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Hangin’ With Phil: At Michigan, Dartmouth’s Next President Cuts a High-Impact, Low-Profile Figure on Campus

  • University of Michigan Provost Phil Hanlon chats with students at the university student center in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 24.  Hanlon arrived early for the event about community service opportunities. Hanlon starts his new job as Dartmouth president on July 1. (Marci Curtis photograph)

    University of Michigan Provost Phil Hanlon chats with students at the university student center in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 24. Hanlon arrived early for the event about community service opportunities. Hanlon starts his new job as Dartmouth president on July 1. (Marci Curtis photograph)

  • University of Michigan Provost Phil Hanlon speaks at a Jan. 24 event. The Dartmouth alumnus will start as the college’s next president on July 1. (Marci Curtis photographs)

    University of Michigan Provost Phil Hanlon speaks at a Jan. 24 event. The Dartmouth alumnus will start as the college’s next president on July 1. (Marci Curtis photographs)

  • Provost Phil Hanlon shakes hands with an unidentified University of Michigan student during a Jan. 24 event. (Marci Curtis photograph)

    Provost Phil Hanlon shakes hands with an unidentified University of Michigan student during a Jan. 24 event. (Marci Curtis photograph)

  • University of Michigan Provost Phil Hanlon chats with students at the university student center in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 24.  Hanlon arrived early for the event about community service opportunities. Hanlon starts his new job as Dartmouth president on July 1. (Marci Curtis photograph)
  • University of Michigan Provost Phil Hanlon speaks at a Jan. 24 event. The Dartmouth alumnus will start as the college’s next president on July 1. (Marci Curtis photographs)
  • Provost Phil Hanlon shakes hands with an unidentified University of Michigan student during a Jan. 24 event. (Marci Curtis photograph)

Ann Arbor, Mich. — Phil Hanlon breezed into the Michigan Union at lunchtime, but paid no attention to the sandwiches, fresh fruit and brownies spread out on a table in the large meeting room.

Instead of grabbing a ham and cheese on a ciabatta roll, Hanlon headed straight for the University of Michigan students who sat in rows of chairs while juggling plates of food on their laps. Sixty students had come to hear pitches from nonprofit organizations, like Teach For America, about the merits of taking low-paying but rewarding jobs after graduation.

Hanlon, who had been asked to deliver opening remarks, showed up 20 minutes early to mingle one-on-one with students.

“Hi, I’m Phil Hanlon,” he said, extending a hand to junior Amanda Whitehouse. “I’m a professor of mathematics and provost here.”

But enough about him. “Where are you from?” Hanlon asked Whitehouse.

“Boston,” she replied.

“What brought you to Michigan?”

“The sciences,” she answered, “and football.”

Hanlon gave her a that-makes-all-the-sense-in-the-world nod. “Have you had a good experience here?” he asked.

“Definitely,” said Whitehouse.

After wishing the neurosciences major good luck, Hanlon moved down the row. “Hi, I’m Phil Hanlon,” he said, starting the introduction process over again.

Hanlon will soon leave the University of Michigan, where he has spent the last 27 years, to take the helm of Dartmouth College on July 1.

A lot will change, but one thing probably won’t. Chances are he won’t be going by President Hanlon or even Dr. Hanlon. He’ll still be Phil.

“I’ve never heard anyone call him anything else,” said his chief of staff, Stephanie Riegle, who has worked with Hanlon since 2005.

Dartmouth trustees would have been hard pressed to come up with a more unpretentious leader to replace the charismatic Jim Yong Kim, who resigned last year to become head of the World Bank. In fact, the contrast between the two could hardly be sharper. It’s almost as if the trustees selected the anti-Kim.

Hanlon, 57, drives a Prius. He and his wife, Gail Gentes, live in the same house that they bought upon arriving in Ann Arbor in 1986, and in which they raised their three children. According to city property records, the four-bedroom house, a five-minute drive from campus, has an estimated market value of $209,000, which probably says less about Michigan’s depressed housing market than Hanlon’s modest tastes.

