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The Dartmouth
February 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Philip J. Hanlon: Student, teacher, College president

This article was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

When College President Phil Hanlon first arrived at the College in 1974, it was his first brush with what would become a life in academic learning and institutional improvement.

Hanlon grew up in a mining town in the Adirondacks in New York, a place so small it did not even have a movie theater. Although his hometown instilled within him a strong sense of community and valued hard work and the outdoors, it was not an academically-oriented environment, and arriving at the College exposed Hanlon to new perspectives.

For the first time, Hanlon met students from very different backgrounds, including students who had traveled to Europe and could name horses from the Kentucky Derby. Without any hesitation, Hanlon admits his transition to Dartmouth was “really, really rugged” and that he had struggled immensely with English 5, the then-equivalent of Writing 5.

“I had a very weak preparation academically,” he said. “I came here not knowing very much about the world, I would say.”

However, Hanlon views the College as a “transformative” place that taught him to “appreciate how much you can do with your intellect [and] with your mind.”

When Hanlon was a student at the College, there was a less developed “internal social scene” compared to the present. Prior to coeducation, road trips were especially common, as students often went off campus to find social life. The campus was far less diverse, with a population that was only 25 percent women — the rest were mostly “white guys,” he noted. His class was only the second class following the introduction of coeducation, a change he said most students favored, although alumni might have felt differently.

After graduating from Dartmouth summa cum laude, Hanlon found himself tired of winter weather and decided to go directly into a Ph.D. program for mathematics at the California Institute of Technology. The decision to go straight to graduate school stemmed from Hanlon’s experience with the math faculty at the College, who he said were always enthusiastic to share their research.

“What could be more fun than doing this?” he said in recollection. “Than teaching really bright students [and involving] and doing research that you think is really cool?”

As an undergraduate, Hanlon had already completed three “solo publications” in combinatorics, enough work that he could have finished his Ph.D. in three years with a thesis. However, influenced by Dartmouth’s liberal arts philosophy of broad learning, Hanlon chose to write his thesis in number theory.

After completing his doctorate, Hanlon went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the school he had turned down four years earlier, for his post-doctorate fellowship. There, he met his wife through one of his Alpha Delta fraternity brothers before obtaining a “really fancy [three-year] fellowship” at CalTech. But before he finished his first year, the University of Michigan contacted him and offered him the rare opportunity of a tenured position.

Hanlon described his former professors and teachers with admiration, whether it was CalTech’s Olga Taussky-Todd, whom he credited as “one of the greatest algebraists of the 20th century” and an early female pioneer in mathematics, or former College President John Kemeny himself.

In Hanlon’s time, students regarded Kemeny with nearly a myth-like admiration. Everyone knew his story as the Hungarian teenage immigrant who came to the United States without any knowledge of English but still ranked first in his high school class. Along with Kemeny’s talent, students knew him as Albert Einstein’s assistant at Princeton University. But Kemeny also worked with Richard Feynman on the Manhattan Project before settling down as a tenured professor at Dartmouth by the age of 27.

With Kemeny as his undergraduate probability professor, Hanlon recalled being simultaneously “blown away” and too shy to speak with him.

After around 16 years of professorship at Michigan, Hanlon was invited to become an associate dean at Michigan, a job that he says allowed him to continue to be a student with constant learning.

After serving on a committee to select a new dean of arts and sciences, Hanlon was asked by the new incoming dean to become a vice-dean. Although he had not been looking to go into administrative work, the decision didn’t surprise him and almost seemed inevitable — he had served on various sub-committees and “spoken [his] mind” frequently.

Given the choice of working in any department, Hanlon as a longtime math professor with publications in advanced theory, elected to become the budget dean. At the time, he had never worked with budgets before, but he knew people paid attention to money.

Once his job began, Hanlon was no longer only paying attention to mathematics, he was thinking critically and learning about the operations of various departments. He described helping departments as exciting and gratifying.

