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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with College President Phil Hanlon

College President Phil Hanlon is now five years into his tenure and has overseen several major changes to the College.

College President Phil Hanlon is now five years into his tenure and has overseen several major changes to the College.

Phil Hanlon ’77 has served as the College’s President since June 2013. Five years into his tenure, Hanlon sat down with The Dartmouth to discuss issues facing the College.

Recently, there have been discussions about possibly expanding class sizes. How would you compare the environment at Dartmouth to that at the University of Michigan? Do you think an increase in class sizes here would have the same impact it did at the University of Michigan?

PH: Yeah, great question. Just to give you some numbers to foreground this conversation, the University of Michigan is one of the great public universities in this country. And public universities have a public mission, which includes educating a lot of students, and particularly a lot of students from the state that they reside in. And so, Michigan is not an exception. In fact, the University of Michigan’s undergraduate enrollment in the last three decades has grown by 50 percent. [It grew from] 20 thousand undergraduates to 30 thousand undergraduates, so it has experienced enormous growth. Dartmouth by comparison has grown by five percent during that same period. So, when I think about the difference between the two campuses, it’s a great question, and there’s three things that come to my mind. One is how education and instruction is done. So, Michigan, given its scale, has a 16-to-one student-faculty ratio as compared to Dartmouth’s seven-to-one ratio. In Michigan, less than 50 percent of the student credit hours for undergraduates are taught by regular faculty ... at Dartmouth, the vast majority of classes are taught by regular faculty. So, I think that when there is growth at Michigan, the scaling of the extra student-credit hours are largely absorbed by lecturers and [graduate] student instructors. In Dartmouth, if we were to scale up, we would do it through growth of faculty. Second is the curriculum and how the curriculum is delivered. At Dartmouth as I just mentioned, we have an unwavering commitment to the liberal arts, so we’re not going to sort of deviate from that. Michigan as it’s grown ... has grown its undergraduate enrollment across its campus. Michigan has professional degrees ... and they’ve actually grown into their professional schools with more professional degrees. That would not happen here. We are committed to the liberal arts. Lastly is how housing plays out. We are committed to housing a large majority of our students on campus ... so if we grew, we would have to grow the housing to go along with it. Michigan houses its freshman class and less than half of its sophomore class. And so as they grow, they just do less for their sophomore class ... So, I think that’s how it would play out differently on campus. It’s a much bigger challenge financially for us to grow than for Michigan to grow. And then of course the last thing is Memorial Stadium holds 11 thousand while the Big House holds 115 thousand. So, there’s room for growth. That was a joke.

On a similar vein, Dartmouth really takes pride in this idea of intentional inefficiency. For example, small class sizes are inefficient in concept but effective in practice. How do you think this model of education gives Dartmouth a competitive advantage in modern education?

PH: Again, it is absolutely the case that residential liberal arts education is really the most expensive, and so we have to see huge advantages to justify. And one part, of course, is what we were talking about earlier, the close connection between faculty and students. I think it’s harder to justify if we didn’t have that kind of commitment to a close relationship. That is what sort of makes us special. It helps challenge our students. I would take this one step further. I think our model allows very uniquely experiential learning. So, learning by doing. There are a lot of different ways this happens. We are talking about undergraduate research, which is a huge important way it happens, but it also happens in the performing arts. It happens in our new entrepreneurship programs and support, through outdoor programs, through service learning, through the center for social impact, internships, intercollegiate athletics. We’re a campus where more than 20 percent of our students do intercollegiate athletics and absorb the learning lessons from that.

So, why is experiential learning important, what’s the big deal about that? I think it has something to do with what we provide to educate students or what higher education generally provides students. So there’s really two pieces to higher education. One is knowledge, so you get broad knowledge of the world, you understand the power of knowledge and you have a thirst to always be broadly educated. You do a deep dive into one subject, your major, and that’s important because that, first of all, allows you to be inspired by the frontiers of knowledge, but also understand and humbled by the amount of work it took to develop those frontiers. That’s sort of a knowledge side, but separately and qualitatively different. We prepare you, our students, with a set of key, generally applicable, life skills. So, powerful communication skills, critical thinking skills, a well-developed creative mind, emotional intelligence, being able to work across differences, leadership skills, resilience, being able to engage the arts and humanities — things for the liberal arts that are not applicable to just one next job you’re going to take, but are applicable to basically everything you’re going to do for the rest of your lives. And, I think the importance of experiential learning is that it powerfully develops these kinds of life skills. Those skills, when you think about it, think about — having a well-developed creative mind. You can’t have that by sitting in a lecture and having someone talk to you. You have to go out and try. Not be as successful as you want and be coached. Do it again. That’s why experiential learning is so important.

