Q&A with outgoing College President Phil Hanlon

President Hanlon reflects on his time leading the College as he prepares to step down in June 2023.

by Andrew Sasser | 1/27/22 5:20am

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by Jin Lee / The Dartmouth

College President Phil Hanlon graduated from Dartmouth in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics. After nearly three decades in teaching and administration at the University of Michigan, he returned to Hanover to take on his current role in 2013, serving as the 18th president of the College and as a professor in the mathematics department. More recently, Hanlon announced that he will step down as president in June 2023. The Dartmouth sat down with President Hanlon on Tuesday to discuss his time as president, including the Call to Lead campaign, the Moving Dartmouth Forward Initiative and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In your email to campus, you mentioned the “ten-year vision” you outlined in 2013. In your opinion, have you achieved that vision, and if not, what steps need to be taken to achieve it?

PH: The vision, if you look back at my address to the general faculty in November 2013, which is where I sort of articulated it for the first time, had three prongs. One was talent. Second was positioning Dartmouth to take on some of the most urgent global challenges. And third was enhancements to the student experience and investments in the student experience. I’m proud of the record in all three of those areas. If you look at the talent side, look at our undergraduate admissions yield. Yield is the fraction of students we admit who decide to come to Dartmouth, it’s our number one indicator of competitiveness, because when we admit students, so do Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University. Our yield has gone from 50% when I started to 73% this last year, a phenomenal growth. We become more global in our range. International students were 8% of our entering class when I started here, but we’ve increased that to 14%. First-gen students went from 9% to 15%. So that’s on the undergraduate side. We’ve also put in place some really outstanding postdoc programs to attract some of the brightest new PhDs — the Rosenwald fellows, the Society of Fellows, the early career fellowship — all of them are focused on recruiting some of the best new PhDs to our campus. Lastly, on the faculty side, we recruited and retained some amazing faculty. I’m particularly proud of the faculty that we have been able to recruit through the academic cluster initiative. Our faculty has gone from 17% faculty of color in 2015 to 24% today. Underlying all this is that we recognize that our focus on diversity helps us recruit the deepest talent base, and we need that to overcome any uneven opportunities. 

I also mentioned positioning Dartmouth to take on global challenges. The measure of any great university is its impact on the world. Impact comes in two ways. One is that we prepare our students to lead lives of leadership and impact. And second, we take on some of the great issues on our campus. We advance the frontiers of knowledge in ways that have had meaning to those problems. To do that, it’s necessary to create the kinds of centers and institutes which can actually help the campus take on the issues. As examples, we’ve created the Wright Center for the Study of Computation and Just Communities. Just this year, we launched the Initiative for Global Security at the Dickey Center and the Irving Institute for Energy and Society. We’ve also made big investments at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. One thing I would say that that is really important that makes these centers and institutes at Dartmouth unique is that undergraduates will be deeply involved in the work that they do. That's actually not true on many of our peer campuses, but it’s a unique attribute of Dartmouth. 

Lastly, there’s the enhancements and investments in the student experience. I’ll lead right off on financial aid. Financial aid is the single largest priority in our capital campaign at $500 million. And we are on our way to achieving that, which I’m really excited by. Along the way, we have  become need-blind for all student applicants. We put in place the funding so that students who need financial aid have the capacity to enjoy study abroads and the complete Dartmouth experience. The last piece yet to go is that we are looking to put in place the funding so that we can eliminate loans entirely from our financial aid packages. But beyond financial aid, we have expanded the First-Year Student Enrichment Program for first-generation low income students significantly. We have brought new resources to bear on the EE Just program for students of color in the STEM fields. We have invested heavily in outdoor programs, including the magnificent renovation of Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, and historic investments in athletics. We have raised $130 million in this campaign for athletics, and have built two new magnificent all season practice facilities and the boathouse. 

Those are just a few of the things, but those are the three major areas. Are we done? No, we are never done. We always want to do better. But we have made just amazing strides in all three of those areas.

During your tenure as president, you launched the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative, which included the new housing system, ban on hard alcohol and sexual misconduct changes, among other initiatives. In your mind, has Moving Dartmouth Forward been successful in achieving its goals of eliminating high risk behavior and increasing inclusivity?

