Editorial: Mending Dartmouth

Sunday, February 01, 2015
Could this be Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon’s “Nixon Goes to China” moment?

To be sure, the analogy that Hanlon had in mind in announcing his “Moving Dartmouth Forward” initiative last week was not with Nixon, but with one of his predecessors as Dartmouth president, John Kemeny, who presided over the college’s transition to co-education in 1972. In his speech Thursday, Hanlon described the admission of women as “without doubt the most significant change in our college’s history,” and went on to suggest that Dartmouth now faces an equally pivotal and potentially transformative moment as it grapples with changing the environment in which students live and learn in Hanover.

That long-standing problems with alcohol abuse and sexual assault at Dartmouth had to be addressed was already clear when Hanlon was appointed president in 2013. Turmoil and attendant negative publicity on these issues have undoubtedly tarnished the school’s reputation.

And just as Nixon’s impeccable anti-Communist credentials provided him with the political space to make his bold opening to China in 1972, Hanlon’s true-son-of-Dartmouth pedigree — he graduated in 1977 and was a member of Alpha Delta fraternity — just might give him the credibility to pull off the sweeping transformation of his alma-mater that he undertook Thursday, elements of which have long been resisted by some college constituencies.

Hanlon’s vision is one in which sexual assault and alcohol abuse are eradicated from campus; inclusivity is highly prized (some form of the word appeared 10 times in the speech); learning takes place around-the-clock, both in and outside the classroom; and students still play the predominant role in organizing the social scene, but with greater accountability and adult supervision.

The steps proposed to make this vision a reality were laid out, with greater and lesser degrees of specificity, in Hanlon’s speech and an accompanying implementation plan. Prominent among them:

∎ Establishing six residential colleges that will organize and host social and academic programs and provide a stable four-year campus “home” for each student. The idea is to promote social cohesion and continuity in living arrangements, as well as provide an alternative to fraternity and sorority social life.

∎ Banning hard liquor on campus in an effort to eliminate dangerous drinking and to combat sexual assault.

∎ Supplementing steps already taken to end sex assault by introducing a “comprehensive and mandatory” four-year sexual-violence prevention and education program for students.

∎ More vigorously recruiting students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, and seeking to increase diversity among the faculty.

∎ Mandating the Greek houses to make fundamental reforms to reduce “extreme behaviors” and if they don’t, revisiting the question of whether to ban them.

∎ Increasing faculty and staff engagement in all aspects of student life.

Just as notable, although perhaps not as widely noticed, was the suggestion that academics will become more challenging in coming years. The faculty will be asked “to consider a number of ways to increase the rigor of our curriculum — from curbing grade inflation to not canceling classes around celebration weekends, to earlier start times for classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.”

This is perhaps as close as the president came to heresy, given the college’s historic institutional pride in the undergraduate education it offers. But anecdotally at least, there is support among some faculty members for just this kind of infusion of academic aspiration into Dartmouth culture. Hanlon clearly grasps how the questions of academic and social life are inextricably intertwined for students, and how increased academic demands might address social issues.

Whatever else, Hanlon’s willingness to meet these issues head-on stands in welcome contrast to the caution with which his predecessor, Jim Yong Kim, circled around them. Maybe it’s just because he really does love the place.

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