Interview With Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon (PhD ’81)

In the winter issue of E&S, we interviewed six Caltech alumni leaders in higher education. Here is the full, unedited interview with Phil Hanlon (PhD ’81), president of Dartmouth.

We saw that one of your top priorities has been to be "a magnet for talent," attracting high quality students and faculty. Could you tell us a little bit more about what this priority means for Dartmouth—and what specifically you've done to address this priority?

Certainly, seeing Dartmouth become a magnet for the world’s most talented students and faculty is an ambition, a key ambition even, but it’s part and parcel of a much broader vision for the years ahead – a vision in which this “magnetic force” is simply a byproduct of the exciting work going on here.

The underlying message I try to spread is that I want Dartmouth to think big and act boldly.  I want our entire community of students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents to envision how Dartmouth might change the world in the years ahead.  In any effort we embrace, by any measure, this will require bold ideas, risk-taking, and pushing the boundaries of traditional disciplines.  To ramp-up the intellectual energy that will generate the kind of magnetic force for talent you reference, this will require work on two fronts: our education mission, and our scholarship – both areas where Dartmouth already excels, but where we can do even better with the right focus.

For instance, in our education mission, which is our heritage and the bedrock of everything we do at Dartmouth, we are responding to the myriad and rapid changes in higher education by increasing our focus on providing our students with wisdom above all.  Increasingly, information, even knowledge – the ability to put information into context – is becoming a public good, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.  Online universities provide much greater structure to this blizzard of information, but at the end of the day, imparting wisdom – the ability to take all you’ve learned in a broad variety of disciplines, contextualize it and use this knowledge to lead and create new knowledge – this is the key value added by the university.  And wisdom isn’t something that comes easily – it takes concerted effort on the part of students and teachers in innovative learning opportunities.

At Dartmouth, we believe the best way to impart wisdom is through experiential, active learning – learning by doing.  Students and faculty engaged in real-world problem solving.  And this can look like many different things in many different venues: it might be a student working late into the night in a lab on an innovative cancer treatment; or under the bright lights of a performance stage presenting an original work; perhaps students in Africa helping a tribe better position its produce in the economic value chain; or out on an ice cap documenting glacier retreat – the list could quite literally go on and on.  Students positively come alive in these situations; it’s in this space where their academic preparation reaches critical mass and allows them to have an impact on the world around them.

Experiential learning is something that has always been evident on our campus, but in an unfocussed way.  Our goal is to bring focus to this and to really turn Dartmouth into the campus where students come to think big and innovate.  So expanding our experiential learning opportunities will be the key to doing this.

On the faculty side of the equation, in terms of taking our scholarship to the next level, a strategy that is building excitement and momentum is our faculty cluster hiring initiative.

We’re seeking to hire new faculty and combine them with existing faculty around a select number of structured areas where Dartmouth stands to make a profound impact in the world. And this is in play currently, because we’re committed to choose these areas wisely.  As president, I can’t direct this from the top down; it has to come from the faculty.  We’re studying several great proposals right now, and I’m excited by the discussion.  For instance, Dartmouth has an amazing group of scholars unlocking how the brain works.  International relations is another high-stakes area where we have a tremendous group of scholars.  Dartmouth scholars are already at the forefront of determining how we can design effective health care delivery systems and literally help shape national policy around health care.  And these are just a few examples.

But already, the initiative has energized our alumni body and produced the largest ever gift in Dartmouth’s history – an anonymous $100 million, unrestricted gift for academic excellence, which has kick-started our cluster hiring efforts.  This, in turn, inspired a long-time friend of Dartmouth and former board chairman, Bill Neukom, to fund the first of these clusters in an area that’s both close to his heart and one that holds tremendous potential to impact so many other areas – computational science.

So in terms of stimulating intellectual energy, I think we’re already on the right track and beginning to see results.  The future, in that regard, has never been more exciting.  And if we’re able to maintain this kind of sustained energy – I believe Dartmouth will truly become the “magnet for talent” we envision.

Dartmouth is an exceptional school. Do you think these approaches could be applied more widely to elevate higher education in general?

