×

Editorial: Dartmouth’s Flush, but Its Reputation Is at Risk

  • Prospective Dartmouth College students are given a campus tour in Hanover, N.H., on October 7, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Friday, August 03, 2018

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon is an avid golfer and, by all accounts, a good one. That means he knows something about keeping his eye on the ball. And when you are not only an academic leader but also the chief executive officer of a multibillion-dollar institution with tens of thousands of stakeholders — students and their families, faculty members, administrative and support staff, alumni, the residents and businesses in the surrounding communities, to name just a few — keeping your eye on the ball means making sure, first and foremost, that the institution you lead is on a solid financial footing.

Judging from the information provided during a recent meeting with the Valley News editorial board, Hanlon appears to have accomplished that.

Now in his sixth year at the Dartmouth helm, Hanlon touted what he described as “historic levels of investment in our academic enterprise,” including $1.6 billion in contributions and pledges received so far toward the college’s $3 billion capital campaign — the largest such fundraising effort in Dartmouth’s history “by a mile,” he said. (The last capital campaign ended in 2010 and raised $1.3 billion.) He pointed to an ongoing effort to reallocate $20 million annually from administration and operations to support academics. He noted that the college was not prepared for the 2007-2008 economic downturn that eventually led to multiple rounds of layoffs, saddled his predecessor, Jim Yong Kim, with a $100 million budget shortfall, and helped blow a $564 million hole in the college’s endowment fund — a haircut of nearly 20 percent. In response, Hanlon said, when he arrived in 2013 he brought a new “rigor” to the budget process, including establishing a reserve to help bridge the inevitable next recession. In addition, when the college embarks on new capital projects, it seeks to endow not just building costs, but operating costs as well.

“This,” Hanlon told the editorial board, “is really a great moment for Dartmouth.”

Except.

Rosy though the financials may be, Dartmouth today faces a significant threat — not to its bottom line, at least not yet, but to its reputation. And this time it’s not drunken frat boys making national headlines by engaging in disgusting hazing rituals. This time, the members of the Dartmouth community facing allegations of misconduct are, or were, on the faculty. And, at least in some of these cases, it remains unclear whether Dartmouth responded as quickly as it should have.

Hanlon told the editorial board his administration “immediately took action” in the spring of 2017 when it learned of allegations of sexual misconduct concerning Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen and Bill Kelley, three professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. That action included placing Whalen and Kelley on paid leave (Heatherton was already on sabbatical when the allegations surfaced) and restricting their access to campus. Hanlon also appointed a steering committee to review the college’s policies on sexual misconduct.

However, the college did not acknowledge the administrative actions against the professors until that October, after posters wondering about the professors’ status appeared on campus and the student newspaper published a story. Further, Heatherton was the subject of a sexual misconduct complaint back in 2002 (long before Hanlon arrived on campus). Heatherton’s attorney has said the college investigated that allegation and determined the incident to have been “accidental and totally unintentional.” (All three professors have left Dartmouth. A criminal investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office continues.)

Then, Tuesday night, we learned that Dartmouth has placed nationally known health researcher Elliott Fisher, director of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and Adam Keller, the institute’s chief of strategy and operations, on administrative leave following a complaint about “conduct in the workplace.” The college has said this case is unrelated to that of the psychology professors, but few details about any of the allegations have been released, which simply breeds speculation and rumor.

The allegations against Heatherton, Whalen and Kelley were reported in national news outlets. Fisher has a much higher profile: His work exploring why health costs and outcomes vary widely from place to place helped shape the national debate over the Affordable Care Act. That means the allegations he and Keller now face — whatever their nature — and the progress of the investigation into them, are sure to be a news story for some time to come. And every story about them will no doubt note the allegations against Heatherton, Whalen and Kelley, and also will provide an opportunity to trot out other Dartmouth lowlights, such as Animal House and vomlets.

It’s a good thing that Dartmouth’s fiscal house appears to be in order because Phil Hanlon likely will be busy managing what has the potential to become a public relations nightmare. We appreciate the desire to protect the privacy of all involved, and we recognize there often are legal and other restrictions on what can be said and when. But it’s worth recalling the three commandments of crisis communications: Tell it first, tell it yourself and tell the truth.

Dartmouth’s reputation depends on it.