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Dartmouth’s President Takes Stock of Reform Efforts

  • Presidents Emeriti Jim Yong Kim, left, and James Wright pass on the Wentworth Bowl to Philip J. Hanlon, Dartmouth's 18th president at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 20, 2013. The bowl, which was given to the college at the second commencement in 1772, is handed down to each president of the college. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

  • Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon speaks with members of Alpha Xi Delta sorority during a tour at his house in Hanover, N.H., on June 5, 2017. While sitting down for cookies, the group had a wide-ranging discussion of topics from career choices to student life on campus to the Kardashians. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. . (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon and his wife Gail Gentes give a house tour to members of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority, including from left, Rebecca Asoulin, of Santa Monica, Calif., Rachel DeChiara, of New York City, Mercedes de Guardiola, of New York City, and Ariel Klein, of Great Neck, N.Y., in Hanover, N.H., on June 5, 2017. They won the tour as part of a sorority fundraiser for the Special Needs Support Center in Lebanon. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon speaks to more than 30 protesters who occupied his office on campus in Hanover, N.H., on April 1, 2014. They were demanding a more detailed response on a student proposal to “eradicate systems of oppression” on campus. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2017 12:48:24 AM
Modified: 6/11/2017 12:48:24 AM

Hanover — If Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon were asked to sum up his term in office so far, he would liken it to the 1970s, a time when the institution underwent a series of dramatic changes that, despite the upheaval they generated at the time, now draw near universal praise.

During that decade, Dartmouth’s 13th president, John G. Kemeny, opened the school to women; introduced the “D-Plan,” the college’s unique quarter system; recommitted to recruiting and educating Native Americans; and encouraged the use of personal computers on campus, making Dartmouth one of the first institutions in the country to do so.

Kemeny — a co-inventor of the computer language BASIC who served as Dartmouth president from 1970 to 1981 — is something of an idol for Hanlon, who as an undergraduate took one of the Kemeny’s math classes, chose the subject as his major and went on to launch a career in it.

Hanlon mentions Kemeny, who died in 1992, often.

“He was a man I looked up to, one of my heroes,” Hanlon said during his 2013 inaugural address. “When all is said and done, Kemeny had it right,” he told his Class of 1977 colleagues during a 2015 reunion in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“Like Kemeny,” he exhorted the wider community in another 2015 speech, this one announcing Moving Dartmouth Forward, a slate of student-life reforms intended to curb risky behavior, “we must recognize a moment in time when change is necessary to reach our potential.”

“It was a time of amazing change and forward motion here,” Hanlon said of Kemeny’s era during an interview last week. “I think we’re at a similar time. We’re at a similar moment right now when the campus is really aspiring to great things.”

Sitting in his Parkhurst Hall office, the 62-year-old Hanlon ticked off a list of achievements from a sheet of paper on the conference table in front of him. After four years as president — his official anniversary is July 1 — there was a lot to talk about.

There was his faculty cluster hiring initiative, which is fully funded, he said, and for which recruitment is underway. There was the society of fellows, a group of early- and mid-career academics who are adding “incredible energy” to campus, he said in his quiet, earnest voice, still looking at the paper. There was the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, a campus incubator that is “generating a lot of energy and excitement”; the establishment of an independent graduate school; a “very ambitious” sustainability plan; a new, $160 million energy studies institute.

All of these things, he said, “they all come back to enhancing the heart and soul of Dartmouth, and breaking down the boundaries between Dartmouth and the world.”

Hanlon’s ambition may come as a surprise to those who had not met him but who had their eyes on the college as he arrived, in 2013.

“Who Is Phil Hanlon?” the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine asked, both rhetorically and not, in a profile of the incoming president that summer.

Readers learned about a “low-key” leader whose name had “seemed to come out of nowhere,” a man admired at his previous job as University of Michigan provost for “slaying budget dragons,” but who was better known among his Dartmouth Alpha Delta fraternity brothers 40 years ago as “Juan Carlos,” thanks to the resemblance between his mustache and that of the king of Spain.

“Oh, my goodness, are you kidding?” Bill Helman, departing chairman of the Dartmouth board of trustees, said when asked what had made Hanlon the best candidate. “It was completely obvious.”

