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Big University; Small Beer

Hanlon4.jpgOnce again Phil Hanlon ‘77 has underwhelmed in presenting his vision of the College. He stated that he is “a firm believer in the old adage that it is easiest to ride a horse in the direction that it’s moving,” and that pretty much sums up the initiatives he voiced on Monday at the faculty meeting in Alumni Hall.

This space is always hoping for a bold and imaginative set of proposals to revitalize the undergraduate program at the College, but what we heard from Hanlon didn’t go in that direction. Phil’s remarks — which, in a departure from precedent, have been transcribed for all to see — started with Phil’s overarching hope for Dartmouth:

So let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s pretend that it is in fact 10 to 12 years from now. It is my last day as president, and I am addressing you to give a report on the state of Dartmouth. Mysteriously, all of you are still here on the faculty, willing to come hear me talk. How do I envision this conversation to go on my last day in office?

I tell you that Dartmouth is a magnet for human talent. We get our pick of the most talented students and faculty—students are drawn to Dartmouth because of the distinctive, innovative learning experiences we offer and to get the chance to work directly with our outstanding faculty.

Faculty choose Dartmouth over other top colleges and universities because of the exciting, path-breaking, innovative scholarship on campus and the opportunity to work with our enormously talented students.

I report that the campus is academically energized, a site of intellectual innovation and risk-taking. Dartmouth is a place of big ideas and bold efforts. I note that Dartmouth has porous boundaries with the world. We are sending our students and faculty out into the world and then we’re inviting the world to our campus.

Dartmouth faculty dare to take on some of the world’s most complex issues, trying out-of-the-box approaches, working across disciplines, and far beyond the reaches of the Hanover campus. Likewise, I tell you student life on campus is dominated not by the social scene, but by student efforts to make a difference in the world, working with peers and faculty on artistic and creative works, academic research, and taking ideas into action through social ventures and business start-ups.

And Dartmouth is making an impact. I tell you about something like five-to-ten major areas of challenge to mankind where people generally agree that the best work in the world is being done at Dartmouth.

On the output side, I tell you that Dartmouth grads—at least those who don’t launch their own businesses and social ventures—are a really hot commodity in the minds of recruiters, not only because of their academic preparation but also because of their leadership skills and their ability to translate intellectual learning into impact on the world.

In short, I conclude to you, Dartmouth’s footprint on the world has never been so large. Now for sure, every element of that vision is in place today, to some degree.

But not as uniformly or as powerfully as any of us would like.

Later in his speech, Hanlon stated, “Job 1 is to stay in the forefront of undergraduate teaching.” However, what followed his glowing vision was a set of policy suggestions that hardly differed from Dartmouth’s drift towards university status that we have seen over the past decades:

— More experiential learning. Hanlon cited as examples project-based engineering and design courses; Environmental Studies 50 work on sustainable campus operations; Professor Mary Flanagan’s efforts involving students in efforts to combat prejudice and advance social good through games; English Professor Jeff Sharlet’s 40 Towns student writing project; the Rockefeller Center’s policy research shop; Hood interns; Paganucci Fellows; Freedman Presidential Fellows; and service learning through Geisel and Tucker

— IT and learning technologies. Though Phil says that he is “not a believer that MOOCs will transform higher education,” he’d like Dartmouth to reach out to the world and share our faculty’s expertise; use technology to engage students in the classroom; collect data on student learning; and allow students to collaborate with each other and with other students around the world.

— Scholarship. Phil called on the faculty to avoid reductionism — a focus on fine-grained understanding of phenomena — and reach out more broadly across disciplines. He cited such possible challenges as: “Combating adolescent substance abuse. Transforming K-12 education. Creating a sustainable job base for this nation. Using the arts as a force for urban renewal.” He also noted as an effective example of this kind of work the efforts at the College over the past decades in the area of health care delivery.

— Filling the Middle Between Students and Faculty. Phil would expand the number of young scholars on campus — postdocs doing research and teaching (the Society of Fellows) — and he called upon faculty to engage with them in collaborative research efforts. He went so far as to ask the faculty to consider “a free-standing graduate school [that would report to the Provost] … similar to the School for Advanced Study that was proposed as part of the Strategic Planning report.” This school would be “a home for interdisciplinary graduate programs across departments and schools.”

