Q&A with College President Phil Hanlon

by Christina Baris and Ioana Andrada Pantelimon | 6/14/20 2:45am

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by Jin Lee / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2020 Commencement special issue.

College President Phil Hanlon ’77 became the 18th president of Dartmouth in 2013. In his time as president, Hanlon has launched a set of initiatives, most notably the Moving Dartmouth Forward campaign, which aims to increase safety on Dartmouth’s campus. The editors of the Commencement special issue sat down — via Zoom — with Hanlon to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the College, reflect on initiatives instituted in the past four years and contemplate his plans for the future of Dartmouth.

As we reflect on the Class of 2020’s time at Dartmouth — given that this is the special issue for their Commencement — clearly their experiences were influenced by historically significant events, from the election of Donald Trump to COVID-19. During your time at Dartmouth as an undergraduate, which, if any, historical events had the greatest impact on your college experience? Which events on Dartmouth’s campus were greatly impactful on your undergraduate experience?

PH: I was on campus from the fall of 1973 through the spring of 1977. It was — in terms of a campus climate — pretty quiet. There had been, of course, a lot of activism and activity in the years prior — 1969, 1970. But by the time I arrived, campus was pretty quiet. However, there were some external events that were very meaningful during that time. The first one is the oil embargo, which started in the fall of 1973. In the winter of 1974, Dartmouth cut the term short by a week to save on power and fuel … and also reduced temperatures in all of the academic buildings. I remember people were in gloves in class trying to take notes. The other big thing was Watergate. I think everyone was clued into that. Everyone was paying attention; it was a topic of constant discussion. And, of course, you know the outcome.

Now that we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that an upcoming global economic crisis has already begun to affect the College and the world. How will the College support the Class of 2020 as it enters into one of the worst job markets in recent history?

PH: You hit upon a really, really important point, which is this sort of timeless priority of financial aid and support for our students. Let’s start with that. Financial aid has always been a huge priority for the College. I would say my Dartmouth education was truly a gift, and a gift that has profoundly shaped my life. We must make sure that that same gift is available to every student, regardless of their financial circumstances. That’s why I’m giving back 20 percent of my salary to the College this year. Gail and I dedicated those funds to financial aid. As you pointed out, with the COVID pandemic, we are seeing an enormous spike in our students’ financial needs, as economic circumstances change. I read today that 40 million people have applied for unemployment over the last six weeks or so. Early estimates suggest that our financial aid expenditures will exceed what we had budgeted back in March by a minimum of $8 million in the upcoming fiscal year. We feel for all of the parents who have lost their jobs, and we recognize students, too, are losing income. I can tell you that Dartmouth will and must step up with additional financial aid to meet the full need of our students. We are committed to that. I think, as always, we expect our alumni and parents to play a generous role in this. The Call to Lead campaign has already refocused. Financial aid is top priority. We have to galvanize alumni and parent support to help us meet that need.

For the Class of 2020, who is now leaving Dartmouth to become part of the alumni body and who is facing the challenge of an insecure job market because of the COVID-19 pandemic: How is the College, or the alumni network, going to support them in entering the workforce?

PH: I’m glad you asked that. The Center for Professional Development is working with alumni relations to reach out to the alumni community to ask that they step up with additional internships and job placements for not just our graduating class, who are looking at jobs, but for our other classes who may have lost internships. 

With the Moving Dartmouth Forward program, launched in January 2015, you outlined a plan to make campus more safe and sustainable. The ’20s will be the first class to graduate having experienced this initiative through their entire Dartmouth careers. How successful do you believe Moving Dartmouth Forward has been? What do you still hope to achieve with it? 

