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What in the Jane Hill Is Going on?

Jane Hill2.jpgFollowing last week’s report on what seemed to be Thayer Professor Jane Hill’s dismissal as head of Allen House, a pattern that resembled the abrupt departure of Biology Professor Ryan Calsbeek from North Park House, we reached out to Professor Hill for an interview. To her credit, she was forthcoming. Perhaps her Aussie sense of right and wrong was in play, or she wanted to signal to faculty colleagues that heading up one of Phil’s MDF houses is not what it seemed. Professor Hill confirmed that she was fired without ceremony or explanation, and that dealing with Dean of the College Rebecca Biron and her minions was no easy task:

When did you start working to help establish the house system?

Just over two years ago, when the House Professors and administrative leaders from Student Life were tasked with helping to map the transition to, as well as founding of, the House system.

Why did you want to do this?
It seems that our academic peers, who all have residential systems of some kind, have greater continuity and cohesion for students than we do, at least on the residential side. And, having experienced the system at Yale as a graduate student, I saw the positive stimulation and ambition cycles that systems like this can foster, and I wanted to be a part of building that here at Dartmouth.

When did Allen house open?
Officially, Allen House became a conceptual entity February, 2016. It was not until the Fall of 2016, however, that students became embedded in the Allen House residences, first-floor living clusters, etc. Thus, the Fall of 2016 marked the start of building Allen House as a living, breathing, germinating place of ideas and practices.

Did you move from your home to live in Allen house?
Yes. Part of the position requires we move into College housing so as to host events in our home.

How did things go? Do you think that students like this house?
We hit the ground running in the Fall with visits from over 250 students at our Welcome Picnic the Sunday prior to the start of term, and a total of over 850 students attending our events in the Fall. Just over 800 students attended our events in the Spring. While Allen still remains a relatively amorphous “thing,” and we don’t have the proper metrics yet to determine how our programs impact students, it was exciting to see Allen House start to cohere around a certain ethos, one where friendly innovation and ambition in programming and projects was the expectation. One possible indicator that Allen House was doing well is that we had the most applicants (of all the houses) to positions as undergraduate advisors for the upcoming academic year.

What kind of administrative support did you have in this work?
Organizing small and large events for over 600 students requires quite a team! We were able to pull off our programming with a half-time administrative assistant and full-time assistant director (whose purview is primarily student life training and management); they were very helpful in the planning and execution of events. We all worked together for each event and I could not ask for a better nor more amiable team.

Who chose your assistant director?
The student life administration chooses the assistant directors. Then, these folks are distributed to the various Houses and first-year residences. House Professors work very closely with the administrative assistants, so it might make sense in the future for House Professors to be involved in the hiring process and to share a supervisory role, too.

Were you ever criticized by Dean of the College Biron for your performance?
Not that I am aware. There were times of expressed gentle differences in ideas amongst the House Leadership Team, as one might expect when building a completely new system. However, all feedback up until my dismissal had been very positive.

How did your dismissal occur?
I went into a meeting, which I thought was a discussion about a pilot mentoring program that the Allen House Executive Board was advancing in collaboration with the local retired professionals group, OSHER (whose inspiring members define the term “lifelong learners”). However, instead of talking about this, I was informed that my position was to be terminated. I have never been more surprised at the content of a meeting.

Did you receive any notice at all that your job was in jeopardy prior to your dismissal?
No.

What kind of communications did you receive in writing?
About the dismissal? Two days after my verbal dismissal, I received a follow up e-mail stating that I was dismissed. No reasons given.

Why do you think that you were dismissed?
Actually, I am not sure why I was dismissed. At one point, Dean Biron expressed concern that I did not attend a certain number of meetings — I had been travelling due to my research — and that I had been late in answering some e-mails. That’s it, as far as I can tell.

Did the deans have any concerns about your dealing with students?
I was criticized because I did not remove the word “fellows” when requested from a flyer sent out by an Allen House student for the mentorship program. And I contacted the Center for Professional Development to talk about mentoring systems, despite a statement from the Dean saying that she could tell me what the CPD does and that I don’t need to reach out to them. The administrators in Dean Brion’s office watch what the house leaders do very closely.

Did you do something egregious?
Goodness me! An unequivocal no.

Were you offered the chance to resign? Was there any advantage to resigning?
Yes, I was offered the option to have a statement released which would have said that I voluntarily resigned. I declined the terms.

What would you recommend to other faculty members who are considering leading a house?
Working with motivated, ambitious, brilliant, and compassionate students has been a major highlight of my experience at Dartmouth thus far. It’s been a rare and special privilege to have that opportunity.

I am sure that faculty can make up their own mind about how to weigh the pros and cons of being a House Professor in its current version. The next Allen House professor will work with a great crew, and I wish her/him the very best as they help Allen House continue to flourish.

In some ways Professor Hill is excessively demure. The world inside the College’s bureaucracy is far too often a snakepit of rivalries and jealousies. How can a Dartmouth professor be dismissed from a four-year commitment without warning — after receiving no notice at all that in the eyes of the Dean of the College she is not measuring up? Any staffer in the bureaucracy is afforded a chance to rectify supposed errors. But perhaps in this situation, the dismissal was motivated by factors other than performance?

The human resources version of Gresham’s Law has been at work for many years now in the Dartmouth administration: as in the case of Jane Hill, the bad folks drive out the good. If and when the College finds a capable leader, there is a great deal of work to be done.

Addendum: Dean Biron was succinct in announcing to students Professor Hill’s departure from Allen House:

Dear Allen House Students,

I’m writing to let you know that Dean Wooten and I just met with the Allen House student leadership to let them know that Jane Hill will no longer serve as your House Professor. Dean Wooten and I will work closely with them, with you, and with affiliated faculty and staff to support spring term programs and to name your new House Professor.

We thank Professor Hill for her service these last two years. She will continue her teaching and research at Thayer. While we know this transition is unexpected, we also know that the strength of Allen House is not defined by any one member; it comes from the relationships among all House students, staff, and affiliated faculty. We look forward to collaborating with all of you on upcoming House events and activities.

Dean Biron

Many words. No honest content.

Addendum: A former administrator — a good one — writes in:

Yep, at Phil Hanlon’s Dartmouth, independent thinking, creativity, initiative and concern for students will kill you every time. Especially if, in the process, you don’t appropriately recognize the primacy of the Dean of the College Office in all things student….

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