The short answer is yes, and in some ways they already are being applied in various ways.  For instance, experiential learning is certainly not something Dartmouth invented – Caltech and any number of world-class colleges and universities could offer their own examples.  In fact, it’s one of the things that made my time at Caltech so stimulating and rewarding.  And increasingly, higher education institutions of all stripes are realizing the future lies in the imparting of wisdom.  This is the role of the university of the future, and I think this is becoming more and more accepted.

But what we’re doing at Dartmouth is taking these two realizations and saying, “How does this apply to our campus?” and “How do we make the investments now that will capitalize on our strengths?”  Dartmouth was founded on the mission of providing an undergraduate education that is like no other – a broad liberal arts education that produces capable, intellectually nimble students with a passion and skillset to go out into the world and take-on the big problems.  We call them “citizen-leaders.”  We are ever mindful that almost 250 years later, this remains at the core of our mission, even though we’ve evolved into an institution that enjoys first-rate graduate and professional schools that strengthen our campus in ways unimaginable two centuries ago.

So we ask ourselves, “How do we build on this heritage and our unique place in the world of higher education?”  And we believe strengthening our long-standing capacity for experiential education and developing it to its fullest is the right answer for us.  This won’t be the case at every institution, but it’s rooted in our history, and to a large degree, we believe it’s where our future lies.

We also saw that you’re interested in making Dartmouth more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds. In your assessment, how has the university worked to achieve this? How do you hope to extend that reach in the future?

Without a doubt, getting a tight rein on the increasing cost of a college degree is first and foremost in terms of making a Dartmouth education accessible to students from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds.

In this regard, this year the Dartmouth Board of Trustees approved a 2.9 percent increase in undergraduate tuition, mandatory fees, and room and board for the 2014-15 academic year, and this actually represents the lowest percentage increase since 1977 – the year I graduated.

This is a significant rollback from previous years’ increases, and it’s part of an overall strategy to slow the growth of the cost of a Dartmouth education.  Part of this is made possible by prioritizing innovation and making new budgetary allocations through self-investment, rather than adding-on.

Additionally, Dartmouth is devoting more than $90 million to financial aid this year and is committed to meet 100 percent of an admitted student's demonstrated need for all four years.

For our neediest students – those whose family's income is below $100,000 – our financial aid initiatives include free tuition and no loans.

On the recruitment side, Dartmouth holds a number of enrichment programs that we believe are critical to increasing the pipeline of underrepresented students.  For instance, our First Year Student Enrichment Program was launched in the fall of 2009 as a student-led yearlong mentorship program that connects first-year students who are among the first in their family to attend college with trained upper-class mentors. There’s a pre-orientation and then yearlong peer mentoring to help participants handle some of the challenges they may face during the course of their first year.  It’s not enough to say “here we are, send in your application” – we need to cultivate students and make sure they have the opportunities to develop the skills needed to succeed at this level.

This summer, we resumed our College Horizons program, which draws Native American youth and educators to campus.  This is in support of Dartmouth's historic commitment to recruit Native American students and is partially responsible for a Native American student population greater than the rest of the Ivy League combined.  Or I’d cite our E.E. Just STEM Scholars Program which supports a diverse community of STEM graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty with mentorship and the kind of academic and research strategies that will translate into success in their respective fields.

So both in terms of what it costs to go to school here, and what it takes to succeed here, we are constantly looking for ways we can keep the Dartmouth education accessible to the broadest student body possible.  We know this strengthens the institution in the long run.

Dartmouth is about to open a new entrepreneurship center. Can you tell us a bit about its genesis and mission? What role do you believe entrepreneurship plays in higher education today?

Yes, this is something we’re really excited about.  I spoke earlier about our ambition to promote bold thinking, innovation and intellectual risk-taking.  In short, to amplify an entrepreneurial mind-set on campus is one of my highest priorities.  This is key to creating the kind of culture that promotes big ideas and bold thinking – efforts against the world’s most vexing problems – and it’s crucial if we are going to become the “magnet for talent” we spoke of earlier.  More than anything, it strengthens the ability to take ideas into action.  Not to mention that student entrepreneurship is as compelling an example as you’ll find of experiential learning, where innovation is required and the risk of failure is ever-present.