PH: It was a very important initiative and still is. One way to answer that is to talk about the metrics that we track. And we do track a wide variety of metrics, which include things like encounters which involve alcohol, medical transports where the student’s blood alcohol level was particularly high, Good Sam calls. On the high-risk drinking side, I think the data show a positive picture of outcomes. In anonymous surveys of our students, look at the question of “Have you consumed hard alcohol in the last two weeks?” Prior to Moving Dartmouth Forward, that was around 44 percent, which is pretty close to the national average. It has dropped since the hard alcohol ban to the range of 10 to 14 percent. We have seen corresponding drops in our medical transports with high blood alcohol content to the lowest levels we’ve seen in a very long time. 

At the same time, Good Sam calls and encounters have not dropped, which indicates, at least to me, that in fact drinking is not going underground in any way. It’s just that when students are drinking, they’re drinking more safely. Safety was the primary objective of all this. With sexual assault and violence, I think what’s really hard is getting data that [are] accurate, in part because these incidents are under-recorded. So, you can look at reports, but you have to understand that many, many things are going on which are never reported. And so for that, we again look for anonymous survey data, and I think we are poised to do another survey soon. I think our last one was in 2017. I don’t think it gave us enough time to understand what the outcomes have been, but it’s really important that we gather that data and look at it with an honest assessment. Beyond hard data, there’s more anecdotal information. What I hear anecdotally, including from students, is that the campus is calmer and safer. 

Do you have anything specific that you would still like to achieve with this plan? 

PH: We want a campus which is safe, equitable, diverse and inclusive. Moving Dartmouth Forward itself was aimed largely at high-risk behaviors and safety, but also it included the house community system, which was for inclusivity. Inclusive Excellence, which was [created] a couple of years later, was really aimed at diversifying, particularly faculty and staff, and creating greater inclusion. And then [the Campus Culture and Climate Initiative], which was most recently launched, was aimed at reducing sexual misconduct but also abuse of power differentials, which are not necessarily gender-related. So, yes, there is a lot of work to do. As I said, we are driven always by two north stars, one being academic excellence, the other being building a campus which is equitable, diverse and inclusive. 

You brought up the house communities — that is another big part of Moving Dartmouth Forward that has impacted the experience of the ’20s on campus. As you mentioned, one of the main goals was to foster a stronger sense of community on campus. How well do you believe the house communities have accomplished this goal?

PH: I look at who’s involved in them — and that’s not only the student leadership. Student leadership is very important to the house committees, but so is the faculty leadership. There is an incredibly dedicated, creative group of people trying to figure out how to take this opportunity and make the most of it. That’s one thing I can look at. Another is actually just activity levels. I do look at reports every year — what activities each house mounted and approximately how many people came. Based on those, I see a lot of progress. I think a lot of good things are going on. I think we learn every year and learn how to do it better. But I do come back to where I started, which is that the people who are leading this, the faculty and the student leadership, are incredible.

In a survey of the senior class that The Dartmouth conducted last year, the majority of students responded that they were not satisfied with the house communities. Why do you think that is, and how are you planning to move that forward so that the goal of fostering community is achieved for students to come?

PH: I’ll come back to what I said before — this is an experiment. It’s new, and we’re learning every year. I don’t for a minute think we’ve got this perfect. We always need to figure out what we’ve learned from, what we’ve tried and what new things are contrived. It gives me a lot of hope that the faculty and student leadership who are involved are really wise, smart, creative folk, so I do think that we will do better every year. 

Do you believe that mental health is a major issue at Dartmouth? How well do you think that Dartmouth’s mental health resources on campus address this issue?

PH: There is not a topic of greater concern to me and my fellow presidents. In the past fall alone, before travel got shut down, I attended three conferences, which were with fellow presidents and other experts on student mental health. I think on every campus, we see rates of depression and anxiety rising sharply. That reflects the broader U.S. community. So, yes, I think it is a major issue. And it’s one we do talk about a lot. I think that, to me, the real challenge is to understand why this is happening. And I think [the reasons] are multifaceted and deep. I do think that the good news is psychologists, sociologists and health experts all across the country are deeply engaged in trying to understand that. At Dartmouth, we are working hard to increase the resources available to students in terms of the number of actual counselors that we hire. I also would point out, the [Student] Wellness Center is preemptive — it’s trying to help equip students with coping skills and tools for resiliency. And then, of course, Dick’s House and the Counseling Center [are] reacting to situations when students are reaching out for help. So, we are definitely increasing the number of counselors, that hiring is underway, and we understand it to be a major issue among students.