Hanlon, who earns $509,000 a year, arguably holds one of the biggest public sector jobs in the state of Michigan. (But as a reminder that it’s still football and basketball crazy Michigan, it should be noted that Hanlon was paid less last year than the university’s athletic director.) As the chief academic and budget officer, Hanlon’s the No. 2 administrator at the state’s flagship school, long considered among the nation’s best universities — public or private.

He oversees the university’s $3 billion annual operating budget, a detail not lost on Michigan’s faculty, deans and vice presidents. On display in his office is a gift from his staff: a shimmering plastic tree adorned with fake bills. “This is where people come when they’re looking for money,” said Riegle.

A couple of years ago, Royster Harper, Michigan’s vice president of student affairs, made the trip to Hanlon’s corner office on the third floor of the Fleming Administration Building. The university was experiencing a sudden and alarming uptick in the number of students needing mental health counseling. The stress of midterm exams — combined with a lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and too many tailgate parties — was apparently taking its toll on a campus with 42,000 undergraduates.

Harper’s counselors were swamped. Students were waiting two weeks for appointments. Harper, who has worked at Michigan for a dozen years, went to Hanlon for “serious money” to upgrade and expand counseling services.

She wondered whether the bespectacled mathematician with the Welcome Back Kotter era mustache would be sympathetic.

“He’s pretty reserved looking,” Harper said. “I thought, ‘This guy is going to have a hard time understanding young people.’

“In my naiveness, I made all the wrong assumptions about him.”

Harper has found Hanlon, who spent more than a decade rising up through Michigan’s administrative ranks, to be a leader with a “head and a heart,” she said. “But you better not bring any b.s. when you go to meet with him. You have to make your case. If you do, he’s responsive.”

Harper recalled that Hanlon came up with about $250,000 to supplement the university’s mental health counseling services.

“You’ll hear me talk about fiscal discipline a lot,” said Hanlon in an interview with the Valley News in Ann Arbor. “If you’re going to be in a position to respond (to emergency requests like Harper’s) you need to have it.”

For much of the country, the financial meltdown didn’t hit until 2008. But Michigan ran into trouble much earlier. By the early 2000s, the state’s auto industry was already in the doldrums. The message to public universities from the state capital in Lansing was “you have to be changing the way you do business,” said Hanlon, who has had a hand in the school’s budgetary affairs since 2004, when he became associate provost.

In the last decade, the contribution from state taxpayers has fallen dramatically. (In 2002, the University of Michigan received $363 million in state appropriations. This year, it’s getting $273 million.)

“We have had to learn to operate more efficiently,” Hanlon said. “Colleges and universities move slowly, but they do move,”

In one of its biggest moves, the university, which has 35,000 employees, went to self-insurance for health care. It’s helped Michigan rack up re-occurring budget savings of $235 million a year.

Michigan has also taken a more conservative approach to managing its endowment than many of its peer institutions. (Michigan’s endowment, which in June 2012 stood at $7.7 billion, is the seventh largest among all U.S. universities, and more than double Dartmouth’s. But on a per student basis, it ranks only 112th nationally.)

During the stock market boom of the early 2000s, Michigan resisted the temptation to spend a larger share of its endowment. “Other schools thought we were being crazy,” Hanlon said.

Michigan tends not to distribute more than 4.25 percent of its endowment annually. (Last year, Dartmouth distributed 5.4 percent.)

When the Wall Street bubble burst in 2008, Michigan was in better shape to weather the storm. It didn’t have to resort to layoffs or salary freezes, Hanlon said. (Employees, however, are picking up a much larger share of health care costs in recent years. Since 2003, their share has jumped from 5 percent to 30 percent.)

“Given what the state has gone through, the general feeling is that we’re doing remarkably well,” said Charles Eisendrath, director of Michigan’s Knight-Wallace Fellow program for journalists, who has worked at the university since 1974.

Hanlon has been at the forefront of campuswide energy saving initiatives (water usage was at its lowest in seven years, according to a 2012 budget presentation) and space utilization measures. “He’s a numbers guy who focuses on ways to make the university as efficient as possible,” said Peter Shahin, news editor at the Michigan Daily who, along with other members of the student newspaper staff, sits down monthly with Hanlon to talk about university issues.