You know, in my 30-some years of teaching, the biggest change that I’ve seen in students and in my faculty peers is the growth in their interest to make a difference in the world.  In this day and age, the best, most creative and ambitious faculty and students don’t want to just analyze the world around them.  They want to make a difference in the world around them.  Of course, experiential learning offers the ability to tap into this drive and this potential, and the same can be said for entrepreneurship.

When I arrived back on campus last summer, in talking to students, I was somewhat surprised to learn about dozens – something like 80 or more – really interesting business start-ups, product developments and social entrepreneurship efforts that were receiving little or no formal help or guidance from the College.  These students were working in relative isolation, navigating the entrepreneurial path alone.  They were engaged in experiential learning of the harshest sort, as any entrepreneur can tell you!  So I decided that we needed to do something about that, and I committed then to announce as the first initiative of my administration the creation of the Innovation Center and New Venture Incubator.

The Center will have its grand opening in September.  And this will be a place where students with an interest in social ventures, business start-ups or application of the creative mind can gather and share ideas.  Faculty will provide expertise, including training in the popular, highly sought-after “business basics” course from our Tuck School of Business, and design feasibility from the Thayer School of Engineering.  There will be legal advice and even seed funding available.  An Accelerator Program has been designed to include $250,000 in seed funding per year, with early-stage funding from three top-tier venture firms in the works.  And we’re now looking at developing curricular opportunities through the Center, as well.

What we want to do is coordinate the brilliant minds on campus and within our global alumni family – coordinate those human resources, so the student entrepreneur can fast-forward into the realm of doing, not have to play catch-up by learning the hard way the lessons our faculty and alumni have already learned and lived.  Here again, we want to imbue our students’ entrepreneurial capacity with wisdom, as shared by those who have navigated the entrepreneurial path themselves.

I truly believe this will be a hotbed of innovation, and I think we’ll be amazed by some of the efforts coming out of the Center.

In what ways do you think your training and career as a mathematician helped prepare you for a leadership role in higher education? In what ways did your time at Caltech prepare you?

One of the things that people outside mathematics often fail to see is that at its core, pure mathematics is a creative enterprise.  Yes, mathematics teaches structured, logical, data-driven thinking.  But advances in mathematics are made when creativity is called upon to complement critical thinking and analysis.  This can apply to any number of life’s toughest challenges – including being a modern college president!

But there are a couple of experiences from my time at Caltech that really proved seminal in my career.  First was working with my thesis advisor, Olga Taussky Todd – one of the great algebraists of the 20th century and truly a pioneering woman in mathematics, being the first woman to receive a full professorship at Caltech.  She was hugely influential and her personal story drove home for me the importance of diversity and inclusion in all walks of life, but especially in education.  In a larger sense, I can also say that Olga and Caltech really trained me to have high scholarly expectations – and that’s something all of us in higher education should demand of ourselves, our students and our institutions.

Second, I did my first teaching at Caltech and can honestly say I loved it from the very first day in class.  As much as I love mathematics, the only thing that surpasses that is helping a student make an intellectual breakthrough or connection that suddenly changes everything – seeing them “get it.”  No matter how many times that’s happened in the course of my teaching career, it’s always exciting and rewarding.  And teaching remains a passion for me.  In fact, I still teach freshman mathematics as president.  Dartmouth has a history of teaching-presidents, and I’m happy to carry on this tradition.  Frankly, I consider it one of the great perks of this job!

Are there any additional challenges or opportunities in higher education—and especially to education and research in science and engineering—that you are focusing on? If so, how are you addressing them at your university?

Higher education is being shaped at present both from outside and within, in a number of ways.  The external forces at play represent challenges and opportunities, as you rightly frame it, and the same can be said for the internal forces we’re seeing.  It’s a dynamic that’s been many years in the making.

