Q&A with outgoing College President Phil Hanlon

Hanlon discussed his most memorable moments at the College, as well as what he hopes to accomplish this coming year before his retirement in June 2023.

by Adriana James-Rodil | 8/31/22 5:40am

Source: Courtesy of the Office of Communications

This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1977 with a degree in mathematics, Phil Hanlon returned to the College in 2013 to serve in his current role as president. Since 2013, Hanlon has led the College through initiatives including Moving Dartmouth Forward and the global disruption of COVID-19. The College has also achieved several goals that Hanlon set out early in his term, such as being elected to the Association of American Universities. The Dartmouth sat down with Hanlon to discuss how he believes the College has grown and changed since the start of his administration in 2013, and his goals for his last year as president.

After 10 years at the helm of the College administration, what are your initial thoughts and reactions about retiring in June of 2023?

PH: I think the first thing I’d say is that the last decade has been an historic decade for Dartmouth. If you look at the advances in our core academic mission of teaching, research and creative work, that academic advancement exceeds any prior decade in the College’s history by quite a bit. We are really leading in terms of academic excellence and in terms of the talent we’re bringing to campus, such as the admissions yield going from 50% to 73%, the increase in SAT averages, the recruitment of incredible faculty, our research expenditures have increased to become higher than 50% and our election to the AAU after 130 years of being the only Ivy League institution not in there. It’s just been an incredible decade of advancement, and I feel great about that. We really accomplished a lot together, and so that feels really good. 

You can go to other areas too, like our diversity, equity and inclusion steps that we took, our impact in the world because of our willingness to take on some of the great issues facing humankind and to put in place the kinds of centers and institutes we need to do that, and then our campus communities and student experience. And we have an awesome successor named Sian Beilock. We have a ton of momentum that she’ll build on. My hope is that, after 10 years, we’ll say that as great as this decade was in advancing our academic excellence, the next decade will be even better.

In your announcement about stepping down, you mentioned it was “the right time to pass the torch.” What prompted your retirement, and what are you looking forward to most in life after Dartmouth? 

PH: I had always said that 10 years was the right amount of time. I firmly believe that, after 10 years, it’s great to get new energy and new ideas. I’m looking forward to helping the College excel in any way that I can and watching all the great things that happen on campus. I’m also looking forward to more time for Gail, my wife, and I to enjoy the outdoors and live a less stressful and exciting life.

What were some of your initial goals when you took office? Have those goals been achieved? What obstacles did you face that may have hindered your progress?

PH: If you go back to my first speeches to the faculty, there was one on November 4, 2013, and then there was one to the arts and sciences faculty later in November. They together laid out a 10-year vision for the institution. It was in delivering those speeches that I started off and said, “Okay, let’s pretend it’s 10 years from now, and I am delivering the State of the College address to you, the faculty – what do I want to say about Dartmouth?”

I laid out a vision for what I wanted to achieve, and among those things was that Dartmouth would become a magnet for talent, that we would significantly improve our competitiveness for the best and brightest faculty, students and staff. It was also that people would say some of the best work in the world was being done at Dartmouth, and that we would improve some of the things that have held us back in the past. In particular, when I started in 2013, high-risk behaviors in the student social scene were really holding us back. We needed to be more disciplined about resources, financial resources and budgeting, and we needed to do a much better job in raising external funding. I think we’ve advanced on all of those fronts.

Since taking on the role of president, what have been your most memorable moments at the College — both good and bad — that may have sparked a change to College policy or prompted a new project? And what are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?

PH: I think — without a doubt — the most difficult challenge was COVID-19. With most challenges that you face in leading higher educational institutions, that challenge has been seen before, and there are people that you can ask for advice who have been through it. You can learn from them; you’ve probably been through it yourself if you’re an experienced leader. COVID-19 was different. No one alive today had been through anything like that before. We knew so little at the start. We knew that it was highly contagious. We knew that it was lethal in many cases. During that first year, especially, we really were operating with very little understanding. Vaccines changed everything, so the last year we were able to be wide open, in person with everything and have some assurance that there would be very little risk of serious illness. 

I think, on the positive side, the 250th year celebration of the College in 2018 was just awesome because of the way the community gathered together around this milestone event and at some of the events we put on, like Greenlighting Day, when places across the world lit up green. That was really an uplifting reminder of why Dartmouth is so special.

The College announced at the end of July that Sian Leah Beilock will be the 19th president of the College. What will you be passing along to Beilock that you hope she will improve upon? What are your hopes for the future of the College?

PH: Sian is the terrific choice to be the next president. She’s a very accomplished academic. She does fantastic research in psychology and cognitive science. She’s been at great academic institutions, such as the University of Chicago and Barnard College, so she is very seasoned. She’s dynamic. She is very smart. She’s going to figure out what her vision is, and what direction we’ll go from here. I do hope to work with her closely over the next 10 months or so on helping her understand Dartmouth and learn about the institution because, when you come in from the outside, there is always much to learn.

As the last class under your presidency arrives at Dartmouth, what advice do you have for  the incoming Class of 2026?

PH: I would say to them: Embrace everything Dartmouth has to offer. It’s a liberal arts classroom experience, but it’s a heck of a lot more than that. There’s a unique way in which this North Woods setting shapes the Dartmouth experience, so get out and enjoy the outdoors. If you’re coming from a warm climate, get into winter sports and try it out. The outdoors is just one aspect of the amazing amount of learning that goes on outside of the classroom —  through student organizations, through athletics, through performance, through the Center for Social Impact, through the Magnuson Center, The Aegis and so many other activities to get involved in. Dive into all of that.

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

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