As his 10-year presidency ends, Hanlon celebrates Dartmouth’s academic strength

Phil Hanlon served as Dartmouth College’s 18th president from 2013 to 2023. Hanlon, photographed in his Parkhurst Hall office in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, June 5, 2023, will be succeeded by Sian Leah Beilock. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Phil Hanlon served as Dartmouth College’s 18th president from 2013 to 2023. Hanlon, photographed in his Parkhurst Hall office in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, June 5, 2023, will be succeeded by Sian Leah Beilock. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news — James M. Patterson

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon is stepping down from the post after ten years. Hanlon speaks during an interview with Alex Hanson of the Valley News in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon is stepping down from the post after ten years. Hanlon speaks during an interview with Alex Hanson of the Valley News in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

University of Michigan Provost Phillip Hanlon and his wife Gail Gentes greet interim Dartmouth President Carol Folt outside the president’s office at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 30, 2012. Hanlon will become the college’s next leader. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com

University of Michigan Provost Phillip Hanlon and his wife Gail Gentes greet interim Dartmouth President Carol Folt outside the president’s office at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 30, 2012. Hanlon will become the college’s next leader. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com Jennifer Hauck

Presidents Emeriti Jim Yong Kim, left, and James Wright pass on the Wentworth Bowl to Philip J. Hanlon,  Dartmouth's 18th president at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2013.  The bowl, which was given to the college at the second commencement in 1772, is handed down to each president of the college. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Presidents Emeriti Jim Yong Kim, left, and James Wright pass on the Wentworth Bowl to Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth's 18th president at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2013. The bowl, which was given to the college at the second commencement in 1772, is handed down to each president of the college. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Sarah Priestap

Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon walks off the stage at Moore Theater in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 29, 2015. Hanlon had just given a speech on Dartmouth Forward, the initiative to deal with risky behavior by the college's students.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com

Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon walks off the stage at Moore Theater in Hanover, N.H., on Jan. 29, 2015. Hanlon had just given a speech on Dartmouth Forward, the initiative to deal with risky behavior by the college's students.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com Jennifer Hauck

At left, Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon and his wife Gail Gentes watch and listen to head coach Belle Koclanes speak to the team before the opening tip-off of their game with Princeton in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 23, 2018. Princeton won, 79-67, clinching the regular season Ivy League title. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

At left, Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon and his wife Gail Gentes watch and listen to head coach Belle Koclanes speak to the team before the opening tip-off of their game with Princeton in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 23, 2018. Princeton won, 79-67, clinching the regular season Ivy League title. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2023 10:04 AM

HANOVER — This might be understating things, but brashness doesn’t seem to be part of Phil Hanlon’s game.

During a recent interview about his 10 years as Dartmouth College president, he consulted a manila folder containing a few pages of neatly type-written notes. While he spoke, his hand movements sent the gold buttons on the sleeves his blue blazer clattering into the table at irregular intervals.

This is the Phil Hanlon people talk about. The buttoned down academic whose modest, slightly awkward affect belies his effectiveness.

Maybe because his last day as president was only a week away, Hanlon made an uncharacteristically brash statement, not about himself, but about Dartmouth.

“The quality and impact of our core academic work has elevated more in the last 10 years than in any prior decade in the history of the college,” he said. “I really believe that.”

It’s a telling statement. Of all the events Hanlon has had to navigate over his decade at Dartmouth’s helm, and there have been a lot of them, this was at the core of his work.

Dartmouth’s strength sets up its next big point of tension, between an ambitious, action-oriented, global institution and its neighbors, some of them college employees and graduates who like Hanover’s small-town way of life.

If Dartmouth is going to continue to generate meaningful scholarship and send into the world graduates equipped to benefit humanity, one way to expand the college’s reach is to get larger. While there are no immediate plans to increase enrollment, it’s coming, Hanlon said.

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“I believe that a Dartmouth education is transformative. I had that gift myself,” Hanlon, a 1977 Dartmouth graduate, said. “I think we uniquely prepare graduates to lead lives of leadership and impact. And so the more students we graduate, the greater our impact is going to be of our educational work.” The trick, he added, is expanding without damaging the qualities that make Dartmouth unique. “So we need to make sure that it’s modest enough to maintain what’s really special here. I think that you will see that we will continue to grow.”