The last half of the 20th century was a period of reductionism – we felt that if we could understand the world in its finest components, then we would solve all problems.  Accordingly, we created stunning new technologies to harvest data at the most fine-grained level – we learned to sequence the genome, collect information about individual-level usage of the web, observe single molecules – only to learn that instead of solving all problems we had created a new class of integrative problems.  Today’s most pressing issues – things like providing the world’s population reliable access to fresh water, dealing with climate change, sustainable job creation, transforming K-12 education in this nation – these are complex and multifaceted challenges.  They concern the complexity of systems, informed by the amazing new data sets that technologies provide us.

Meanwhile, we have a new generation of students at our universities.  They’re every bit as talented as students of the past, but as I mentioned, they have a hunger to make a difference in the world and an impatience to do so immediately.  Long gone are the days when you could tell students that curing cancer or addressing climate change are really complicated and they need take tons of courses and get an advanced degree before they dive in.  Students today want to make a difference and they want to do so right now.  And that’s very exciting, and inspiring.

So, given these two powerful realities, I believe the most successful research universities will be those that weave together these two trends and bring their research enterprises together across disciplines and across generations.

And of course, this imperative is especially strong in the sciences and engineering, really for two reasons.  First, these are problem-driven areas, and so interdisciplinary work is natural and accepted – whatever tools will solve the problem are accepted openly.  Second, these are areas where the nation needs graduates who are trained in these technical areas, and so involving students in research activities helps meet a national need.

At Dartmouth, one of the first priorities I announced was expanding our engineering capacity at the Thayer School.  Demand for an engineering education is reaching unprecedented levels. Last year, we had roughly 110 majors in the senior class, which was a record, while the numbers of matriculating freshmen and sophomores who say they’re interested in engineering are even greater.  Yet we don’t currently have enough faculty to meet this demand and maintain the class size and the intimate, closely connected experience that we offer.  So we’re setting about increasing faculty to reduce the student-faculty ratio, while increasing project and research opportunities for students, and developing new courses to challenge them.  Most importantly, by expanding engineering, we can enhance the liberal arts education for all Dartmouth students by making a real engineering experience part of a much larger number of students’ undergraduate education.  We want to take a leadership role in defining what a liberal arts education means in the 21st century, and we believe engineering is an essential component, giving our young citizen-leaders a much broader skillset to apply against any pursuit they take on.

In a similar way, as I mentioned, Dartmouth has endeavored in the past few years to change the face of health care delivery science by developing synergies and pushing new knowledge in the spaces that normally exists between traditional disciplines, say at a medical school, a business school, an engineering school.  We were really astounded by the advances and progress made in this area, and so we want to replicate that energy in any number of other areas.

What changes do you see on the horizon for higher education in the United States? In what ways do you think education and research will be different 10 years from now? 50 years from now? As a leader, how do you prepare for these types of changes?

I expect a period of significant change in the years ahead in US higher education driven by multiple factors: opportunities provided by IT; the impacts of globalization and the reality that the traditional funding model of higher education is unsustainable and probably near the breaking point.  At the top end – the elite universities such as Caltech and Dartmouth – the most successful educational programs will be those whose graduates enter the world with strong skills for success in the world, rather than broad information and knowledge about the world.  Leading educational programs will be characterized by more learning outside of the classroom, whether through research or entrepreneurial activities, service learning or creative performance delivered away from campus at locations across the globe.  And all of the leading universities will need to rein in costs and operate more efficiently, holding our net cost of attendance close to the rate of inflation.

Looking at higher education more broadly, I expect to see much more dramatic change.  At the undergraduate level, you will see blended models emerge where students spend less time in residence and more time studying online.  The pressure to slow the growth of costs, or even lower costs, will be even more intense outside the highly selective universities.  This will lead to stark economic circumstances for many.  I can’t say how they will cope, but I would not be surprised to see a greatly altered landscape in U.S. higher education fifty years from now.

It’s a time of real change, but even in the face of formidable challenges, there’s a tremendous potential here to build America’s higher education system into something that unleashes the promise and potential of our students in ways never before possible.  As an educator, and a college president, that’s tremendously exciting.

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