Students express mixed reactions to news of College President Phil Hanlon’s retirement

Students weigh in on Hanlon’s legacy and qualities they hope to see in the College’s next president.

by Taylor Haber | 2/4/22 5:10am

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by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth

On Jan. 25, College President Phil Hanlon announced in a campus-wide email his intentions to retire in June 2023 after ten years at the helm of College administration. In the week since the announcement, students have expressed a wide range of opinions on Hanlon’s presidency and what they hope for in his successor.

Students diverged on what they viewed as Hanlon’s most enduring policies. Some, including Sovi Wellons ’24, said Hanlon’s legacy would be defined by his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wellons said that as a freshman learning virtually last school year, she only ever knew of Hanlon’s impact on her first-year experience through his pandemic email updates.

“I think he’ll definitely be remembered as the president who led the school during [COVID-19],” Wellons said, “That’s what I’ll remember him for.”

Krishnachandra Nair ’24, echoing Wellons’ sentiments, said Hanlon’s legacy will be “dominated by the [COVID-19] year and the way that he handled that,” labeling his pandemic policies, mental health policies and housing policies as “very negative.” 

Others, like Bernardo Burnes ’24, described Hanlon’s welcoming relationship with the student body as the defining feature of his legacy. 

“I personally don’t feel like [COVID-19]’s going to follow him that much,” Burnes said. “At least for me, I feel like his legacy is more in the things he did, like the cookouts he did in his lawn where you could personally meet him. I feel like that helped us see him as a human being.”

Anaïs Swift ’22 said Hanlon’s tenure was marked by “a series of administrative failures,” from what she’s seen in her four years as a student.

“The ways they’ve mishandled [COVID-19] policies; a lot of the ways in which they’ve mishandled microaggressions against students of color; the handling of students of color, in general; currently, their handling of the fact that dining workers are unionizing,” Swift said. “There’s just been a lot of things that feel like administrative mishaps, and so I think Dartmouth could use a leadership change.”

Swift added that while she views Hanlon as a figurehead for the administration, she praised his holding of office hours for students as “nice” and admired his work as a practicing professor during the school year. 

Jason Davis ’25 said he was “surprised” by the announcement of Hanlon’s retirement and commended Hanlon’s effort to connect with students on a personal level during his presidency.

“Typically, it feels like students are on one side — or on one level — and administration is just kind of up there, in their own little insular space where they don’t talk to students,” Davis said. “They don’t really care about students. But it kind of seems like Hanlon was trying to change that approach and interact with the students.”

A number of students did not have strong opinions on Hanlon’s legacy separate from the administration as a whole. Deep Dhanoa ’24 said he “could not clearly” identify how Hanlon made an impact on his college experience, but said that his time at Dartmouth has been shaped by the administration’s decisions.

“I can’t really differentiate his actions from the entire administration, but I feel like with [COVID-19], especially, I just have a very different experience of Dartmouth from upperclassmen,” Dhanoa said. “And for that, I can’t really pinpoint on Hanlon alone.” 

Krista Schemitsch ’24 also noted that she was unable to discern the difference between Hanlon’s decisions and those of the whole administration. She said that “their lack of concern for mental health resources” after the events of last year, when three first-year students — Beau DuBray ’24, Connor Tiffany ’24 and Elizabeth Reimer ’24 — died by suicide, leave work to be done by the next president.

“I don’t think anything groundbreaking was done, but I also don’t think anything was so negative that we can’t come back from it,” Schemitsch said. “I just hope that whoever takes his position does try to do more and make a more pronounced legacy than him –– not that he did anything horrible. But, if the next person does get to focus on mental health, that would definitely be a plus.”

Lily Easter ’25 criticized Hanlon’s creation of the house system, a residential program enacted in 2016. 

A part of Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative, the housing system transformed undergraduate residential life by assigning each student a set of dorms for their four years on campus. 

“I do not like it,” Easter said. “I don’t really have a lot of friends in my house, and I would love to room with some of my other friends, but I can’t because they’re not in my house. I don’t see any benefits to it.”

Sanjana Raj ’25 expressed acute concern for a lack of attention to diversity on campus, which she viewed as one of the administration’s failings since she arrived this fall.

“I think [Hanlon] tends to reiterate the idea of a call to diversity, and him being responsible for diversifying the school,” Raj said. “And that doesn’t really manifest into what classes are offered, or the way that faculty of color have been treated, to my knowledge.”

Raj said she “can’t imagine” that the next president will be vastly different from Hanlon in the way they direct the College. She added that she feels that the role of the president is designed in a way that attracts people seeking to preserve the legacy of the College, and thus those who, by definition, are not leaders of change.

“I don’t know what [the College] was like before [Hanlon], but I imagine it was very similar, in that to some degree, the person in this position will behave the same way and be the same type of person with the same priorities,” Raj said. “I think that someone at an elite college whose job is to fundraise and preserve whatever the tradition of the College is is going to keep doing those things.”

Adriana Chavira Ochoa ’24 echoed a call for diversity with the selection of the next president. Chavira Ochoa said she found the announcement of Hanlon’s departure to be “refreshing,” as it presents an opportunity for more representational leadership. 

“I’m a bit happy that he is [leaving], just because we need a younger leader to be leading our school –– someone with a new perspective,” Chavira Ochoa said. “We need someone that’s a woman leading, or someone of color.”

Nair said he applied to Dartmouth in large part because the College boasted a focus on its undergraduates, which few other institutions claim. Hanlon is the person Nair said he believes people will most blame for the College’s transitioning away from its attention on undergraduates.

“Hanlon’s really pushed the graduate school and the development of the graduate school, but I think at the cost of undergraduate learning in a lot of different areas,” Nair said. “And I think that’s losing what the core of Dartmouth is all about.”

However, in recent years, Hanlon’s policies have also positively impacted the student body by offering new research opportunities and opening academic buildings, he added. 

Carter Welch ’23 said the Call to Lead campaign, which has raised more than $3 billion, “set up a really strong financial base” for the College.

He said that Hanlon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has been “poor,” and added that the administration’s health and safety policy underscored some of the College’s failings over the past several years.

“So, in terms of legacy with how students interacted with the administration, I think [the pandemic] pushed students to ask for and demand more,”  Welch said. “And I think maybe we’ll be on the way to getting that with the new hire.”

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