PH: I think Moving Dartmouth Forward has made a big difference. Has it eliminated high risk behaviors? No, it certainly hasn’t eliminated them completely. But it has made a big step forward in reducing the number of high risk behaviors. One thing I would say is that it’s not just an initiative coming out of the administration that makes these things happen. It’s really the students who are actually doing the really hard work to make a safer and more inclusive social environment. Moving Dartmouth Forward helps provide some resources and some constraints. What I’m really proud of is the way Dartmouth students have stepped up. We have a much calmer and safer social environment than we did when I arrived in 2013. Part of achieving that was challenging and inviting student organizations to get on board, including Greek houses. I have immense admiration for the student body in the way that students have stepped up and realized that this was an important priority for the entire community. 

More recently, you have overseen the College through the COVID-19 pandemic and a transition to and from remote learning. How would you describe your experience in steering Dartmouth through the pandemic?

PH: As you’ve probably heard me say before, what’s really striking about the pandemic is that there was literally no playbook. Almost any other sort of challenge that I faced in higher education leadership, someone else has experienced that before. But in this case, no one had been through a pandemic — the last one was 100 years ago. That makes it a really unusual challenge. What has really been great this year is that we have vaccines, and our community is fully vaccinated. What that has allowed us to do this year is focus on the really important things of keeping the campus as open as possible, and keeping activities, including teaching, as much in person as possible. 

The pandemic has exposed insufficiencies in mental health resources with the rising number of mental health struggles. Students remain largely dissatisfied with the resources available on campus. What is next on this issue? Will mental health be a top priority for the next administration?

PH: Every college president that I know is deeply concerned about student mental health. There has been a rising number of cases of depression and anxiety in 14 to 24 year olds nationwide since 2012. As a result, we’ve made commitments to try to keep the campus as well and as safe as possible. These include increasing the size of the counseling staff by 50%, from 10 to 15 clinicians. In 2021, we received an anonymous donation to support the addition of three staff members with three year terms who will focus on suicide prevention. One person has been hired, and we are searching for the other positions right now. We’ve also created two new four-year positions to support the partnership with the JED Foundation. There’s also the JED partnership itself, which is going to offer us the best possible advice on how to keep the campus as well as possible.

The pandemic has also exposed insufficiencies in College infrastructure, particularly with regard to undergraduate and graduate housing. The College recently announced a potential location for apartment-style housing near Garipay Fields on Lyme road. However, dorm capacity has not expanded significantly since the construction of the McLaughlin cluster in the mid-2000s, despite growth in the student body. Why was new housing not a priority for your administration, and will it be for the next president?

PH: One of the things that speaks to the priorities over the last few years for the trustees and the administration is the infrastructure renewal fund, which was approved by the trustees last March. That is an additional half percent payout from the endowment that is directed toward the renovation and expansion of student housing. What that’s going to allow us to do over a period of years is to renovate all of our dorms, and in the process of renovating, we will expand them to the largest extent we possibly can. In addition, there is the graduate housing near [Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center], which will come online next fall. That is 500 beds. That is a major expansion of student housing that will have the benefit of freeing up some housing on the main campus for undergraduates. All of that is to say that increasing housing quality and quantity has in fact, been a priority over the last few years.

What are the biggest long term issues the College faces?

PH: In terms of long term issues, making sure that we remain competitive for talent and making sure we are having the largest impact we can through our academic work. Part of that is continuing to prioritize academic excellence. That’s certainly one area where there will always be challenges. We work in a very competitive environment and our competitor institutions are doing great things as well, so we can’t stand still. I think that while we have done an amazing amount of work to put the institution on a stronger financial footing, that will always be challenging because our core business, which is high quality residential education, is really expensive. It’s really expensive to house people, to feed them, to provide them the state-of-the-art facilities, the highest quality faculty to work with, and the kinds of extracurricular and co-curricular activities that are so much a part of the learning at Dartmouth. All those things are very costly. 

What are your plans after stepping down in June of 2023?

PH: Right now, I am laser focused on the next 16 months. There's important things coming up. We've got to complete the financial aid funding part of our campaign. There are important diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that are not fully funded yet. And we also have three really important anniversaries coming up this coming year, which I want to make sure we celebrate fully and completely with all the joy that they deserve. One is the 50th anniversary of the Native American studies program. One is the 50th anniversary of coeducation. And one is the 50th anniversary of the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association.

What will you miss most about being the president of the College?

PH: It’ll be the people, whether it is students, alumni, faculty or staff. I get so much satisfaction out of just interacting with these incredibly talented, passionate people, all of whom are committed to the College. That won't end completely when I step down, but it will be less intense once I am no longer president.

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