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Dartmouth College’s New President Settles In

Sunday, September 01, 2013
Hanover — After Phil Hanlon, and his wife, Gail Gentes, moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to their new home in Hanover, they sat down for a quiet dinner in Norwich with two new friends , Julia Griffin and her husband, John Steidel, who welcomed the couple on their first weekend in the Upper Valley.

The dinner table included two of the highest-profile people in Hanover: Griffin, the town manager, and Hanlon, the new president of Dartmouth College. But they didn’t talk town-gown issues. Instead, they talked about Ann Arbor, where Griffin’s family lives , New Hampshire politics , good hiking spots and the couple’s dogs, Mocha, a chocolate Lab, and Cassie, a yellow Lab.

“Talking to them, I felt like I was talking to Michiganders,” Griffin said. “I felt like I could have been in Ann Arbor. I just find them refreshingly warm and down to earth.”

Hanlon, a 1977 Dartmouth alumnus, won’t be inaugurated until Sept. 20, but his first day as Dartmouth president was June 10. During the past three months, Hanlon and his wife packed up their home in Ann Arbor, where they had lived for 27 years and raised three children, and moved into the three-story President’s House on Webster Avenue .

The two have been on a “campaign,” as Gentes called it, to meet as many students as they can. Hanlon estimated that they have met with more than 300 students, attending about 25 student functions and eating informal dinners at fraternity and sorority houses.

Hanlon has also held numerous office hours with students, and the couple have welcomed students to their home for dinner once a week, along with hosting a few breakfasts. The couple spent Friday night at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge having dinner with students.

“I think we both feel like we really want to listen to students,” Hanlon said Friday while sitting on a green couch in his office with his wife. “We want to hear about their experiences. They’ve been terrific to sit down with. They tend to bring ideas as well as questions.”

But it hasn’t been all listening. In his short time at Dartmouth, Hanlon has already had to make a tough decision. In August, he rescinded an offer to the Right Rev. James Tengatenga, the diocesan bishop of southern Malawi, to be the new dean of the Tucker Foundation. After Tengatenga’s appointment, he immediately came under fire from faculty and students for statements he made that sided with the Anglican Church’s views on homosexuality.

Tengatenga put out a statement in support of marriage equality, but students and faculty continued to criticize the appointment.

Hanlon said Friday he spent a lot of time listening to people before making the decision. He met with Tucker Foundation staff as well as members of the search committee who chose Tengatenga. And he met with Tengatenga in person in Hanover.

In the end, he said, Dartmouth’s support for gay rights is unequivocal and he made the decision he thought was in the best interests of the college.

“I am experienced enough to know that there will be a lot of decisions, and there will be no decision where everybody agrees, and that’s what makes it a difficult decision, right?” Hanlon said.

Hanlon’s days are usually jampacked with meetings, which is how he prefers it. He likes to be accessible and calls himself a great listener. After he was named president in November, he began making calls to alumni and faculty — more than 100 calls, by his estimate, to those two groups within a few months.

He’s read Dartmouth’s strategic plan and is beginning to think about the direction he’d like to see the college go.

But he’s not quite ready to lay out his vision . He’s begun proposing ideas to faculty, students and alumni, but he doesn’t think he’ll be equipped to talk about his plans until late fall or even spring.

“When it’s time for me to say, ‘OK, ... here is where I think we need to go and here’s why,’ I think that needs to be delivered in a single, logical comprehensive statement,” Hanlon said. “But what follows that are the actual programs that will implement that direction and those will come out, I’m sure, over time.”

As for Gentes, she has already had lunch and dinner with Susan DeBevoise Wright, the wife of the college’s former president, James Wright , and the two are working on a United Way campaign.

“I hear that Susan was a rock star,” Gentes said. “She did give me some advice, but mostly she’s just a cheerleader for me.”

At the University of Michigan, Gentes worked for 20 years in administrative roles and is now beginning to find her place at Dartmouth. In mid-August, she started as director of “action-based learning” — a position that is still being defined but which will involve giving students hands-on experience within the community. For instance, students might visit a local nonprofit organization, interact with staff and clients, and then write about their findings and possibly present what they’ve learned back to the organization.

This method is already being used on campus, but there is no central record of how faculty members employ it. Gentes’ first task will be to catalog the action-based learning happening at Dartmouth.

In their short time here, Hanlon and Gentes have spent much of their time outdoors. They’ve hiked Mount Cardigan, Gile Mountain and Mount Moosilauke, and they’ve found time to kayak and golf.

They’ve also been to area eateries, including King Arthur Flour, Lou’s Restaurant and the Canoe Club , where owner John Chapin said they made a good first impression.

“They are a wonderfully low-key, authentic breath of fresh air for Hanover,” Chapin said. “It was refreshing to see a lack of academic pretension on both their parts, even though they have academic credentials to beat the band.”

In his office at the University of Michigan, Hanlon had a plastic tree adorned with fake dollar bills. It was a gift from his staff. Earlier this year, when a Valley News reporter visited Hanlon in Michigan, his chief of staff said Hanlon’s office was the place people came when they were looking for money.

But Hanlon didn’t bring the money tree with him to Dartmouth.

“I believe I left that for the next provost,” Hanlon said with a laugh, “who will definitely need it.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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