Helman, who chaired the search committee that picked Hanlon, cited his “off-the-charts” qualifications — Hanlon graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth and also holds a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology — and said that “authentic” was a word he often had heard used to describe the quiet and unassuming math professor.

“Substance,” Helman said. “And that’s proven to be correct. He is high on substance. He knows what he’s doing. He is all about content. He is all about getting it done. About moving the academic needle. He wakes up every day with one singular focus: how to make Dartmouth better.”

‘Everything Is Possible’

Hanlon returned to his alma mater at a tumultuous time in its social history. In 2012, a sensational Rolling Stone article about fraternity hazing rocked the campus, spreading allegations far and wide of debauchery among young Ivy elites. In the spring of 2013, student demonstrators stormed the annual “Dimensions of Dartmouth” show for prospective college attendees, protesting what they perceived as the school’s unresponsiveness to rape on campus; an online backlash involving death threats led to a day of canceled classes. The following year, students staged a sit-in in Hanlon’s office, where they presented him with a list of scores of social-justice demands, including that the school hire more minority faculty.

On Jan. 29, 2015, Hanlon stepped onto the stage of the Moore Theater, in the college’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, to address a crowd of students, faculty, and alumni, who waited next to reporters from around the nation.

Dartmouth had endured years of bad publicity stemming from reports of student misbehavior — hazing, binge drinking, racist incidents, rape — and Hanlon was prepared to offer a solution that he said would “transform” student life.

Hard alcohol would be banned on campus, he said. There would be increased expectations for fraternities and sororities, who dominated the social scene and claimed the majority of eligible undergraduates as members. To foster other kinds of social connections, Dartmouth would institute a “house” system, based on the communities at Harvard and Yale, which in turn were lifted from those at Oxford and Cambridge.

Those were only some of many other reforms: more money would go toward diversity hiring among faculty, and a slate of other initiatives would combat sexual assault, including a “mandatory four-year sexual violence prevention and education program for students,” and a sexual consent handbook and smartphone app.

“Everything is possible for Dartmouth,” Hanlon said, “but our aspirations will never be realized if we fail to address a vital component: the environment in which our students live and learn.”

As Kemeny did with coeducation, Hanlon seemed to be saying, he, in 2015, recognized a moment when the school needed decisive social change — and he would be the one to make it happen.

Reactions to the reforms were mixed, but mostly positive, around campus and beyond. Some undergraduates and alumni expressed concern, however, that banning hard alcohol — defined as liquor above 30 proof — would simply push its use underground, where students might be less safe.

Others felt that Hanlon had missed, or underestimated, the significance of the moment.

At the time, “the prevailing opinion” among reform-minded faculty, staff and students “was that you need to kill the Greek system,” Susy Struble, a 1993 alumna with the group Dartmouth Change, said last week. Even now, she said, “They’re not really going for the jugular. They’re just working around the margins.”

‘Our Reputation’s Turned a Corner’

There have been some major changes to Greek life, all the same. Although it’s difficult to tie their departure directly to Moving Dartmouth Forward, two fraternities — Alpha Delta (Hanlon’s fraternity) and Sigma Alpha Epsilon (the subject of the Rolling Stone piece) — in the last two years were banned from campus.

Among students and alumni with a perspective different from Struble’s, the departure of those houses, along with restrictions on the activities and membership of “de-recognized” student organizations, raised fears of a campaign against fraternity culture.

Hanlon, for his part, also created an independent committee that is tasked with reviewing his reforms. In December, that group reported that Moving Dartmouth Forward was on track for implementation and that it next would begin assessing the program’s success.

In last week’s interview, Hanlon noted that Dartmouth already has seen some indicators of reputational improvement — especially in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of national universities.

After sinking over the years from ninth (in 2011) to a tie for 12th (in 2015), Dartmouth last year rose to 11th place. Looking at the ranking methodology, Hanlon identified two areas where Dartmouth had improved: reputation among guidance counselors and leaders of peer institutions.

“I think our reputation’s turned a corner,” he said. “I think the word’s out that great things are going on at Dartmouth.”

Dartmouth has, however, continued to fall in the U.S. News undergraduate teaching ranking, where in recent years it dropped from first place down to a three-way tie for seventh.

Although the independent committee’s assessment of Hanlon’s reforms has only just begun, many community members have developed their own views of the initiatives already.