Michigan has also gotten serious about reining in spending on bricks and mortar. Ten years ago, Michigan’s square footage was growing at a rate of 2 percent annually. Now, it’s down to half a percent a year. The slowdown has enabled the university to avoid $460 million in new construction costs and an additional savings of $18 million a year in operating expenses.

Some initiatives seem fairly straightforward — on paper. But putting them into action is another story. Take classrooms, for instance. With both professors and students fond of three-day weekends, college campuses are notorious for having classrooms sitting empty on Fridays. At Michigan, Hanlon has pushed for more Friday classes and others outside the preferred 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot the rest of the week. In this case, he’s led by example, teaching a freshman calculus class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. (See story, page A7 .)

Hanlon’s value to the institution that he has devoted virtually his entire career to became clear three years ago. He had been the vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs since 2007. In early January 2010, Michigan Provost Teresa Sullivan announced that she would be leaving that summer to become president at the University of Virginia.

About the same time of Sullivan’s announcement, word spread around the Ann Arbor campus that Hanlon was a finalist for the provost position at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

University of Michigan regents didn’t want to risk losing Hanlon. They bypassed a national search — or really any search at all — and two weeks after Sullivan’s announcement, Hanlon was named provost. His starting salary of $470,000 was $104,000 more than Sullivan had earned in 2009.

It’s hard to argue that Hanlon doesn’t earn his pay. His daily schedule is a whirlwind of meetings and appearances, often beginning before 8 a.m. and sometimes going well into the night.

Mel Hochster, chairman of the mathematics department, said his best chance to talk with Hanlon is when they bump into each other on Sunday mornings at the supermarket. (In his household, Hanlon handles the weekly grocery shopping and cooking while his wife is in charge of cleaning.)

On a recent Thursday, Hanlon’s schedule featured a dozen appointments starting at 7:30 a.m. Shortly before noon, he left his office to walk next door to the Michigan Union, where he met with students and gave the opening remarks at the nonprofit job fair. When he returned to his office, Sharron Schmidt, his executive assistant, had a sandwich from Subway waiting on his desk. “He keeps a secret stash of granola bars in his office,” Schmidt said.

Hanlon’s afternoon schedule included a meeting with President Mary Sue Coleman to prep for a major donor’s upcoming visit. He also met with a candidate for a dean vacancy and stopped by a United Way fundraising event.

And what does he do for fun?

Once a week, Schmidt carves out time for a session with a personal trainer, which Hanlon augments with a couple of trips to the gym after work on his own. In the summer, there’s an occasional round of golf. A decent golfer who shoots in the high 80s and low 90s, Hanlon jokes that he was a much better player before becoming provost. In the summer, the Hanlons spend a couple of weeks at their second home on a golf course near Lake Michigan in the northern part of the state.

At the University of Michigan, athletics are a big part of the college scene. Michigan Stadium, known as the Big House, seats 110,000 football fans. As provost, Hanlon has his own suite at the stadium, where he entertains alums ­— often those with the ability to write large checks. (Hanlon said about 15 percent of his time is spent on fund raising.)

He’s also a regular at ice hockey and basketball games. On the recent Thursday, after leaving the United Way event, Hanlon and his wife headed for the Crisler Center, where the men’s basketball team, currently ranked No. 1 in the country, hosted Big Ten foe Purdue.

While regents and other big-wigs sat courtside, the Hanlons used their season tickets. The seats offer a view of center court, but are 30 rows above the action. For a couple of hours, Hanlon was just another fan singing the school fight song in the sold-out 12,963-seat arena.

John Beilein, the team’s coach for the last six seasons, said that Hanlon is more than just a fan. “Not many coaches can say they have a close relationship with their provost,” said Beilein. Hanlon calls him from time to time for lunch. “He wants to know what he can do to lend academic support to players, so they can succeed here,” said Beilein.

