Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon Shares His Vision, Discusses College’s Future

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
West Lebanon — Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon introduced his vision for what the school he leads could become over the next decade by citing a high-tech-industry marketing adage: “You need to sell the benefits, not the features.”

Over the course of a 75-minute meeting Tuesday with Valley News editors and reporters, Hanlon talked expansively about both the benefits and features of Dartmouth’s future as an institution that “really needs to make its mark in the world through extreme quality.”

Hanlon, who was elaborating on previous speeches and official announcements, described his plans to add to the college’s offerings of “experiential learning” opportunities, expand the Thayer School of Engineering and spend about half of a recent $100 million anonymous gift to hire about 40 additional faculty members.

But Hanlon also pledged to rework a financial model that is “unsustainable and probably at the breaking point” and to hold back future tuition increases to no more than 1 percent above the rate of inflation as measured by employment cost indices. If the college and its peers failed to act after decades of tuition increases two or three points above the rate of inflation, he warned, “the government is going to step in and do it for us.”

Hanlon shrugged off the 14 percent decline in applications for Dartmouth’s incoming freshman class as “strange” and “more of a roller-coaster than a downer.” He acknowledged application volume as “something we’re going to be watching closely this year,” but pointed to various gains, including a “surge” in the enrollment rate among those accepted to the class of 2018, the entering class’ “very strong” academic credentials and an increase in African American and Latino students.

Hanlon said that two years of surveys of students who failed to apply to Dartmouth after submitting test scores or expressing initial interest showed that they didn’t apply because of doubts that they would be admitted, worries over perceived costs, feelings that they wouldn’t fit in or dislike of the location. Concerns about the social scene ranked fifth among the reasons cited for not enrolling, he said.

But problems with student life on the campus where he was once a member of the Alpha Delta fraternity and from which he graduated 37 years ago rank high on Hanlon’s list of issues to understand and address. Extreme and harmful behaviors seem to have been fueled by “access to unfiltered, unmediated content on the web,” including pornography, violent images and hate speech, he said.

Other factors contributing to worsening behavior include a rise in hard alcohol consumption and wider use of prescription drugs, sometimes in combination with alcohol, he said. Dartmouth’s rural and remote location probably isn’t a factor, he added, but “intensifies the reaction when something bad happens.”

And behavioral concerns extend far beyond Dartmouth, he said: “Extreme behavior and harmful behavior is a concern of every parent sending a kid to college anywhere.” The University of Michigan, where he was a mathematics professor and then provost, “was a party house school,” he said. Social life was centered on houses rented by students near the campus, where things were “very significantly out of control.”

Hanlon declined to comment on efforts by his predecessor, Jim Yong Kim, to persuade Hanover officials to temper enforcement of laws against underage drinking with measures to encourage students to report problems and seek counseling. Hanlon said he was scheduled to have breakfast this morning with Charlie Dennis, who was sworn in earlier this month as Hanover’s police chief.

Hanlon reiterated his support for the creation at Dartmouth of a “house system” similar to those in existence at a majority of Ivy League colleges. That system, in which undergraduates have a stable affiliation with a residence hall where faculty are present, is aimed at “creating a greater variety of social options on campus,” he said. Dartmouth could create houses in existing residence buildings or clusters of such buildings, but without their own dining facilities, he said. The cost of the undertaking is currently being assessed by architects who recently visited the campus.

Hanlon, who became president a year ago, took a stand on one potentially contentious question — whether Dartmouth should rebrand itself as a “university” — that he had ducked earlier in his term. “Our name is Dartmouth College,” he said, and went on to compare the college’s moniker to the traditional names that identify Boston College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology.

“They are all universities,” Hanlon said.

But he stressed that as Dartmouth enhances its standing as an institution “willing to take on world issues” it would not lose its focus on teaching undergraduates: “We’re the place that most strongly emphasizes and delivers on the education of leaders.”

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.

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