Big Green muscle

To look at Dartmouth at the end of Hanlon’s decade in charge is to see an institution that’s much stronger than it was when he took over.

A few examples:

■Dartmouth is completing a capital campaign that’s raised $3.7 billion and has seen more than 60% of its graduates participate.

■The endowment stood at $8.1 billion as of June 30, 2022. Though it lost about $400 million from its value the year before, it’s still far larger than it was the year before Hanlon arrived, $3.5 billion on June 30, 2012.

■When Hanlon arrived, a little under 50% of the students who were accepted to Dartmouth chose to attend. Now, that figure, known as the yield, is above 70%.

■Dartmouth has raised more than $500 million to invest in financial aid, enabling it to replace undergraduate loans with grants, to make admission for international students need-blind, to eliminate any contributions from families making less than $65,000, and to cover the extra costs of study abroad.

■The Arts and Sciences faculty has grown from 579 in 2012 to 640 in 2022, according to the Dartmouth Fact Book, which tracks employment numbers. (It’s worth noting that Dartmouth and its graduate schools had 1,075 faculty in 2012, compared to 945 in 2022. The reduction is attributable to the 2016 restructuring of the Geisel School of Medicine, which closed a $30 million budget gap, and a reduction in faculty spots at the Tuck School of Business.)

This is the kind of growth Hanlon envisioned when he addressed the faculty in November 2013 to lay out his vision for the college’s academic enterprise. He projected his vision out 10 years to describe a college focused on providing the best liberal arts education available and on ground-breaking research.

This is pretty standard stuff for Dartmouth presidents of the past few decades, all of whom have had to balance the strength of the undergraduate college with the need to expand research in order to draw in more funding and higher profile faculty.

Where Hanlon differed was in focusing on expanding the faculty around challenges that have real-world applications. Rather than hire, say, a biology professor to teach in the medical school, Dartmouth would hire a professor to teach in the William H. Neukom Academic Cluster in Computational Science. Under Hanlon, Dartmouth created 10 of these “academic clusters,” around such subjects as digital humanities, Arctic engineering, cybersecurity and treatments for cystic fibrosis. Funded by an initial anonymous gift of $100 million, the clusters have brought in additional gifts in the tens of millions.

Among the Ivies, Dartmouth has long been considered hard-charging, and Hanlon’s clusters, however amusingly named (clusters!), are more reflective of the college’s character than previous efforts to elevate its academic profile. Longtime Dartmouth watchers will recall President James O. Freedman’s call, in the late 1980s, to open the college to more “creative loners,” a term that sent the school’s clubby alumni into paroxysms of indignation.

“If I understand correctly, Jim Freedman’s vision was also about elevating academic excellence,” Hanlon said. “And I think the difference, to me, is that today we are elevating academic excellence in service of the world. And I think that’s the message that has resonated so well and so powerfully, especially across our alumni community.”

Hanlon’s ability to focus on the goals he set had a lot to do with the successes of the past 10 years.

“I think Phil had things that he wanted the institution to accomplish and he was able to keep his eye on those goals,” Dan Rockmore, a professor of mathematics and computer science who served as an associate dean for four years of Hanlon’s presidency, said in an interview. Hanlon is a mathematician, and Rockmore said it’s a hallmark of the mathematical mind to “get to the principles” and make sure the work revolves around them.

If Rockmore’s statement sounds a bit anodyne, he’s not alone in finding relatively little to criticize.

“I think in large measure he was quite successful,” Stan Colla, a Dartmouth and Tuck School of Business graduate who worked in development and alumni relations at the college for nearly two decades, said in an interview.

In particular, Colla cited both the success of the capital campaign, which raised 20% more than its $3 billion goal, and the way Dartmouth dealt with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not sure any school handled the pandemic better than Dartmouth did,” Colla, a Hanover resident, said.

He also praised Hanlon for bringing a sense of stability and internal control to the college after the three-year stint of his predecessor, Jim Yong Kim.

