Moving Dartmouth Forward

Marjorie Malpiede / September 29, 2017

A Q&A with Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon

It is hard to change something that, in many ways, seems so idyllic. With its ivy walls nestled amidst the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College may be the most iconic school in the country, right down to its green, leafy quad and bright, outdoorsy students. But Dartmouth’s current president, Philip Hanlon, has no illusions about the school he leads and loves. One of his primary goals since becoming president is to address a disturbing sub-culture of binge drinking, sexual assault, and elitism that runs counter to Dartmouth’s outer beauty and, in Hanlon’s words, its “heart and soul.”

Hanlon is a Dartmouth alumnus, as well as a mathematician and seasoned administrator who came to Dartmouth in 2013 from the University of Michigan, where he was provost. By then, the school had been heavily targeted by the press for the legendary bad-boy behavior that presumably began back when Dartmouth was an exclusive men’s college. But the school, co-ed since 1972, had attracted a diverse set of highly accomplished students, the majority of whom resisted, if not resented, the school’s legacy of privilege and partying. This culture clash was a fork in the road: Would the storied “rural Ivy” turn a blind eye to what Hanlon described as “too many harmful behaviors,” or would it move forward?

In 2015, Hanlon took the latter path in a bold and visible way with a widely-publicized announcement launching “Moving Dartmouth Forward.” Peers report it is the most comprehensive student affairs initiative in the country, aiming straight at the bullseye of excessive drinking, sexual violence, racism, and exclusion.

MDF focuses on a range of goals, from creating a safer environment to building a more diverse and inclusive campus to strengthening student leadership, health, and wellness. Some of the components of MDF are an amalgamation of existing best practices: alcohol education, bystander training for sexual assault, stricter codes of conduct for all student organizations; some are experimental like the house communities initiative. But what has colleges around the country taking a closer look is the way they are combined and administered — cumulatively, over four years, and with the engagement of every office on campus.

In late August, with the orientation process for new students in full swing, we talked with President Hanlon about what motivated him to employ such a sweeping strategy; what he believes are its successes thus far; and what about Dartmouth he would NOT change as he directs its major transformation.

Mary Christie Quarterly: You were a fairly new president when you launched Moving Dartmouth Forward. What motivated you to take on such a wide-scale initiative?
Philip Hanlon: The number one motivation for MDF was that our campus, like every campus I know, was experiencing too many harmful behaviors among the student body — too much sexual assault and violence, too much high-risk drinking — so the primary goal was to reduce that as much as possible. The second motivation came from a sense I got when I first arrived that the campus was so agitated by these harmful behaviors that it was difficult for us to focus on our core academic mission.

I wanted to put the strongest programs in place to address these issues so that people could refocus on academics. Dartmouth, for a long time, did not have the greatest reputation, which was masking the real strengths of the college. We want Dartmouth to be viewed for what it is: a very serious academic place.

MCQ: Changing culture is not easy. How did you go about it?

PH: Before we launched MDF, we spent a great deal of time planning for it. When we were ready to implement, we felt confident we had the makings of something really transformational. We then communicated this broadly. We were clear about our goals and we said them over and over again. We wanted to make sure the community was not wasting its time wondering if we were serious about these issues. They could rest assured that we were.

MCQ: Would you say MDF is proactive or reactive?
PH: I guess it’s a little bit of both. It is reactive to a set of issues that are too prevalent at Dartmouth and everywhere else. It’s proactive in that it is a galvanizing moment to move forward without having some kind of specific incident — like a student death — that triggered it. We took this on without there being a burning platform.

MCQ: What do you think are its strongest components?
PH: Diversity and inclusivity are a big part of MDF. We firmly believe that the deepest learning, the best problem-solving, the most effective prediction comes from groups who bring diverse perspectives. There’s a lot of research to support this which means, if you’re a campus, you have to not only have a diverse community, you have to have an inclusive community so that people are working together who come from very different kinds of backgrounds. I think inclusivity as an institutional goal is really driven by our core mission of being a great academic place.

One of our signature initiatives was the house communities system (random residential assignments for students that stay consistent over time and include social activities, intellectual engagement, and a strong faculty presence). This attempted to solve a problem at Dartmouth related to our D-plan, where students can choose from year-round terms, including summer, which means that students are continuously coming and going in and out of dorms. We wanted to put some consistency around that so that your residency hall was a place where you had another set of stable friends, a stable community.

Adding to that, we wanted to facilitate even more interaction between faculty and students, which I think is a great strength of Dartmouth’s, but I wanted to take it to the next level. Every house has a house professor, a space for entertaining, and a social budget. Here we wanted students to have more options for social interaction, especially options that were not gender defined, like fraternities or sororities. That helped with the inclusivity part.

MCQ: What about your sexual assault prevention program is different than most?

PH: The MDF plan calls for a comprehensive and mandatory four-year sexual violence prevention and education program; a first-responder training program for faculty and staff; the creation of an online “consent manual;” and a Dartmouth-specific safety app. We also have a great partnership with a local advocacy and crisis services organization.

The ongoing education piece is really important. It was kind of a wake-up call for us when we realized we were talking about sexual assault and violence in orientation, but we never went back. When you only do it in orientation, you’re talking in the abstract because students have not yet experienced college social life. Now those educational opportunities happen throughout your four years here.