A few minutes after Michigan’s 68-53 victory, Hanlon pulled on his gloves and hat and slipped out into the cold night air with his wife, unnoticed.

Mention his name to a campus shuttle bus driver or a custodian picking up trash and the response is the same. “I have a no idea who that is,” said a bus driver.

The size of the campus, and Ann Arbor, itself, (the city has a population of about 115,000 people) has something to do with Hanlon’s ability to move about in relative obscurity. But it also speaks to his personality.

Hanlon is more substance than style.

“It’s never about Phil,” said Michigan Vice Provost Martha Pollack, a 1979 Dartmouth graduate. (Last week, Michigan announced that Pollack will take over for Hanlon, starting in May.)

Don Lewis was the chairman of Michigan’s math department who recruited Hanlon to Ann Arbor in the early 1980s Lewis, now retired, had heard about Hanlon from a former graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. Hanlon earned his doctorate there in 1981 and returned to teach at CalTech after two years as a instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At Michigan, Hanlon’s intellect and humble manner have made him popular with both students and faculty. “If the faculty had a vote, he’d be the president here,” said Lewis, who at 87 still drops by his office and the faculty lounge a couple of times a week.

As with the NFL quarterback who has never made it to the Super Bowl, the jury is still out on Hanlon in one area of his game: Is he capable of raising large sums of money, a necessity for any Ivy League president?

“I’m not sure he has the personality for it,” said Lewis.

But after going outside the Dartmouth family to hire Kim, who bolted after three years without the faculty shedding many tears, the college’s trustees might have figured that Hanlon was a safe pick.

“He comes down from the ivory tower and mingles with the regular people,” said Shahin, the Michigan Daily editor. “He will not say anything to embarrass the university, but he’s not going to inspire people to jump on grenades, either.”

Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellow program, added, “He’s not going to send anyone to the ramparts, but he’s very clear and concise. Phil doesn’t give a bad speech. He gives a careful speech.”

During closed-door interviews for the Dartmouth job, Hanlon was asked if he enjoyed public speaking. He indicated that the preferred talking to small groups where there can be “give and take.”

“Do you have any experience speaking in front of large groups,?” he was asked.

“I do graduation in front of 50,000 people at Michigan Stadium,” he replied.

It’s the same dry sense of humor that Hanlon was known for as a Dartmouth undergraduate some 35 years ago. The Dartmouth, the college’s student newspaper, recently wrote about the time that Hanlon penned a letter to the princess of Monaco asking for a date. It was a prank, of sorts. The paper staged a“Ding Letter Contest,” in which male students sought dates to the Winter Carnival ball. The princess’ social secretary informed Hanlon that she didn’t date young men who weren’t friends of her parents.

When it was brought up in recent interview, Hanlon just shrugged. “It’s true,” he said.

When a colleague saw an out-of-town photographer and reporter trailing Hanlon around campus, she asked him if he was going to appear in a future issue of People magazine. “Yes,” he quipped. “It’s for their sexiest man alive issue.”

Later in the interview, Hanlon addressed his low-key reputation. “I am who I am,” he said. “I don’t have a big ego. I certainly speak up when I think I have something to say, but I don’t have to be front and center all of the time.”

His lifestyle is about to change. He and his wife will be moving into the president’s mansion in Hanover, which he was unaware had undergone $3 million in renovations in 2010. He’ll be getting a hefty pay raise, too. Hanlon said he has a five-year contract, but wouldn’t disclose his annual salary. (In 2011, Kim received a total compensation package of nearly $1.1 million, according to public records.)

Hanlon and Gentes will almost certainly not go unrecognized in Hanover restaurants or at Dartmouth athletic events and theater performances. And if Hanlon does choose to continue doing his own grocery shopping on Sunday mornings, plenty of people will no doubt want to stop him in the aisles to bend his ear. “We’ll be much more the center of attention, but we love being engaged in the community,” he said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Riegle, his chief of staff, thinks Hanlon will embrace the change. “But he will always be the same guy,” she said.

The mathematician known around Ann Arbor as Phil.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@Valley.net or 603-727-3212.

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