The house system, which Hanlon predicts will be his most “transformative” change, does not yet appear to have earned students’ loyalty — despite a pull-out-all-the-stops rollout in September during which students were handed scarves and T-shirts with their house names, prompting many a Hogwarts reference.

“I’m not a big fan of the house system,” said Dogukan Yucel, a freshman who happened to be wearing a “South” house T-shirt as he ate dinner at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on a recent night. “I don’t think it’s successful in terms of bonding people together.”

Yucel, who goes by “Dodo,” said the house system had separated him from the friends he had made since this past September. Most of them had been assigned to other houses, which meant he couldn’t room with them, he said.

Perhaps because it has been in place only since September, the communal bonds promised by the house system have not yet materialized, he added. Students also said that some existing dormitories have been divided into different houses by floor, muddling the goal of establishing discrete, close-knit communities.

“When I meet an upperclassman, I know what fraternity they’re in,” Yucel said. “I don’t know what house they’re in.”

Over the past year or so, house common centers and new homes for house professors have sprung up around campus, occasionally drawing criticism for their price and appearance. The communal hall serving South and North Park houses, a building resembling a Quonset hut that stands next to the Alumni Gym, cost an estimated $1.7 million to build, according to town records.

Hanlon countered that it was far too soon to gauge the success of the house system, which had barely had time to have an effect. He also praised the work of Dean of the College Rebecca Biron, who led the initiative.

“These first five years we’re going to be learning a lot about what works and what works well,” he said of the implementation.

‘There’s More to Do’

Students on campus over the past month said hard alcohol remained available, both in fraternities and in dorm rooms, and some reiterated the concern that it could be dangerous in an “underground” setting where people using it are reluctant to call for help for fear of punishment.

Hanlon pointed out that numbers of “Good Samaritan” calls — that is, calls for medical assistance made on behalf of intoxicated students — had risen, according to internal data kept by Dartmouth. He said hospital transports were down in 2015-16.

“The hypothesis that people are not calling when help is needed does not withstand the scrutiny of the fact that ‘Good Sam’ calls are up,” he said, adding later, “Have we licked it? Is it totally solid? No, it’s not totally solid. There’s more to do, but the data — the data — is moving in the right direction for sure.”

Other administrators cited decreased reports of medical encounters for alcohol intoxication in the 2015-16 school year, the latest for which they had data available.

Although the college each year releases federally mandated safety data, including numbers of liquor law violations and sexual assault reports, the latest information there covers calendar year 2015, and school officials declined to release details from their upcoming report for 2016 before its scheduled dissemination this fall.

But some data from Hanover police — though they track the entire town, and not just on-campus calls — indicate a decline in reports of such behavior.

Whereas Hanover police catalogued 112 reports of liquor law violations in 2013, and 137 in 2014, they declined to 67 in 2015 before rallying to 93 last year. Thirty-five had been reported this year as of early June.

Similarly, reports of sexual assaults dropped from 21 in 2014 to 12 last year across Hanover, though 11 already had been logged through May.

Assessing the more general effect on the social scene at Dartmouth, where the majority of eligible students still are members of Greek-letter societies, was more difficult. Out of more than a dozen fraternity leaders contacted by the Valley News, none agreed to comment — nor did the heads of Dartmouth’s major Greek councils.

This spring saw a referendum of sorts on the Dartmouth fraternity system, where swarms of students came to Hanover Town Meeting, in May, to vote on a zoning initiative that would have given new autonomy to undergraduate societies and could have revived SAE and AD.

Although many male fraternity members campaigned in favor of the ultimately unsuccessful article, editorials in campus newspapers and activity on social media indicate that many female students at the time opposed giving more power and independence to social institutions dominated by men.

Ben Szuhaj, a sophomore cross-country runner and member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, said that new rules imposed on Greeks were sometimes draconian and hard to understand, which in turn led to a less open environment.

Fraternities, for example, must register with the college all organized parties at their houses. But the requirement creates a gray area leaving members unsure whether an informal invitation to a friend — or two, or three — might appear to administrators to constitute a more organized event.

“It prevents anything super crazy from going on,” Szuhaj said of the increased scrutiny, “but in terms of really keeping fraternities in check, I don’t think it’s working.”