I don’t know if either if you went to the “Future of Work” symposium. It was all about how the workplace is changing given technology and stuff, and there were a lot of successful alums who came back and attributed. But one was Colin Stretch, who is the general counsel of Facebook, and he said, when he’s looking to hire at Facebook, they don’t want individuals who will say, “Gee, there’s a problem and someone should fix it.” They’re looking to hire individuals who are fixing problems. So, they’re looking for people who are out doing stuff.

Experiential learning, we do it as well as any place. It’s enabled by those inefficiencies that you were talking about, having a staff and faculty that are staffed and eager to have a close relationship, close partnership in learning.

Since its implementation, how has your vision for moving Dartmouth forward changed or adapted?

PH: My vision and aspiration for Moving Dartmouth Forward was really to unite the Dartmouth community in a coordinated effort to eliminate extremely harmful behaviors on campus — by which I mean high-risk drinking, sexual assault and violence, acts of bias and exclusion. That was the original vision and aspiration, [and] it’s still my vision and aspiration. You might ask, “What was going on? Why did we do this?” And I understand it predates you. So, let’s turn the clock back to when I first arrived on campus. That first year, I think uproar is an appropriate term to describe the campus. There were concerns about harmful behaviors and particularly sexual assault and violence. This was just after the Rolling Stone article, and my first year, our application numbers dropped 14 percent in the wake of the Rolling Stone article. Our reputation was just getting bashed. But more importantly, there was truth to the problem. There was way too much harmful behavior going on. We were under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for Title IX allegations from the prior year. My first year, the faculty of arts and sciences voted to close the Greek system ... I was convinced that in fact there was an issue — we had to be honest — there were issues. And I’m not gonna say they’re fixed by any means, but it was important to take action and take definitive action. The first year, we launched the steering committee, which was chaired by professor Barbara Will, and had students, faculty, and alumni on it. They spent the better part of a year taking suggestions from the campus, looking at other places, looking at best practices, having discussions with lots of different people, and they came forward with a set of — I think — 12 recommendations, of which we implemented 11.

The original MDF proposal mentioned the idea of revisiting the topic of Greek Life in three to five years. Now that we’re at that time, how do you envision the future of Greek life at Dartmouth?

PH: I often say — and this is totally honest — that I don’t really think it’s my job to tell students how to associate. But I do think it’s my job to say, when you associate, here are the expectations of how you’re going to contribute to campus ... My sense is that the Greek community has really stepped up and become part of the solution. Obviously, not every house has complied, and we’ve held some accountable for their actions, but I think by and large we’re getting better. Let me just give you some data. So, if you look at12-year longitudinal data, which is what we have actual good records for FY06 through FY17, there has been a continuous decrease, particularly since “Moving Dartmouth Forward” started, in the number of organizational hearings and sanctions against a Greek houses. So if you look at the last year that’s complete, there was only one Greek organization hearing, which is a record low ... Let’s look at the actual period of when MDF was implemented to now. So that’s a three-year period, 2014 through 2017. So there were, over that period, 52 actual sanctions against Greek houses. If you look at ... 2006 to 2009, there were 92 sanctions. So there was a decrease of 40 sanctions from the three-year period when we started have record-keeping to since “Moving Dartmouth Forward.” So I think those are some indicators that I think the Greek community has really stepped up. But of course, there’s lots of more positive things that I mentioned that the Greek houses are trying to do and trying to be part of the solution. And heck, let’s face it, no one wants to pack a classmate into an ambulance and take them off the hospital ... I think, ultimately with the goals of “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” students are going to be the most effective players in achieving these goals.

How can we continue to improve diversity measures in the tenure process to ensure that our faculty is representative of the diversity present in the student body?

PH: It is an area where, particularly in the inclusivity and diversity, that is a huge priority for us right now. Over 40 percent of our students are students of color, but just under 20 percent of our faculty are faculty of color. Besides being not great for our students, it’s really hard on the faculty because the faculty of color end up doing an enormous amount of mentoring work with students. So it’s a really high priority that we promote diversity in our faculty. It is one of the objectives of the inclusive excellence initiative. Amongst the things we’re doing is, the Provost has provided a pool of salary support to help make targeted opportunity hires more possible for the hiring units. Every group that’s involved in hiring, promotion and tenure process now receives training on hidden bias — so that includes not just a research committee, but it also the associate deans and deans. That includes the Committee Advisory to the President, which is the promotion of tenure committee, myself, my senior team, even the trustees underwent bias training. We now employ a faculty-led team. It’s been led by Michelle Warren in the last few years, and they help in every faculty search, identify talented candidates from underrepresented groups. And so they’ll look at all the faculty searches going on and for each one, they’ll go out and sort of scour the academic world and say, “You should consider the following people because of their credentials.” We’ve created a number of postdoctoral positions for new Ph.D.s that are in disciplinary areas where faculty of color are highly represented. These postdocs [are] structured so that they can lead to tenure-track positions, and we have a sizable grant from the Mellon Foundation that is helping us with this. And so I know of a couple of new tenure-track faculty who came through this mechanism ... Your first stop after a P.h.D. is a postdoc and it’s to help you develop your standing as a researcher before all the burdens of being an assistant professor and committees and stuff like that come down on you. The deans are working with department chairs to try to figure out how to balance workload. As I said, faculty of color end up with an overburden, a workload, not only mentoring but often being sure they represent us on committees and things like that. And so, the deans are working with department chairs to try and figure out ... how do we make sure that the workload of the institution is balanced amongst the faculty?

