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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with first female College President Sian Leah Beilock

The Dartmouth sat down with Beilock to discuss her first impressions of Dartmouth and her thoughts on major issues affecting students.

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This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue.

College President Sian Leah Beilock is an award winning cognitive scientist whose research has explored the effects of stress on education. She served as president of Barnard College from 2017 to 2023. On June 12, Beilock succeeded former College President Phil Hanlon, becoming Dartmouth’s 19th President and the first woman to hold the position. 

How have your first impressions of the Dartmouth community influenced your goals for the coming year?

SLB: Well, it’s been really great to be at Dartmouth over the summer. I started the day of reunions. I got to hear from the Classes of 1963 and 1968, and then many more recent classes, and spend a lot of time with the sophomores who are on campus for sophomore summer. It’s just been great to be in listening mode — to learn about the College, the community and the culture. I think how you get to know an institution is by asking lots of questions. And I have really been on a listening tour.

Has what you have learned impacted how you’re going to lead in your first year?

SLB: Definitely. All the input I’m getting is shaping how I think we should think about Dartmouth — where it’s been in the past, and where it’s going in the future. But one thing that has really become clear is that Dartmouth is this very unique ecosystem. It’s four years, but then you have this amazing alumni connection for life. I’m excited to think about how we build on that — what it means to be part of Dartmouth from a first year student through your entire lifespan.

Let’s talk about mental health on campus. In 2021, in an effort to streamline its wellness resources, Dartmouth partnered with the JED Foundation — a nonprofit aimed at combating the mental health crisis in teens and young adults. Based on those findings, where is Dartmouth looking at to bolster its mental health resources?

SLB: I think it’s first important to step back and understand what the JED Foundation is and what it does. The JED Foundation is a national nonprofit organization that’s really designed to help colleges and universities across the country think about health and wellness for young people. And so partnering with the JED Foundation is just a first step in coming up with a strategic plan or plan for what will happen at Dartmouth. We are starting year three of the JED work, and you’ll see in the fall that we’re going to roll out a strategic plan around student mental health and wellness. One thing that the JED Foundation and the work so far has really underscored, though, is that this is not just a student issue. We have to have a healthy ecosystem of faculty, students and staff. And it’s one of the reasons that I’ve already announced that we’re going to have a chief health and wellness officer who sits on my senior team, who is thinking about health and wellness for students, faculty and staff across the campus.

Is there any specific goal that you can give us in terms of how Dartmouth is looking forward?

SLB: Initial things that we did were, for example, adding UWill teletherapy as another way to get counseling. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that there aren’t long waits if you are in crisis and need to get in to see someone at the Dick’s House or in the counseling center. And we’re going to have a number of other areas that we're going to roll out in the fall. We’ve been thinking about what this means as a plan together. And I think the key is that it’s not just in the classroom, it’s outside the classroom. So that goes to everything — from making sure we have social spaces where everyone feels like they belong to making sure that faculty and staff are trained as first responders and are thinking about student mental health. Thinking about our time away or medical leave policies, and how we ensure that even if students are away, that they’re connected to campus. All of these are things we’re going to be talking more about in the fall.

Let’s move on to Greek Life. 60% of undergraduates are affiliated, according to the Undergraduate Admissions Department. What are your thoughts on Greek Life as an institution and on the prospect of reform?

SLB: I had the opportunity to meet with Greek leaders a few weeks ago, which was really great — just to have an open and honest conversation. I think Greek Life is an important part of the community at Dartmouth, there’s no doubt about it, with 60% of students being part of it. But it means that we have to make sure that the College and the students are working to keep it as safe as possible. That involves, for example, all new and potential members now taking part in the Sexual Violence Prevention Programs. It involves thinking about how Greek Life can be most inclusive and also involves thinking about what it means to be part of Greek Life. When I met with the leaders, one of the things that I was really struck by was a young woman, who talked about the fact that Greek Life is one of her many identities: She’s captain of a dance group, and she does many other things. This idea of multiple identities is something that I talk about in my research. And so, I think we have to stop talking about Greek Life versus not-Greek Life and start talking about how we’re building ecosystems of community. Greek Life can be one, house systems could be another and all of the activities, athletics that students take part in can be others. 