Bashing ‘Banlon’

Szuhaj and many other students said Hanlon’s reputation had sunk among recent graduating classes. The members of the Class of 2016, he said, had been “really bitter about the changes” — as evinced, perhaps, in their participation rate to the senior class gift. From a high of 99 percent in 2010, the rate decreased to less than 40 percent.

Surveys conducted by The Dartmouth, the campus daily newspaper, indicated that roughly 60 percent of the 2016 graduating class had an unfavorable view of Hanlon — who on social media earned the nickname “Banlon” for the removal of hard alcohol and two fraternities from campus.

That rate was level among the Class of 2017, where 58 percent of students viewed the president unfavorably, compared with 22 percent favorably, the newspaper reported this weekend.

Alumni donations appear to have stayed relatively steady during Hanlon’s tenure, as shown by gifts to the Dartmouth College Fund, which goes to financial aid. The annual gift total has hovered around $50 million, rising to as much as $54.5 million during Hanlon’s first years but dipping to $50.9 million in fiscal year 2016.

Dartmouth spokespeople pointed out that overall gifts have risen during Hanlon’s term from the low $100 million range, in years before his arrival, to above $300 million annually during his tenure.

They declined to say, however, whether any of that money had been secured during the silent phase of Dartmouth’s capital campaign. That initiative, which has been in the works for years, now is scheduled for a public launch next spring, departing Dean of the Faculty Mike Mastanduno said at a recent faculty meeting.

Students also have been riled by campus discussions over race and exclusivity, which has both made the campus atmosphere tenser and often dragged in Hanlon as referee.

In addition to the 2013 Dimensions protests and the sit-in at Hanlon’s office, the campus in fall 2015 was roiled by a Black Lives Matter protest in Baker-Berry Library during which demonstrators chanted, “if we can’t study, you can’t study” and “f--- your comfort.” Although one top administrator appeared to apologize to the protesters for the coverage they received on conservative news outlets, Hanlon eventually condemned the use of racial language at the protest.

Szuhaj, the fraternity member, said he sees less passion for the school among current students. The anger over the changes has faded with the younger classes, but so has enthusiasm for Dartmouth, he said.

“I sort of feel like there’s this apathy, this ironic distance toward Dartmouth that students express through online memes,” he said, referring to a popular internet practice of sharing humorous images superimposed with text.

Szuhaj said part of that emotional distance came from a feeling of disconnection between students and administrative decisions that affect their daily lives. “There’s not a lot they can do about it. They’re just here to get good internships and go to Goldman Sachs, so why get worked up about it? And that’s just kind of sad.”

Hanlon in Tuesday’s interview said he was “too far away” from students’ and, more specifically, fraternity members’ social lives to see how they may have changed in recent years. What he did have available to judge the success of his reforms was data, he said.

‘Extraordinary Admissions’

Meanwhile, as Hanlon has addressed the college’s slide in U.S. News rankings, he also has contended with slippage in related indicators, especially numbers of overall applications to Dartmouth.

Earlier this year, that number dropped by 3.1 percent, even as it rose across the rest of the Ivy League, prompting speculation by some observers about the college’s reputation among high school seniors. Asked about the application numbers, Hanlon noted that Dartmouth had just hired a new director of admissions, Lee Coffin, formerly of Tufts University.

“What I’d say is just wait, because the extraordinary admissions that I just described,” Hanlon said, referring to statistics indicating that Dartmouth’s Class of 2021 — the largest ever — would have some of the highest academic credentials yet, “is in part due to our reputation and in part due to (Coffin’s) great work.”

Francine Block, an independent educational consultant based in Richboro, Pa., who serves on the board of the Higher Education Consultants Association, hypothesized that Dartmouth, the most rural Ivy, could be suffering from an increased tendency among high school seniors to choose urban schools.

Block, who recently attended a conference with counselor colleagues from around the nation, discounted the idea that the applications might reflect on Dartmouth’s reputation, given that the only comments she had heard about the school were positive ones relating to the quality of its latest class.

“Nobody is saying, ‘Did you hear what happened to Dartmouth?’ ” she said. “Nobody at all.”

At a public forum last month hosted by Helman, the departing trustee chairman, the most common question of all was directed at the very core of Dartmouth — at its identity as a liberal-arts institution, and at fears that, in fostering support for the school’s research and graduate programs, Hanlon and the college’s leaders were abandoning what made Dartmouth unique.

