Q&A with outgoing Hanover town manager Julia Griffin

Griffin discussed her retirement and her experience serving the community for the last 25 years.

by Carly Retterer | 6/12/22 5:25am

Source: Courtesy of Julia Griffin

This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue. 

Hanover town manager Julia Griffin is set to retire this month, marking the end of her 25-year-long public service career, during which she oversaw the town of Hanover’s day-to-day operations, managed the town’s departments and ensured that departments were responsive to the needs of local citizens. The Dartmouth sat down with Griffin in May to discuss her upcoming retirement, her experiences as town manager through the COVID-19 pandemic and her advice for the Class of 2022. 

Hanover town manager Julia Griffin is set to retire this month, marking the end of her 25-year-long public service career, during which she oversaw the town of Hanover’s day-to-day operations, managed the town’s departments and ensured that they were responsive to the needs of local citizens. The Dartmouth sat down with Griffin in May to discuss her upcoming retirement, her experiences as town manager through the COVID-19 pandemic and her advice for the Class of 2022. 

How are you feeling about your retirement?

JG: I’m definitely ready to retire. I have so much to do between now and June that I can’t even see myself clearly being done. I like being busy, and I’m going to be busy right up until the end getting everything organized and ready. 

What have you learned working as the town manager for Hanover for the last 25 years, and from working with so many people in the Hanover community?

JG: Hanover is a city in town form. We are organized legally and politically as a town, but the College – the presence of a large academic institution – places service demands on this community that really propel it into a city with full service water and sewage and a fully staffed, 24-hour paramedic and ambulance service. This community has been able to do a lot because we have residents who are bright, well-educated, committed subject-matter experts and who are very motivated to focus on local issues. Whether that is sustainability or renewable energy, infrastructure improvements or creative programming, it’s just sort of a happening town, which makes it fun. And the main job as a manager is to prop that stuff up and support it with resources where they’re needed to help make good things happen. There are so many amazing projects and so many really amazing partners. Being town manager has  provided me the opportunity to do potentially important things for the community.

How do you think the relationship between the town of Hanover and Dartmouth has changed over the last 25 years?

JG: For many years, it was really a company town and there were deep connections between the College leadership and the community leadership. But that changed as we headed into the internet age because it gave people the ability to be more flexible about where they worked. That created the notion that you did not go to work at Dartmouth as a professional administrator for your whole life – you worked your way to Dartmouth and then worked your way over from Dartmouth to Harvard University or Columbia University or something. 

The administration that I first worked with, when I came in 1996, was very much that earlier generation. That changed completely when former President Jim Wright retired and Jim Yong Kim came in as president — but even before that, at the middle management level, we were starting to see more turnover. People would come to Dartmouth for a few years and then move on to somewhere else. Not having a long-term connection to the community really changes the level of engagement between senior leadership and residents in town, which can lead to some decisions made that are different than the old generation of Dartmouth leaders would make – for better or for worse. It’s changed the way we communicate and the kinds of things we worked on together. 

Can you talk a bit more about your experience in this leadership role since the Class of 2022 has arrived, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

JG: What a wild swing in your college experience for the Class of 2022 because of COVID-19. COVID-19 was the absolute: “We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” For every person we made unhappy by a decision we made over precautions, we made somebody else happy, and I have never in my career felt so much in the middle of it – people were upset. They were afraid of the virus, they were upset with the restrictions that we were implementing and there were gradations of anger and fear that spanned a wide range of issues. Because we were all operating in a knowledge vacuum and learning in real time by relying on the experts as to what was going on, we were trying to figure out how to weigh the best interests of the community as a whole, knowing that nowhere near everybody was going to be happy with whatever decision we made. On any given day, as we implemented the mask mandates, I had 30 emails expressing support and 30 emails saying, “How dare you?” 

At the town level, we were in the weeds trying to understand and unpack the emergency funding that was being made available to cities and towns through state management and through the federal government, what programs were fundable, what worked, what we could do and what we couldn’t do, what we could implement with the expenditure of those emergency funds. It was intense and scary. When I think about it right now, we’re more relaxed but we, all together, are traveling a really long passageway in the dark, and if everybody’s feeling stressed, anxious, angry, frustrated or relieved — or all of the above – join the club! We are all involved in this, and we tried to protect people who were all in the same boat. 

How did the pandemic change your priorities and role within the community?

JG: When I think about our own municipal operations, COVID-19 has been a game changer. It’s not just the virtual component, but it’s all levels: what we prioritize, how we communicate and how we interact. We also, as a community, saw a need to come to the aid of our school districts and we were also experiencing all the challenges the College was experiencing. I only saw a piece of the challenge, but it brought me into contact with students on a new level. During COVID-19, what I was dealing with from parents and students was much more emotional. I was dealing with frightened and angry students and worried parents. In many ways, it was more exhausting because it was less concrete, and we were sharing the same concerns. The class about to graduate experienced the full range of lockdown. From, “You better take stuff home with you now because you may not be coming back after spring break,” to having all your stuff packed up and stored somewhere, to a strict 2020, to a less strict 2021 to now. 

Do you have a particularly memorable piece of advice you received when you were graduating college?

JG: I graduated from Wesleyan University in 1979 and then went on to do two master’s degrees at Yale. I can’t trace any particular piece of advice, but my commitment to public service was very much built in my undergraduate experience. What impacted me the most was not, as I said, a specific piece of advice, but some amazing faculty members who just inspired in me a sense of commitment to change the world. In my case, back in 1975 to 1979, when I was in college, there were just huge pockets of starvation happening around the world. Thousands and thousands of people were starving to death, particularly small children mostly in Southeast Asia and North Africa. I was so overwhelmed by the notion that children could starve to death anywhere because of either political strife, or financial instability or climate impacts – whatever the cause of the famine was. There wasn’t a way to save these children. It was shocking to me. So taking courses focused on international development with faculty who were assessing the current situation, but then proposing solutions was eye opening for me. But it was during that early experience at Wesleyan where they told me, “You, too, can change the world, Julia. You and any one of you in this class can change the world. Here are some strategies for thinking about how you might go about doing that.”

What advice would you give the graduating Class of 2022? 

JG: I would say to Dartmouth students today that life is unfair on many levels. Don’t just go to your investment banking jobs and make a ton of money and drink beer on the weekends. Change the world. There are a lot of things you can be doing – focus on what you can be doing to mitigate the effects of climate change, or even just volunteering for a board of an organization where you end up living. Let’s say you’re working as an investment banker, but instead of drinking during the weekends, you’re volunteering for the local Boys and Girls Club as a treasurer of their board or whatever. There are so many things that Dartmouth students can and should be doing, and these organizations are so hungry for bright volunteers who are willing to roll up their shirt sleeves and help. What keeps this community running is the volunteers. I feel like we need a whole lot more people to roll up their shirt sleeves and say, “What can I do?” What I’ve loved about working in a community this size is that you can really dig in and work side by side with people you know for a long time to get things done. It’s very tangible what we can do. You can see the impact. 

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

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