For students who don’t want to be part of Greek Life, or who are looking for other opportunities, I think the onus is on the institution to help build those up. House communities are pretty new. They serve an important role for many students, while for others, they’re not working. So how do we think about that? And I think these are all important questions.

On June 29, the day the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, you wrote a letter to the Dartmouth community affirming the College's commitment to diversity. What can you share about the College’s position with regards to the decision and any steps the administration is taking with regards to diversity?

SLB: It’s interesting because everyone knew that the Supreme Court decision was coming for many months. And we were working to think about what our position would be, and how we would move forward knowing that the Supreme Court was likely going to come out striking down affirmative action. So as we responded quickly, we’ve been thinking long and hard about where we’re going here.

As I said in my letter, and I was very clear, people have different views about whether this decision was the right or wrong thing to do. And the goal of an institution is to create an opportunity to talk about those views. But what I also underscored in the letter are key principles that I think are important to Dartmouth and to higher education in general, which is that diversity of thought and lived experience leads to better outcomes. I actually like to research that. It’s something that I’ve looked at in my work — and something that is unwavering. And so, the question is, how do we work as an institution to make sure we have that diversity of thought and experience on campus? Part of that is financial aid, making sure that we can support our students. And we’ve done that by being need blind and meeting full need, not just for domestic students, but for international students. And part of that is also finding different ways to think about a student’s experiences. We actually have two new admissions questions this year: one asking students to talk about their lived experience, and one about all of the experiences they’ve had growing up that contribute to why they might be a great fit within the Dartmouth community.

That sounds similar to what the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision wrote, which was that although college admissions can’t consider race specifically, they can consider how race may have affected someone and their experiences that they share within their application. Is that the general idea behind those questions?

SLB: I think the idea, again, is to get the most information about a student and understand that students are more than one thing. They’re more than their race, they’re more than what sport they play, they’re more than their grades. And again, it’s getting at these multiple identities. To be very clear, we have no intention of breaking the law. And our goal is to abide by the decision. But I also believe in making sure that we have different kinds of people, with different beliefs and views on campus, and that they can push against each other. 

In July, researchers from Opportunity Insights published a study which detailed inequity in college admissions. The study found that children of the wealthy are disproportionately admitted to elite schools, including Dartmouth, when compared to equally qualified students from poor families. Does Dartmouth conduct what some in the media have labeled affirmative action for the wealthy?

SLB: Dartmouth does a holistic application process. We’re looking for students from a variety of backgrounds. We do consider, as one part of a student's application, their connection to the institution. We look at many different factors. Legacy — having a parent who has been an undergraduate at the institution — is considered along with many different factors in thinking about who will make up our class.

How much of a role should that play in determining who gets in? What role does legacy status play in terms of a student who arrives here on campus? 

SLB: It’s a really interesting question. People can have very different views about this. And it’s hard, right? I mean, we’re talking a lot about it. You know, I think that, again, as I’ve said before, the goal is to create the kind of diverse student body with different experiences and insights that allow people to push against each other, allow us to think in different ways. And there are lots of ways to do that. But thinking about one’s adversity growing up, to one’s connections to the institution and the historical relationship at times, are both aspects of that.

Students who have that connection bring something powerful in terms of their history and knowledge — students who don’t have that connection also bring very powerful things. The idea is that we're bringing different people to the table. One thing that I think is also important to note about legacy at Dartmouth is that in the Class of 2027, 30% of our legacies are students of color.

Finally, is there anything you would like to share that we haven’t covered in terms of where you see your presidency going?

SLB: I mean, it’s early days — just two months. What I can say is that I’m even more convinced than ever that Dartmouth is a really special place. The students, the community, this bond for life. And I think we have an opportunity — and really, we have a responsibility — to create the kind of leaders that will go out and have a positive impact on the world, and to create the kind of knowledge that’s going to make our nation and this world a better place.

The responses in this interview have been edited for length and clarity.