“We’re in the middle of some gale-force pressures that make liberal arts different in 2017 than it was when I was here in 1980,” Helman said in response to one of those queries, according to a recording of the meeting. “We need to be aware of that.”

Helman, a partner with the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, asked the audience to think of what the “customers” — the students — wanted. And that happened to be, more and more, courses that fall in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, or in pre-professional training.

“I don’t think we’ve lost a focus on the liberal arts,” he said. “I don’t believe that.”

‘A Communication Void’

Faculty members say Hanlon’s personal style isn’t helping in that regard, especially as it translates to relations with his fellow scholars.

“I think his relationship with the faculty of the arts and sciences has been rocky,” Deb Nichols, a professor of anthropology, said. “Some of it is the liberal arts, some of it has been lengthy discussions with regard to faculty compensation.”

Dartmouth, since the cutbacks and salary freezes of the financial crisis, has been falling behind its peers in terms of total pay offered to faculty — a trend the trustees said last year they would move to correct.

The average Dartmouth tenure-track educator in 2015 made about $15,000 less than the average Ivy League counterpart, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.

“I don’t want to say all we’re about is pay,” Nichols said, but “it took quite a push to get (Hanlon’s) attention to (the issue).”

Nichols added that the biggest problem stemming from faculty pay is that, because people often have to find outside job offers to leverage for a raise, sometimes they simply leave instead.

Despite offering praise for Hanlon initiatives such as the Society of Fellows and the faculty clusters, Nichols recalled past presidents, such as Jim Wright, whose term ended in 2009, being stronger advocates for faculty. “I don’t want my best faculty feeling like they can only get recognition if they want to leave,” she said, paraphrasing his view.

Andrew Samwick, a professor of economics who heads the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, said he believed fears over Dartmouth’s direction were more perception than reality: The school is preserving the liberal arts, he said.

“Yes, I think so,” he said, adding that this situation reminded him of a quote Joe Biden used to attribute to his father: “Don’t tell me what your priorities are; show me your budget and I’ll tell you what your priorities are.”

In the Department of Economics, for example, Dartmouth is hiring professors with strong research profiles who use undergraduates in their work, Samwick said.

“And they do so cheerfully,” he said. “That’s the same as it was, and in fact better today than it was in 1994 when I got here. We’re looking as good at Dartmouth as it always has been.”

Samwick and others said it was necessary to give “appropriate deference” to “how hard it is to be the leader at the top of the organization,” pointing out that Hanlon, as president of the entire institution, gets both the blame and the acclaim for nearly everything that happens there.

The Rockefeller Center director agreed, however, that Hanlon’s relationship with the faculty had had some rough spots, and he did have one quibble regarding the 18th president’s leadership.

“There is a bit of a communication void,” Samwick said, “in that what we don’t have in this moment like we had historically … is a really articulate and passionate spokesperson with ideas about how you maintain your status as the best of both worlds.”

What those who fear a deviation from Dartmouth’s liberal arts identity are perceiving, Samwick said, is that “being the best of both worlds is like being on a balance beam.”

“It takes a lot of energy,” he said. “It probably looks inefficient in terms of spending your money. It requires a champion at the top, and our president hasn’t found a way to conduct himself as that champion as, in recent memory, President (James) Freedman and President Wright did.”

Hanlon, for his part, said he mentions the broad-based education that Dartmouth offers — the school’s ability to “be the best of both worlds” in research and undergraduate education — all the time.

“I would say that my strong support for the liberal arts appears in virtually every address I give,” he said in the interview.

Hanlon would go on to say that liberal arts are “fundamental to what we do”; that the school’s holistic curriculum puts its graduates in “the best, absolutely the best” position in an ever-shifting world; that those students gain a “huge advantage” through “emotional intelligence,” “empathy” and an “understanding of how history informs the present.” He would note that during his tenure he has directed millions of discretional dollars toward the humanities, and that his faculty clusters have strengthened not only Dartmouth’s research capabilities but its commitment to undergraduate teaching.

But first — before that paean to the Dartmouth experience, to the liberal arts, to the life of the mind — first, he paused. When he spoke again, it was in the same near-murmur he had used for the past 40 minutes.

“I really believe it,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.

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