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John Gregg: Dartmouth College’s President Driven by Data, Critical Thinking

During a visit with the Valley News editorial board last week, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon made clear that he is “passionate” — and knowledgeable — about higher education and the changes ahead.

The 1977 Dartmouth graduate, who went on to earn a doctorate from California Institute of Technology and serve as provost at University of Michigan, also made clear that he is a mathematician at heart who believes in the power of information technology as it helps, or threatens, to transform higher education.

“IT has just changed everything about the way we live our lives, and it’s in the process of changing higher education as well,” Hanlon said. “What’s happened is two things. One is we’ve developed amazing technologies to dig down to the finest components with great, amazing data sets, and then we’ve discovered that the real problems are integrative problems, that just understanding the finest components actually doesn’t tell you how complex phenomena works.”

Hanlon also went on to say that he believes in “transformational experiences that the students get, to train not only their critical thinking but their creative minds.”

And because the Web, and Massive Online Open Courses (known as Moocs), and other digital advances have made information so ubiquitous, that is changing what top universities and colleges will do, as well.

“I think we would all agree that nobody would pay tuition to get information anymore. Information has become a free public good,” Hanlon said. “What Moocs are telling us is that knowledge is on the cusp of becoming a free public good as well.

“It’s all become about wisdom,” which he defined as the skills needed to be successful in the real world.

Hanlon, who specializes academically in probability and a field known as combinatorics, sees all this as vindication for a core part of a classic Dartmouth education.

“What is interesting for Dartmouth and other places is that this is in some sense saying that the liberal arts are victorious, because the liberal arts have always been about generally applicable intellectual skills, rather than static knowledge and technical training,” he said.

But he also said technology will change teaching methods, noting that in the multi-variable calculus class he teaches in the fall, he can see which students have breezed through, and which have struggled, with their online homework, and focus on the concepts a lagging student might need.

“To me one of the very most exciting areas is analytics. As students do more and more of their work online, we can harvest more and more information about how they are progressing through their learning curve,” Hanlon said.

Although Hanlon was a member of the Alpha Delta fraternity at Dartmouth, he ducked a question about whether he would choose to join or live in a frat if he were a freshman at Dartmouth today.

“I don’t think I want to answer a hypothetical,” he said. “Gosh, who knows what goes through the minds of freshmen these days.”

But when pressed about how campus life is a concern for many parents these days, he replied, “I think that concerns about extreme behavior and harmful behavior is a concern of every parent sending a kid to college anywhere. It’s well documented that these kinds of behaviors, sadly, are going on in every college and university campus.”

And though he didn’t say so directly, he sought to place the emphasis back on his call in April for major changes in the social climate on Dartmouth’s campus.

“If I was a parent, here’s one thing I would say ... I would not be concerned if a college or university was talking about sexual assault and what they are doing about it. I would be concerned if they weren’t doing that,” Hanlon said.

Yesterday and Today

When NPR host Terry Gross recently pressed Hillary Clinton on whether her now-public support of gay marriage was a politically expedient shift, it brought to mind how Clinton handled a similar question during a visit to the Valley News in November 2007. Though she repeatedly said she supported civil unions and equality of benefits for gay couples, Clinton sidestepped a question back then about whether she considered gay marriage to be a civil right.

“Personally, I do not support gay marriage, but I do not object to states that pursue that,” Clinton said at the time. “It’s a personal position that I hold (because of) my personal feelings and experience, but I’m fully in support of civil unions and equality of benefits.”

Just days earlier, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama had visited the paper as the two battled it out for the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary. Though Obama at the time also supported civil unions but not gay marriage, he offered a more hopeful vision for the future.

“Let me put it this way. My belief is the country is going to evolve,” Obama said. “I think the country is evolving in a direction where all states will adapt civil unions that need to be recognized both at the state and federal level.”

That’s the sort of answer which explains why Obama appealed to more independents and Democrats in 2008 than did Clinton. The question now is what such voters will be looking for in 2016.