For Dartmouth's New President, a Reacquaintance

Eli Burakian, Dartmouth College

Philip J. Hanlon
November 11, 2013

"Dartmouth College is a place that changed my life completely," says Philip J. Hanlon, a 1977 alumnus who is the college's new president. "It's very exciting to be back here."

Mr. Hanlon, 57, who was most recently provost at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, began life in Gouverneur, a mining town in the northern Adirondacks of New York. Going to Dartmouth inducted him into "the life of the mind—that's really what Dartmouth brought me," he says.

Now it's his turn to nudge Dartmouth in some new directions. Among the priorities he announced last week, in his first major address to the faculty, were adding faculty members, encouraging "experiential education," expanding the schools of engineering and business, and containing tuition costs.

Since beginning his job, in June, he has taken time to reacquaint himself with the "core values" of the liberal-arts institution where he earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics 36 years ago. He knew he needed a brush-up: "I recognize that I was here a really long time ago."

For members of Dartmouth's presidential search committee, Mr. Hanlon's fit with those values was "almost too good to be true," says the committee's co-chair William W. Helman IV, a member of Dartmouth's Board of Trustees. The committee conducted a six-month search after Dartmouth's previous permanent president, Jim Yong Kim, left to lead the World Bank.

The University of Michigan provost so closely matched a long list of "wants," says Mr. Helman, that "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven"—a president who would champion both teaching and research, and had a firm grasp of campus operations, planning, finances, fund raising, and much else.

Mr. Hanlon had worked at Michigan since 1986, becoming provost in 2010. Moving from a public to a prominent private institution was not a matter of escaping the financial stresses of the public sector, he says, although the strangling of state-university budgets perturbed him. He saw those institutions losing their "competitive edge."

As a mathematician, Mr. Hanlon is undoubtedly better at jostling numbers than most of his peers are. With a 1981 doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, he has specialized in the mysterious (to most mortals) fields of probability and combinatorics as applied to bioinformatics, particularly computational genetics; and computer science, particularly cryptology and theoretical computer science.

The logical and organizing skills of math do help him in college administration, Mr. Hanlon says: "You learn to understand what structures there are in what look like very complex situations." Campus budgets and fund raising, for example. He needs to figure out how Dartmouth will afford the changes he has proposed.

He does not seem to be seeking to rely on MOOCs.

Although he was on the advisory board of Coursera, the online-course provider, from the board's formation until he took his post at Dartmouth, Mr. Hanlon is measured in his endorsement of the massive open online courses that officials of some colleges hope will cut costs in course delivery. He says MOOCs are just one of several directions to take with new and emerging technologies. "Learning technologies are going to have a huge impact for the positive on the way we carry out our teaching-and-learning mission," he says.

Again the mathematician in him emerges when he extols the virtues of such methods as analysis of data relating to student comprehension and academic achievement.

A confirmed believer in classroom teaching, he is among a small minority of college presidents who offer courses while in office. "I've always taught, through all of my administrative appointments," he says.

His preference is for first-year courses, early in the day: "To interact with an energetic class of freshmen gets my own energy up."