What do you see as the biggest problems regarding the Greek System? What do you think the role of Greek life should be on campus?

PH: I would not lead with problems. I think that there’s a strong sense of stable, tight community that comes with Greek life. The ability of students to actually own their social interactions — it’s a longstanding part of what makes Dartmouth such a great place to be. I do think the Greek system, by and large, has really stepped up since Moving Dartmouth Forward, and [that helped] make this campus a safer place. I think they’ve instituted reforms on their own. And, of course, the few that didn’t come along were shut down. So, I view the Greek system as healthier than it was when I started. I think that there’s a lot of positives. They are part of the expectation on campus that we will have a safer, more equitable, more inclusive campus. We hold those expectations of every student organization, including Greek organizations.

How do you envision the future of Greek life at Dartmouth? Is there a vision for a balance between alternative social spaces and Greek houses? 

PH: Back to the house communities — one of the aspirations for the house communities is to provide another alternative for social interaction and community-building, one which is not gender-dominated in any way. It aspires to build connections between faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students — cross-generational community ties. [Another aspiration of the house communities is] to reduce the barriers between nighttime Dartmouth and daytime Dartmouth. So, in other words, have the academic and the residential lives of students be more seamless. That means injecting more intellectual considerations into the residential life of students. I’ve been to a few really extraordinary events in house communities where either visiting experts or visiting artists visited the house communities. 

So what I think is, coming back to your question, it has been a long-standing tradition at Dartmouth that students by and large run the social scene. And I think that’s a positive. I think that’s a good thing. It does come with expectations, of course, and responsibilities. As we were discussing, I think the Greek system has really stepped up in the last five or six years to become stronger. As for what the future lies, I think I’m going to throw it back to you. I think it lies with the students, and students need to figure out if they want to continue to organize their social scene. And if so, what is it going to look like? Our job is to say, “Here are the expectations. If you do that, that’s great, but here’s your responsibilities.”

The Campus Climate and Culture Initiative launched in January 2019 to “ensure that academic learning and research take place in an environment that is free from sexual harassment and the abuse of power.” In its first year and a half, how effective do you think C3I has been? How do you think the College can improve in terms of accomplishing the initiative’s goals?

PH: Good question. It’s a really important initiative. As you probably know, the way we structured the initiative follows the recommendations of a landmark study by the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine. They made a landmark study that not only laid out the prevalence of sexual misconduct and abuse of power dynamics in the Academy and generally in all your colleges and universities, but also made a number of recommendations of how to improve that. For colleges and universities, there were nine recommendations, and we incorporated all nine of them in the C3I, along with a few other things. I think, if you just look at the tangible outcomes in its first year and a half, they’ve really been quite remarkable. We’ve begun the departmental climate assessments. We have created a uniform policy and procedures for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct. Every faculty and staff member has taken Title IX training and training to increase sensitivity around power dynamics. We have a task force that has made further recommendations about how to ensure that there’s less opportunity for abuse of power dynamics. The Guarini School has instituted that every Ph.D student have a thesis committee instead of a single thesis advisor. A lot of very tangible things have occurred in a remarkably short period of time for our college and university campus.

You mentioned Title IX. According to our Title IX office, new Title IX rules require Dartmouth to narrow its existing definition of sexual harassment. What, if anything, do you think the College should do when federal rules may be at odds with our existing standards?

PH: We’re looking very carefully at what the new Title IX regulations are requiring. We will always follow the law — we are a lawful institution. But we believe that, in fact, most of the changes that are required actually fit within our existing procedures and practices. And we’re looking at those instances where that is not the case.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.