Last year was an exceptional year. Fifty four percent of our new faculty were minority faculty. The goal that was originally stated in our inclusive excellence plan was to reach 25 percent minority faculty by 2020, and we’re not going to get there. That’s too aggressive. So we’ve stepped back and said, “Okay, what can we get?” We’ve reset to achieve 25 percent minority by 2027. If we can hit 33 percent faculty of color each year, we will be able to achieve that. One thing that is kind of a myth with a lot of people is that faculty of color leave here in disproportionate numbers, but in fact the history is that each year we lose about five percent of our faculty to either retirements or resignations. And that’s true of minority faculty as well. It’s the same number, but we would like to do better with minority faculty and help us get to the 25 percent earlier.

The topic of free speech has been a point of contention at Dartmouth and in the academic community as a whole. How should free speech apply to a college campus?

PH: I’ll be the first to admit that different people have different opinions on this and you can extend it beyond academic institutions to our whole nation right now, which is grappling with free speech. My view — it’s not unique to me, I think probably the vast majority of my peers feel the same way — is that there’s two things to think about. First of all, what are the rules? So what are the sort of policies where if you violate them, you can actually be punished or sanctioned in some way. And then there are the norms. What is it we’re trying to achieve as a campus?...So for the rules part, I strongly believe in First Amendment protections. That no one, no member of the Dartmouth community, should be punished for something that’s protected under the First Amendment. I say that because I think the First Amendment has worked well for us as a nation, but also I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of nuance in what speech should be allowed ... The courts in this country have taken for hundreds of years have been grappling with, how do we interpret the First Amendment? And so I would much rather take their wisdom over the years than to say I’m going to just try and decide myself ... On norms of what are we trying to achieve — we’re trying to achieve open dialogue with dignity and respect ... I think Dartmouth has done well compared to other campuses. I totally understand how free speech can end up targeting certain groups and how when there’s a breakdown in the norms, people would want to go to the rules and say, “Let’s fix the breakdown of norms by the rules.” We’ve had some very controversial speakers on campus ... I’ve gotten a lot of advocacy that I should cancel the events, which I hope never to have to do. One of your classmates, one of your peers was going to burn the flag on the Green ... flag burning is protected by the First Amendment and we went all the way in allowing him to do that if he had chosen to do it. So anyway, that’s sort of my view, but I will be the first to admit different people have different views.

With the current political climate, there have been many concerns about laws that could affect the student body. What measures do you think Dartmouth could take in order to prevent students from possibly repressive or unpredictable laws in the future?

PH: I never like to answer hypotheticals, so maybe we could talk about DACA. So, we have looked at what can we do as an institution to protect our community members who are currently DACA students. Should that program go away, those protections go away. So one thing we can do is advocate, and we have a lot of power as an advocate. Within the Senate, for example, there are nine senators that are either in the New Hampshire and Vermont delegations or are Dartmouth graduates. And so I’m in touch with all nine of them. I’ve been outspoken with them about sort of advocating for extension of DACA protections, obviously without success at this point, but that’s okay, I’m going to keep at it. As an institution and with our peers, we do have advocacy power. We will absolutely use that. We have offered certain students legal services related to DACA, including outside attorneys, legal clinics [and] advocacy organizations. Often our alums have chipped in here and said they’re willing to help. So we’ve helped to organize that. We’re in contact with the ACLU about issues for when students leave campus and are traveling around on campus itself. We will not release any records about Dartmouth students or employees, and we will not let law enforcement into the non-public parts of our campus without an appropriate court order. Having said that, we are going to stick within the bounds of the law. And so I think if we don’t know if there are laws that we find are harmful to the institution, are harmful for people, the institution, I think the right thing to do — what we should all do — is we should go through the normal legislative process and get involved in elections and make sure that we have a legislature who will change those laws rather than just defy them.

How would you envision your future as Dartmouth’s president?

PH: So, I have the best job in the world. I love my job, it’s been five years now. Dartmouth means everything to me. I came here from a little town in the Adirondacks. I was lacking in confidence. I was untested intellectually. I knew almost nothing about the world. And 40 years later, I entered one of the most competitive Ph.D. programs in mathematics in the world. So those four years at Dartmouth, my four years at Dartmouth, they’re everything about who I am today. However I can give back, whatever I can give back to this institution, I want to, and I have a unique opportunity and privilege to do so as president.