectual engagement is one thing that’s the same. Commitment to liberal arts — Dartmouth remains strong in its belief that the kind of broad knowledge and general intellectual skills that come with a liberal arts education are exactly the right training for our graduates to go out in this increasingly complex world. Sense of place, of course — Dartmouth is in a very special place, very special setting. If you look at the top 50 universities, no one is in a setting as special as this, and so the setting and continued connection of the community to the wonderful north woods is the same as when I was a student. And lastly I think the kind of adventuresome spirit that goes with Dartmouth, and it was here when I was a student and I think it’s what leads them to be so overrepresented in leadership positions in many sectors of the world.

The ’19s are the first class to enter Dartmouth under all of the new MDF policies and initiatives. What do you hope the College will look like by the time they graduate?

PH: The “Moving Dartmouth Forward” objective is really to significantly reduce and come as close as possible to eliminating extreme harmful behaviors, which includes high-risk drinking, sexual assault and violence, any kinds of acts of bias or exclusivity, so what I hope is that we will have a campus where we accomplish that, we have a much safer environment for students and much greater new intellectual engagements both outside the classroom and inside the classroom.

The hard alcohol ban — how would you characterize the general reaction to this policy change both on campus and at large? Is it what you had anticipated? Do you think the student perception of the ban has changed since it was first announced?

PH: It’s hard for me to gauge what’s going on in people’s minds as they perceive things, but what I’m very interested in though is tracing the that we follow about harmful behaviors over a period of years, and it’s not specific to the alcohol ban, it’s specific to the whole package of things that the steering committee recommended and we implemented last January. These are things like following the various metrics we track on high-risk drinking like encounters with [Safety and Security or Hanover Police] that involve alcohol, medical transport numbers, medical transports with high blood-alcohol content, and for sexual assault we have the health survey which also has indicators of drug use and high-risk drinking, and we also did the AAU climate survey, and the results of that should be released soon, so what I’m really interested in is tracking these metrics over time and seeing if they hopefully go in the right direction, because that’s what the program is about.

There seems to be disagreement on campus about how to define the term “academic rigor,” as well as what policies should be instituted—particularly regarding grade deflation, eliminating the non-recording option and earlier class times. Can you describe your vision for academic rigor and how any of these proposed policies might fit in with that?

PH: So you hit on one of the most important points and that’s that there’s more than one meaning when I use that term “academic rigor,” and really what I mean is quality of intellectual engagement. So I’m talking about a quality of intellectual engagement where students, in partnership with their peers and faculty, are really having to stretch their minds and be creative to synthesize and think deeply about things. It’s not about amount of work, it’s about quality of engagement. And so the example that I’ve used of a low-rigor course is one where it’s just pure lecture and it’s just a lot of information that students need to memorize and replicate on tests — that’s a low-rigor experience. A very high-rigor experience is one like a theater course where the actual activity the students have to do for the course is to read a play, understand the message of the play and determine how they would act it out so as to communicate that message to their audience, and it’s a much more sophisticated level of thinking and intellectual engagement, so when I use the term “rigor” I’m talking about the quality of intellectual engagement.

In the MDF announcement it says, “If, in the next three to five years, the Greek system does not engage in meaningful and lasting reform, and we are unsuccessful in sharply curbing harmful behaviors, we will need to revisit the system’s continuation on our campus.” I know it’s only been seven months, but how would you evaluate Greek changes so far?

PH: I’ve been very heartened by the really serious thought that has been going on within the Greek system and around campus. I thought that the changes proposed by the Greek Leadership Council last December were quite significant, but mostly I was just heartened at that kind of open-minded consideration of what students want the future of this campus to be. Likewise I’m very pleased that the sorority system is thinking about how it wants to organize itself going forward. There’s been a lot of serious thought going on, a lot of open-mindedness to what future students want on this campus, so I’m optimistic.

How do you feel about the progress of some of the MDF policies thus far, including the four-year sexual violence and education program and the requirement to have bouncers and bartenders at Greek houses, since both are due to be piloted this fall? Overall are things moving from the development and discussion phase to implementation?

PH: Everything is on track, everything that we said we were going to do is on track, many of the initial things have been put in place. For the residential community system, the house professors have been named, we’re working on some of the facilities that go along with them. The alcohol policy has been in place for two terms now, we have a new code of conduct, so all the pieces, as far as I can tell, are on track and that’s what the external oversight committee is tasked to do, is to report to the [Board of Trustees] what we said we were going to do and what we are in fact doing and if everything is on track. That being said, at this point we have a quite robust set of metrics that we’re tracking in terms of indicators of high-risk behavior, and we’ll be watching those over a period of years. I’m expecting that this transformation is going to take place over a period of years — it’s not going to change on a dime, but the steering committee was incredibly thoughtful and got a broad range of input from across the Dartmouth community. They talked to national experts, they visited other campuses and really did a very thorough and thoughtful job and they recommended a very far-reaching set of recommendations, and I’m hopeful they’ll have huge impact.

The Atlantic became the most recent in a series of news outlets to report on the increasing levels of political correctness on college campuses, with the rise of the phrases “trigger warning” and “microaggression.” Some characterize the movement as detrimental to mental health and stifling free speech, while others say that college students are facing new forms of discrimination than they were in the past, making these changes necessary. Have you identified this cultural shift at Dartmouth as well, and if so, where do you stand on this issue?

PH: Academic communities are very special kinds of places, places that are committed to open dialogue and open debate, and places where it’s very important for us to listen to each other, to understand each other. There are safeguards on college campuses that you don’t find anywhere else, such as tenure that allows faculty members to pursue whatever kind of research they feel is most valuable and exciting without risk to their livelihood. I think college campuses, by their nature, are places where we really need to be encouraging people to listen with an open mind to each other, understand each other and diligently protect open debate, and that’s what I aspire to for Dartmouth as well. It’s not always easy to strike the right balance, but I think it’s crucially important for an academic enterprise.

With the new residential community system to be implemented in a year, what are your goals for how it will integrate both upper classmen and freshmen, and how much are you hoping it will change social life at the College?

PH: The residential community system has the most potential to really make huge changes on this campus. What we’re looking for is a whole new set of options for how students can interact socially and how we can encourage more intellectual engagement and growth in the residence system. The six house professors have been named, and their work this year is going to be really focused on collaborating with students and professors and alumni on what is the best way to introduce social and academic programs in the house communities and build a new set of options for social interaction and intellectual engagement. I’m really excited about where this can lead and what changes it can bring about, so stay tuned.

Any advice for the Class of 2019?

PH: I’ll be giving them some advice at their first class meeting, but I think the main thing, as [College] President [John Sloan] Dickey famously said, “your job is learning” so this is an academic community its all about intellectual growth, it’s all about expanding your mind, making your mind stronger, more colorful, more robust, understanding that the power of the intellect is the biggest tool you have to take on the world’s issues. So what I would say to them is learn as much as you can and at every opportunity, it’s not just what you do in class, but how you learn outside of class, whether it’s through undergraduate research or service work or entrepreneurial activities or athletics or whatever, everything should be a learning moment — that’s my number one message to them.