The other piece that has been really effective is our bystander training program for students and faculty. Research shows that the preponderance of sexual assaults are committed by a few serial predators, so the question is: How do you figure out who they are and stop them? Having the whole community involved in that effort is really helpful.

Our students have been incredibly responsive around this issue, which reinforces something that I think is a Dartmouth cultural trait, that students here are really supportive of one another. Our standing in the AAU survey showed we are number one in the country on this. (According to the Association of American Universities’ survey, Dartmouth had the highest rate of bystanders who took some type of action when they saw someone acting in a “sexually violent or harassing manner,” with 57.7 percent doing so. Nationally, 45.5 percent of students did something when witnessing this same sort of situation.)

MCQ: What specific steps have you taken to curb binge drinking?
PH: I think we’ve gotten the best results out of our educational programming, which includes BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students), but the effort that has gotten the most attention is the hard alcohol ban. This was very specifically targeted at getting students to stop, or at least reduce, drinking shots. The amount of alcohol shots that are consumed in “pre-gaming” sessions is just hard to believe.

Prior to the ban, we were just about in line with the nation — 50 percent of our students said they had drunk shots in the last two weeks. This last year, we were at 28 percent, a reduction of almost a half.

MCQ: Did you get a lot of resistance around infringement of individual rights and that sort of thing?
PH: Yes, we did, but look, we don’t allow smoking. We don’t allow guns. There are a lot of things we don’t allow.

MCQ: Did you target specific student populations?
PH: We did develop programs specifically for certain groups like athletes and fraternity houses — students considered at higher risk for drinking. We have a great program called “Dartmouth Peak Performance,” which is aimed at academic success, emotional wellbeing, and physical wellbeing, the whole package.

In regards to drinking, it really speaks to athletes’ motivations. The syllabus we put together tells you what happens to you physically when you binge drink — how many training days you lose when you have one night of binge drinking.

MCQ: What has been your experience with the fraternities and sororities on campus?
PH: This was a major focus of ours. Our plan called for the elimination of pledging, an annual review process, more faculty advisor participation, and a new code of conduct. At the beginning, we didn’t get a lot of engagement with them.

Now, however, most of the houses have really stepped up. Those that haven’t (two in particular) are no longer part of the Dartmouth community.

MCQ: What is your view on eliminating Greek life?
PH: I feel it is not my job, nor the job of the administration, to tell students how to associate. It is my job to say, “When you associate, here are the expectations about how you’re going to contribute positively to campus and if you can’t live up to those expectations, there is going to be accountability.” I think there are many positive things that come from socially-based, residential student organization, including Greek life.

MCQ: How did alumni respond to MDF?
PH: This is the one constituent response that surprised me. The mythology was, when I came here, if you touch the social scene at Dartmouth, alumni are going to rise up. That has not been the case at all. Alumni, as a group, have been incredibly supportive. I think they are sick and tired of reading bad news stories about Dartmouth.

MCQ: How do you feel about your progress now that you are two and a half years in?
PH: We’ve got all sorts of metrics that indicate progress, but I think the most uplifting thing for me is that it feels like the campus is calm and determined on these issues. I also think there’s been a real reputational change. Dartmouth has not been the subject of a bad news story in two and a half years. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from more than one source that Dartmouth is no longer considered the “party Ivy.” It’s now the “chill Ivy,” which I’ve been told is a good thing.

You can see the real evidence of this change in admissions. The admissions cycle we just finished for this fall was the most successful admissions cycle we have ever seen in history. Our yield, which has already been around 50 percent — so that’s of the students we admit, the fraction who actually come — jumped up to 61 percent.

The largest increases in yield were among the most academically qualified students in terms of credentials, like grade point average, the number of students who are valedictorian, salutatorians, SAT scores, etc. The SAT average went up 38 points from last year. We’ve had an incredible increase in quality and numbers.

MCQ: What about diversity?
PH: Just as diverse as ever. Along all the metrics.

MCQ: Do you ever worry you’ll change too much? What about Dartmouth do you hope stays the same?
PH: We’ve worked a lot on this question, asking ourselves the same thing. It comes down to this: What is the heart and soul of Dartmouth? We have got to make sure that doesn’t change.

There are four pillars that I think fall into this category. The first is a tight community that is based intellectually on a foundation of direct interaction between faculty and students. We expect our faculty to be outstanding at teaching and research. You just have to be terrific at both.

Second, Dartmouth has an unwavering commitment to liberal arts. Here, that means having a broad knowledge of the world but, more important, having a passion to always be broadly educated.

Another way of saying it is we are committed to educating a quality of mind for the long game. We’re not getting you ready for your next year after graduation, we’re getting you ready for life.

Third is that we have a profound sense of place. No one has a setting like ours. We are in an isolated place that is remarkably beautiful and can also be challenging on February mornings. Lastly, related to that, we have a great sense of adventure here. There’s something about Dartmouth students that they come here ready for anything. These are some of the things I hope never change about us.

At the end of the day, we want to bring 18-year-olds into our community and transform the quality of their lives. We want to have them exit with powerful intellectual tools and a desire to make the world a better place using those tools. Anything that gets in the way of that, to me, is something we need to address.