This article is featured in the 2023 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
As Sian Leah Beilock prepares to assume her new role as the 19th President of the College on June 12, The Dartmouth sat down with outgoing President Philip J. Hanlon to discuss his achievements and what he is looking forward to in the future.
What three words do you feel best describe your tenure and why?
PH: I think “exciting,” “ambitious” and “community.” Exciting just because we have really accomplished so much over the last 10 years. The quality and impact of our academic work, our teaching and our research on campus have elevated more in the last 10 years than any other decade in the history of the College. One thing that’s really fueled this transformation has been our admitted student yield, which is our key measure of competitiveness. When I arrived, and for decades before I arrived, the yield was about 50%. It has risen over the last eight years to over 70% this year. The quality of students who are deciding to enroll here is phenomenal and just getting better every year.
Also, in our most recent senior survey, 88% and 96% of graduating seniors were satisfied or very satisfied with their undergraduate experience and quality of teaching, respectively. These numbers outdistance those of our Ivy peers. That leads me to believe that we’re not only getting great students, but we’re providing them with a great education, which is preparing them to go out and live lives of leadership and impact.
The ambitious part is about getting great talent to campus. I was just talking about bringing really great student talent to campus, but we’ve done the same on the faculty side. In the last 10 years, we have recruited and retained real rock stars on our faculty. And not only are they rock stars, they’re committed to the undergraduate education of students, as indicated by the satisfaction levels I just read to you. We’re not only recruiting great research faculty, they’re throwing themselves into their teaching, which is what we expect at Dartmouth.
What are your plans for your retirement, and what are you most excited for?
PH: The first thing is that I’m retiring as President, but I’m not retiring from the faculty. So I have a year’s sabbatical, and my wife Gail and I are going to travel, and I’ll start doing some more math research. Our first stop next fall is Oxford, England. I have a position at Merton College at the University of Oxford. And then we are working together with a couple of my longtime collaborators at the University of Miami in the winter and spring. So next year is a good chance for Gail and I to spend more time together at a slower pace. Then, we’re gonna land back here, and I’m going to teach for a few more years.
Do you have a favorite Dartmouth memory you would like to share, either from your time as an undergraduate or as president?
PH: There are so many really good times. From my time as a student, it would have been the first success I had in undergraduate research. I did a bunch of undergraduate research when I was here and wrote three papers that were eventually published. I can still remember the first time I discovered something — you’re seeing something no one else has ever seen, which is just amazing, it’s an amazing feeling. It must be the feeling explorers had way back in the day, and it’s so much fun.
From my time as President, there have been so many memorable moments. I think the 250th anniversary celebration in 2019 was an amazing year of events. Amongst all those events, the one that stands out most distinctly is the reenactment of the Daniel Webster case at the Supreme Court with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding. That was just so filled with history, and what I really have come to appreciate is that Dartmouth is filled with history and tradition. Especially during the last 10 years, we’ve not been a backward looking institution. We’ve been a forward looking institution, and we’ve really thought about how we can make a difference in the world.
As President, you’ve continued to teach undergraduate math courses. Why did you decide to continue teaching, and did you feel that your role as President influenced your educational philosophy?
PH: I taught my 10th class this last term, MATH 28, “Introduction to Combinatorics.” The answer to your question is pretty simple. I feel like the teaching we do on campus is the most important work we do, and I want to be part of it. MATH 28 was probably the best class I’ve taught in my entire career. It is the class which inspired me to be a mathematician all those years ago. I took MATH 28 at Dartmouth, and I was in love with the topic, and I still am. It was so neat to teach it last term because I just think it’s so beautiful. And I had 41 incredibly talented students.
You know, has my time as President influenced teaching? Probably not so much. The math is still the math that I knew and loved from when I was a student here and then a professor going forward. And I did my last final office hour yesterday. I’ve done over 300 office hours in the last 10 years. And yesterday was great, we had a steady flow of people through.
What is a place you consider special to you around campus?
PH: I’ll give you a couple. One is Pine Park, just because I love the outdoors, and it’s so peaceful down by the river. It just reminds me of the sense of place, which is so important here. Another one is the tower room at Baker-Berry Library, just because I spent so many hours there. And it’s such a peaceful place, and it looks out over the bustle of the Green, which indicates to me the real energy of this place. The last place I think is really special is a newer place, the Irving Institute. Just because coming back to your original question, “ambition” was one of the words I said, and it’s because I think that we have committed ourselves to solving some of the world's great challenges. The Irving Institute is symbolic of Dartmouth saying, ‘we’re going to make a difference,’ meeting the energy demands of the future in a way that sustains the planet — one of the great challenges facing humankind. And that’s what the Irving Institute’s all about — gathering all of the assets, the students, the faculty from across disciplines together to try to make a difference.
What was one of your proudest moments over your past 10 years as President?
PH: It was the moment that we had completed our financial aid goals in the campaign. Within a year’s time, we eliminated family contributions from families making less than $65,000 a year. We put in place an endowment to cover the costs of study abroad for students on financial aid. We secured the gifts to allow us to be need-blind for international students and to eliminate loans entirely from our financial aid packages. The moment that I learned we had finished all four of those was probably one of my proudest moments. A Dartmouth education is a gift. It's a gift that I had. And we want to make sure it’s available to any student, regardless of their financial circumstances.
What has been the greatest challenge facing Dartmouth during your tenure?
PH: I think the most challenging moments for any academic community are when you lose a student or faculty member. We’ve probably had 30 student deaths during my 10 years as President, which are just the most gut wrenching, difficult times for any campus. They’ve been for a whole variety of causes, but no matter the cause, when you lose a friend and someone who is so full of promise and just starting their lives, it’s really hard.
What will you miss the most about your time here?
PH: As President, you have the real privilege to meet so many members of the extended Dartmouth family — students, faculty and staff on campus, of course, but also our alumni and parent communities. And you get to really meet and learn about how incredibly accomplished all of them are. Dartmouth is, at the end of the day, a very tight-knit community. So that’s the third word I’ve brought up, from your first question: “community.” The alumni, they don’t leave and just go off and live their lives, they stay attached to the institution, and they care about the institution. As President, you get to feel that directly. I’ll still be here in the faculty and spend time with students and our faculty, colleagues and staff, but I’ll probably miss seeing alumni and parents, because they’re really an amazing group of people.
If you could give one piece of advice to incoming College President Sian Beilock, what would it be?
PH: Let me just begin by saying that President Beilock is highly accomplished and really experienced, and I’m always happy to give her my advice when she wants it. But she is totally capable and can do things superbly on her own. But, if I was going to tell her one thing about Dartmouth, I’d emphasize the importance of being authentic. Dartmouth is a small place. Everybody knows everything, right? So you can’t fake it at all at Dartmouth. You’ve just got to be yourself and be authentic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.