Three and a half years later, Hanlon was prepared to return to his life as a faculty member, when the provost had another offer: the chance to manage the budget for the whole university. The University of Michigan was a large and complex place, but Hanlon saw the opportunity as a fun challenge.

Through the job, he was exposed to aspects of the university beyond the arts and sciences, and the job proved challenging when the university received a historic reduction in state appropriations. By the time Hanlon eventually became provost at Michigan, he said he was not originally seeking a college president position. But when he was contacted by Dartmouth, he could not resist the prospect of returning to work for his alma mater, a place that “did so much to change the direction of my life.”

While Dartmouth lacks the politically appointed governing board of a state university, Hanlon describes his position as especially challenging because of all the stakeholders. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents and the outside media all have different interests that need to be considered.

When Hanlon first arrived at the College, Dartmouth’s image as an institution was in chaos. Rolling Stone had published an article detailing the hazing rituals of a Dartmouth fraternity a few years prior. There had been a 14 percent drop in applications, which survey data revealed stemmed from a concern over the social scene. To add more fuel to the fire, Dartmouth was undergoing a federal investigation by the Office of Civil Rights, and the AAU Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct had also implicated the College.

The negative attention brought about such intense concern from the faculty that during the College president-led winter faculty meeting of the arts and sciences, the entire meeting was taken up by concerns over the College’s social scene.

With the campus “stirred up,” concerned trustees decided that action was needed to reduce harmful behavior, a goal that still drives their decision making today, Hanlon said.

When the original Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative announcement came out in 2015, it read, “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.”

When asked about the current state of this promise, Hanlon said that before making any final decision about the Greek system, he will have to consult multiple people. However, he added, he is proud of the Greek system in its current state, as well as the reforms and student leaders within houses who have tried to make the spaces more inclusive and safe. The external advisory group turned a “very positive” report to the trustees, he said.

But on the recent topic that Alpha Delta will not be re-recognized, Hanlon said that, according to the student handbook, derecognition of Greek houses has always been permanent and that previous decisions to re-recognize houses were “unusual” and “exceptions.”

Hanlon said that a letter from the chair of the Board of Trustees Bill Helman ’80 sent on March 13 clarified that corporations currently owning the houses, such as Alpha Delta Corporation, may want “homes for new recognized student organizations” that are “substantially different in admissions and membership.”

“The trustee letter is intended to say that the exceptions that were made in the past really shouldn’t be made in the future,” he said.

Hanlon described the MDF initiative as not only about social changes but also academic. As examples, he mentioned the construction of an “arts district” that will eventually become a part of the creative mind initiative to develop students creativity mind, as well as the recent creation of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society.

As a former student, Hanlon said his experiences at Dartmouth have informed his view of what the “heart and soul” of the College is, although he also brings his perspectives of scholar, teacher and parent to his role.

Although most things are in early stages, Hanlon expressed optimism about the future and ongoing conversations.

“You may have noticed … that not all our [housing] is in great shape,” he said in half-sarcasm.

In addition to renovating the Choates, the River Cluster and the Lodge in the next few years, he said the administration hopes to develop a kind of “village” in College Park near BEMA. Whether that development would be to accommodate a 10 to 25 percent increase in the student body, or simply add options, is still an ongoing conversation.

For Hanlon, the College is where he found his academic passions as a college student and the place where he began the final stretch of his administrative career. Carrying a respect for broad learning, he left the Granite State on a whirlwind of academic programs and fellowships which would ultimately lead him to become a professor. His transition to administrator was natural, another way to pursue learning and improvement, and ultimately lead him back to Dartmouth, ready to begin again.

Amanda Zhou

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Amanda Zhou is a junior at Dartmouth College originally from Brookline,  Massachusetts. She’s previously been the associate managing editor, health and wellness beat writer at the Dartmouth and interned at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this Fall. She is pursuing a major in quantitative social science and a minor in public policy. At  college, she edits the campus newspaper, serves on the campus EMS squad and lives in the sustainable living center. After graduation, she is interested in a career in journalism or data analysis. In her spare time, she can be found running, cooking or trying to rock climb.