At the University of Michigan, where Hanlon served as provost before coming to Dartmouth, he was known for reining in spending. That has been key to his work in Hanover, too.

For example, he has kept the percentage of endowment funds the college distributes at or below 5% every year since fiscal year 2014. While the endowment’s growth has made it easier, containing spending with such a ready source of funding at hand requires discipline.

If Rockmore has a complaint, it’s a muted one. The college could do a better job of promoting the primacy of a liberal arts education. Hanlon’s belief in those virtues is such that he’s not likely to object.

The social arena

If there’s a place where Hanlon has struggled to shape the college, it’s in an arena where no Dartmouth leader has been able to claim rousing success: managing the college’s fractious social life.

In an interview published in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine at the end of 2016, Hanlon said that, “The last year in U.S. higher education was as tumultuous as any I have seen in my experience over the past 40 years — less because of excessive drinking, hazing or sexual assault and more because of the societal issues of race and freedoms of speech, expression and congregation that enflamed passions across the political spectrum on campuses around the country”

Amid the national debate, Dartmouth’s own social issues persist. Dartmouth is still regularly taken to task for its sexism, which ranges from sexual assault to the failure to grant tenure to female professors.

“There’s a long history, right, and Dartmouth has pretty much failed to address it,” Ruth Cserr, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate who now lives in Orford, said in an interview.

Cserr is a founder of Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, an organization created in the wake of an investigation into three professors in the department of psychological and brain sciences who were suspended and barred from campus in 2017. Two of them resigned and one retired in 2018 after an internal report into sexual misconduct called for stripping them of tenure and firing them.

Colla said he would have liked to see Dartmouth fire the three professors as a public statement. Both he and Cserr noted that Hanlon “inherited” that situation when he became president and didn’t fault him personally.

Dartmouth banned hard alcohol from campus in 2015 to try to reduce binge drinking. And the college created in 2016 a system of undergraduate houses, similar to those in place at Harvard and Yale, in an effort to provide some housing stability and diminish the influence of the fraternities on campus social life.

Those and other measures have yielded some progress, Hanlon said. Binge drinking and sexual assaults have declined, but any occurrence is too much, he said.

“Now, this is not, again, one of these things where you do it, and then you’re done,” Hanlon said. “We have to keep at this.”

In a way, his academic focus is meant to be the most energizing part of life at Dartmouth. In his 2013 address to the faculty, Hanlon said that attending Dartmouth was not about acquiring knowledge, which is now everywhere around us, thanks to information technology.

“What I am saying is that increasingly, our key value-added — the reason great students will choose to come to Dartmouth — has to be that we provide them with wisdom,” which consists of critical thinking and communication skills, literacy and numeracy and the ability to take calculated risks and work with all kinds of different people.

An emphasis on wisdom also sounds like what students are supposed to do at college: grow up.

Life in Hanover

With his term ending, Hanlon plans to take some time off for travel, but he and his wife, Gail Gentes, recently bought a house in Hanover. Since 2016, Gentes has been on the board of the Lebanon-based nonprofit WISE, which offers support for survivors of gender-based violence, and which has an office on campus.

Throughout his time as president, Hanlon has continued to teach in the mathematics department, and he plans to continue. He loves combinatorics, the specialized corner of mathematics that holds his attention, and he loves being around students.

“I firmly believe that our greatest impact in the world is through our graduates,” Hanlon said. “And so, the teaching we do is really the most important work we do on campus. And I want to be part of that.”

Throughout much of his presidency, Hanlon could seek the counsel of one of his predecessors, James Wright, who died in October. He said his successor, Sian Beilock, will be able to rely on him.

Staying in Hanover also will give Hanlon a front row seat for Dartmouth’s next wave of growth. On June 1, a Dartmouth graduate started circulating a petition among alumni against a proposal to build apartment-style housing for students on Lyme Road, near the Hanover public safety building.

“We are we are anxious to be a positive partner, and try to help the Upper Valley figure out how we’re going to, together, grapple with this housing shortage,” Hanlon said.

A disciplined, focused response, to the last.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.