— Expand the faculty. The College should hire clusters of new faculty members who would work together in different areas. He asked the faculty to “Imagine hiring a cluster in Atlantic studies crossing history, architecture, French and Italian and classical studies. Or a cluster of faculty from engineering, medicine, computer science and anthropology who share a passion for developing health technology devices that can be inexpensively deployed and will be readily adopted by cultures of the developing world. Or a cluster built around financial markets, touching Tuck, economics, government, and history.”

— Alliances. The College could soon join one of the existing MOOC consortia (Phil is on the board of Coursera), and he called for an expansion of Thayer’s work on learning technology, and a 4+1 program with Tuck (in my day it was called 3+2).

— Finances. Phil plans extensive spending: “Dartmouth, I assure you, will make a historic investment in its academic enterprise.” And, in the same breath, he criticized the cost increases in higher education: “Cost of attendance has gone up 3-5% percent above any reasonable index of inflation for 40 years in a row.” Phil said, “The traditional funding model is unsustainable and very near a breaking point,” and he promised that, “Dartmouth is going to keep its tuition rates flat in real terms.” To fund his ambitions and keep tuition under control, Phil said that he will look to philanthropy from alumni, but “philanthropy will not be enough. We will need to self-invest as well by prioritizing all the activities we do and freeing up resources from those that are least effective or of lowest priority for investment in excellence and new initiatives.”

The common thread in most of these ideas — save for the support for experiential learning — should be clear to you: more grad students and more research, and while Phil said that the primacy of Dartmouth professors teaching students is sacred to him, nobody should be under any illusions that once grad students have a foot in the door, they will become an ever more important part of College life. That process has already begun in the Math department; in other areas of Dartmouth teaching, adjunct professors long ago replaced tenure track faculty.

Additionally, we can be certain that none of Phil’s proposals will be reported in the national press. Nothing here breaks any new academic ground at all; big university administrators will find it all familiar. In fact, Hanlon virtually admitted as much in using his horseback riding homily: he wants to offer students more of the same policies that we have seen from Kim/Wright/Folt.

Of course, as this space often points out, opportunity for reform and creativity at the College is not lacking. But absent from Phil’s speech was any sense that the present structure of education could be altered by more than a slight trimming around the edges, or that costs could be cut in a serious way. In fact, in response to a question from a faculty member, Hanlon said that he wouldn’t know how to cut tuition “without damaging/disrupting the institution.”

The central thread here seems to be that Phil is going to make Dartmouth like the University of Michigan: more postdocs; more grad students; a bigger grad school bureaucratic structure; more emphasis on Tuck/Thayer/Geisel and graduate programs to get them all up to an effective scale; and new groups of research-oriented faculty. Is that the way we want our alumnus-President to direct the College? That’s not the Dartmouth that he benefited from so greatly.

There are innumerable other proposals that Phil might have put forward, too, ones that could have immediately improved undergraduate education at Dartmouth. How about requiring all students to go on a a rigorous, Dartmouth-professor-led, off-campus program? Or announcing that we are cutting the budget by 20% (so that our total costs are 10% less than Brown’s — which has 38% more students than we do — rather than 10% more). Or reducing tuition by the same 20% figure, as we pare away years of unacceptable administrative fat? Or doing what is necessary so that class oversubscription problems will end? Or putting in place effective programs to guarantee that all Dartmouth students write and speak with, like, grace and precision? Or giving life and purpose to sophomore summer? Or, geez, just allowing students to stay in the same dorm for four years if they wish, or permitting only faculty members, not staff, to park in the central campus so that they may interact more frequently with students?

Come on, Phil. The College is hungering for real leadership. You might be trying right now to give us the sense that there is a steady hand on the tiller, but the deeper message you are sending is that the good ship Dartmouth is still on autopilot toward becoming a research university in all but name.

Addendum: The Valley News, and The D reported on Phil’s speech. Here is the College’s press release.

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