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A Scholar and a Code-Breaker Who Is ‘Absolutely Devoted’ to Teaching

Phil Hanlon on campus at the University of Michigan. (Marci Curtis photograph)

Phil Hanlon on campus at the University of Michigan. (Marci Curtis photograph)

Ann Arbor, Mich. — For the University of Michigan’s mathematics department, the problem in need of solving is the same year to year: Coming up with enough teachers to instruct 1,800 students who want to take Calculus I.

“We have to push an army of students through freshman calculus,” said professor Daniel Burns.

As provost, Phil Hanlon is the university’s second in command, but when it comes time to carrying his load of the teaching duties in the math department, “he doesn’t pull rank,” said Don Lewis, the department’s retired chairman.

Hanlon, who will become Dartmouth College’s new president July 1, stopped teaching full-time a dozen years ago, but returns to Dennison Hall for the fall semester to teach introductory calculus to 32 University of Michigan students. The class runs from 8:30 to 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but Hanlon arrives before 8 to meet with students who drop by to talk about an assignment or whatever else is on their minds.

“I think there’s a lot of energy when you teach freshmen,” said Hanlon in a 2011 interview with the Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper. “I like the idea that you can have a lot of impact on a student’s academic career if you start with freshmen.”

Hanlon makes it a habit to attend weekly staff meetings with the math department’s graduate students and junior faculty — often the ones teaching the 60 sections of freshmen calculus. The 1,800 students take the final exam at the same time, and after they’ve finished, their teachers, Hanlon included, grade the exams together well into the night. He could beg off both tasks, but doesn’t.

“He’s absolutely devoted to every aspect of teaching,”said Mel Hochster, chairman of the mathematics department. “He leads by example.”

“When I think of my identity it’s as a teacher, educator and scholar,” Hanlon said. “That’s what I want to be known as.”

Hanlon’s research speciality is combinatorics, sometimes referred to as the science of counting. “Some of my research is in very abstract mathematics — what’s called algebraic combinatorics,” Hanlon told the Michigan Daily in 2011. “The more applied things that I’ve worked on are computational genetics and some theoretical computer science and … quite a bit of work on randomizing lists, which is equivalent to card shuffling. So I know a lot about card shuffling.”

Hanlon is also known for his work in the field of cryptography, the study of writing and solving secret codes. He served on the advisory board of the National Security Agency, the federal government’s largest employer of mathematicians, from 1994 to 2007. Many of his former students now work for the agency as code breakers, Lewis said.

Hanlon was among the department’s stars before moving into the administrative side of higher education, earning endowed positions for both research and teaching. (He isn’t the most well-known guy ever to walk the math department’s halls, though. A glass trophy case on campus includes a plaque that names the annual winners of the math department’s major awards. In 1967, the award for best thesis went to a graduate student named Theodore Kaczynski, who later became notorious as The Unabomber.)

The material that Hanlon covers in his Calculus I class hasn’t changed much in his 30 years of college teaching. But his method of teaching has.

The days of standing in front of the class and lecturing for 90 minutes are no more. With an 8:30 a.m. start, “many students would be snoozing halfway through the class,” Hanlon said.

Now he lectures for 15 minutes. After that, students break into groups of four, sitting at card tables to work on problems together. “It allows them to teach each other,” he said. “They draw energy from each other.”

During class, Hanlon walks around the room, answering and asking questions. “I can coach them,” he said. There is much more emphasis on students developing “collaborative skills,” he said

Higher education must adapt to meet the needs of its students, he said. “The work environment they’ll be entering is changing. The current workplace has much more volatility, complexity and uncertainty.”

Young people are joining smaller companies, or if they don’t mind taking risks, starting their own, he added. “The work force is also becoming much more diverse. Students must work effectively with people with different perspectives and backgrounds.”

Technology is changing the way that professors and students interact as well. Hanlon’s students do their homework online. “In the old days, I would go over problems in front of the whole class, he said. Now I can see them working on a problem (on-line) and direct my help to the students needing it.”

Hanlon compares what’s going on in higher education now with what happened decades ago in medicine. Hanlon’s father was a surgeon in upstate New York. If a patient complained of elbow pain, his dad could examine the joint with his hands and eyes. Then along came the MRI, which allows physicians to get an inside look.

“The practice of medicine has been enhanced by technology and I think that’s the way education is headed,” he said. For instance, the day is coming when students who run into difficulties on homework problems will be able to plug into automated tutorial systems that can provide them immediate help via video.

When Dartmouth trustees announced Hanlon’s hiring in late November, the faculty couldn’t have been more pleased, or relieved. Faculty seem to have taken a he’s-one-of-us attitude to the hiring.

One of the things he’s done at Michigan, which has 42,000 undergraduates, is “fought for smaller classes,” said Lewis, the retired math department chairman.

Burns, a Michigan math professor, said that faculty who assume that Hanlon will always side with them might be in for a surprise. “He’s someone who expects them to be teaching,” said Burns.

An issue that Hanlon will likely have to address early on as president is whether the college should change its name to Dartmouth University.

“I understand that trustees have discussed it,” Hanlon said in an interview with the Valley News.

What does he stand on a potential name change?

“As an institution it already functions as a university, but I would like to understand all the viewpoints before offering an opinion,” he said. “I need to learn more about the issue.”

Hanlon recognizes some alumni will resist the change on the grounds that it could foreshadow a de-emphasizing of undergraduate education. “I’m a total believer in the liberal arts,” Hanlon said.

“It’s the right kind of education to develop leaders who are flexible and open thinkers.”

From the day he was hired, Hanlon has said he plans to continue teaching during his time at Dartmouth.

“If the (math) department will have me,” he joked.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

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 …