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Phil Takes It on the Road

Phil Hanlon3.jpgPhil put on his roadshow at the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis on May 12, and with the help of modern technology I was able to listen in. Our President is visiting alumni clubs and individual heavy hitters across the country to drum up support for the soon-to-be-announced capital campaign, and also to quiet inquisitive folks who still wonder what the heck has been happening in Hanover for the last decade or two.

VP of Alumni Relations Martha Beattie ‘76 acted as the bubbly MC (she neither screamed nor shed tears, as is her habit in the office). Trustee Gail Boudreaux ‘82 then asked Phil a half dozen questions and he responded with bits/bites of his stump speech: extended answers that were prepared well in advance. I guess that someone with an eye for these things has understood that Phil is underwhelming when delivering a canned address. That’s an accurate evaluation, though the Q&A format is only a slight improvement. (Hint: Phil, don’t use the word “passionate” over and over again when referring to students.) On the meat of the event:

— Academic Rigor: Phil took the opportunity to calm people who are concerned that ramping up academic rigor would make the College more of a pressure cooker than it already is. He stressed the distinction between quality and quantity, asserting that he was looking for “deeper student engagement” rather than just more work. I wish that he would distinguish between the segments of the student body that bust their hump and those that coast — this is true of the faculty, too — rather than talking in general terms.

— Moving Dartmouth Forward: When asked about objective indicia that the MDF program was improving the College, Phil first cited reduced hospital transports for excessive alcohol consumption, and decreased reports of sexual assault (while noting that assualt is a hard phenomenon to measure); he then noted his desire that more students attend academic programming in the evening (guest speakers, etc.). Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, he noted that at present approximately 200 seniors write a thesis each year and 16% of students publish a paper in a peer-review journal as undergrads. He hopes that in the coming years the latter two figures might double.

— Experiential Learning: Our President praised the Thayer school repeatedly in talking about learning by doing. Although he affirmed the College’s commitment to the liberal arts, he said that the people at Thayer were doing amazing things, and that a quarter of the faculty members there had started their own companies. In response to a question from the audience, he stated that the College had no plans to recreate a Great Issues course (a Jim Kim initiative, that, like all the others, went nowhere) because today’s students want to work directly on the world’s problems, rather than talk about them. There’s a contradiction in there somewhere.

— The Cost of the College: Repeating that the cost of college and the College has been rising for 40 years at 2-3% higher than the rate of inflation, Phil stated that such increases were unsustainable. He attributed about 1% of the differential to financial aid, and the rest to “handling innovation badly”: that as Dartmouth came up with creative new programs for students, it failed to retire old ones that had lost their relevance. He believes that his 1.5% reallocation policy — wherein all areas of the College need to cut their budgets by 1.5% each year, and then spend 1.0% on new initiatives, while turning over the remaining 0.5%to the Provost for reallocation — will keep costs under control. He cited the fact that the cost of a Dartmouth education only increased by 2.9% over each of the past two years. There was no mention of administrative bloat (personnel costs are 58% of the College’s total expenses), or the huge increase in the number of non-faculty staff employees over the past five years.

— International Visibility: Improving Dartmouth’s reputation abroad is “a huge positive thing that Dartmouth needs to accomplish,” said Phil. He met recently with the editors of the Times of London.

All in all, Phil has his priorities right, but he is only nibbling away at the College’s core problems. Deep pathologies require more than incremental solutions.

Addendum: An especially thoughtful alumnus writes in:

Excellent post on Phil Hanlon’s road show, and your conclusion (“nibbling away…at core problems”) is well taken.

I was particularly struck by the boast (?) that some 200 seniors write a thesis, and his hope to see that number double. Some of us can remember when every senior wrote a thesis; it was a requirement to graduate, as were comprehensive examinations in the major.

Writing the thesis was my single most valuable experience at Dartmouth; it provided the occasion to do some wide ranging research and pull the results together and try to communicate them in a way that someone might be interested in reading. I went on to a legal career, where these skills were essential, as they are in most professional careers.

Had it not been a requirement to write a thesis, I probably wouldn’t have bothered in my then state of immaturity.

The requirement was later dropped, perhaps for a variety of reasons. No doubt lazier faculty members were glad not to have to read and grade them, or be obliged to consult with students as they were writing them. A written thesis might also provide embarrassing evidence of how poorly a student had done, which might be especially discomfiting in the case of preferential admissions. So getting rid of the requirement was a step in avoiding institutional accountability for just what students had gained in exchange for very high tuition.

A friend of mine who is the managing partner of a major national law firm tells me that their current hires, all from the top law schools and colleges, are unable to write a simple memorandum. Colleges having dropped written work requirements may be one of the reasons.

That we have come to the point where a college president would boast that a small minority of his students had chosen to write a thesis is a sorry commentary on what has become of higher education. You would think Hanlon would be embarrassed to go out to alumni to raise funds while making such an admission. I would tell him, if you want money from me, you and your faculty have to get serious about education.

Addendum: Another alumnus, one from the early 1970’s, writes in:

haha… a great topic! I wrote a thesis for English and one for Geography (double major). In the latter, I got to page 84 and said to myself, “You know, you are never, ever going to get to 100 pages again in your life, so go for it.” I started restating things and circling around and putting more footnotes and references in, and eventually I stopped at page 108 (I couldn’t just stop at 100: too obvious).

I got it back about 6 weeks later. As usual in those days in every department, it had been meticulously marked up and critiqued by the professor, almost on a line-by-line basis. At the end, this comment: “This was an A until about page 85, when it started to go downhill. I wonder why. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. C+.” There was and it was.

The good ol’ educatin’ days of dear ol’ Dartmouth!

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