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A Strategy Professional Weighs In

A highly experienced alumnus, a shaper of corporate strategy, shares his thoughts on Phil’s plan to bloat the size of the College:

I have serious concerns about what seems to be a forgone decision to expand the student body.

For some background, for 25 years I’ve been a strategy professional. For the last 10 years I led strategy formulation at a Fortune 50 company involving billions of dollars of investment and revenue. When making an investment decision, we would always consider the positive impact on the business and compare it to alternative investments.

To date, the Dartmouth administration has not made any case explaining the upside to the Collge except something along the lines of “bigger is better”. To justify this approach, Hanlon has mentioned other Ivy League schools growing their undergraduate population. Putting aside the undemonstrated leap that size has made these school better, it does not follow that size would help Dartmouth. What’s missing in the argument for growth is the benefit to the students and to the institution.

There’s a basic question that should be asked and answered — how will Dartmouth complete now and in the future? While I haven’t given enough thought to argue for a specific path, I do know that it’s important to deliver clearly differentiated value in a competitive market. Just getting bigger is not differentiation. So then what are Dartmouth’s strengths and points of difference? Here are some:

  • A smaller, more tight-knit student body
  • The opportunity to be taught by full professors rather than teaching assistants
  • Smaller class sizes (at least, that used to be the case)
  • A smaller, more intimate campus

The proposed student expansion will stress each of these value drivers and most likely dilute what made Dartmouth special in the Ivies.

While I suspect this request for comment is really just PR, I will give Phil Hanlon the benefit of the doubt and suggest you consider examining this proposal using the Value Innovation framework. It takes a customer-centric view of what’s important to customers and then encourages delivering value where it matters most. Simultaneously reduce investment in areas that do not. Merely matching your competitors does not drive differentiation, but it does drive up costs. I’ve attached a link to a seminal article written for the Harvard Business Review to help explain the concepts.

Based on what I understand about the intended expansion of the student body, I strongly advise against it. Instead consider focusing on Dartmouth’s strengths while simultaneously shedding costs that don’t help.

Addendum: I wrote an analogous post a couple of months ago based on my experience at Bain & Company back in the day. It’s hard to imagine a competent leader seeing any merit in Phil Hanlon’s reasoning about the College’s direction.

Addendum: A Dartmouth Club President shares a letter that he wrote to the administration:

I’ll be brief: Get rid of Phil Hanlon before he does more harm to the College.

As it stands now, Dartmouth remains the only college in the Ivy League dedicated to the undergraduate and the teaching of humanities. But this distinction is precarious at best, given the current lack of adequate infrastructure. Many dorms are shabby and need refurbishing. Parking is impossible for faculty and all others. Class size has increased, and many popular classes are not available to those who seek them. The administration’s multi-layering is staggering; it overburdening any chance of budgetary discretion.

Dartmouth is cited in the news frequently for embarrassing occurrences and scandals while Phil’s responses are weak and unconvincing. The undergraduate polls show disdain and displeasure with Hanlon and his administration while continuing to appreciate fine faculty. The faculty is dissatisfied with Hanlon and the administration. Nobody, students, alums, athletes or townspeople, wants to destroy our golf course, pine forest, observatory or to see us become a University with more layers of graduate school administrators.

Alumni reflect this displeasure by sharply reducing contributions to the College. The initial funding for the energy institute is stagnant and insufficient. Tuition has risen again despite our endowment-to-student ratio being rated the highest while our student out of pocket costs creep higher.

Phil Hanlon helped grow the University of Michigan from a walkable campus in an idyllic Midwest town to the current sprawling campus requiring bus transportation from one end to the other. Adding 750 student beds above the observatory will pollute our starry nights, thereby ruining ongoing and future scientific studies in Astronomy and Physics.

Students choose Dartmouth precisely because of its cozy rural atmosphere and its high quality teaching reputation, a place where students feel as family and support one another in a non-competitive way. Phil Hanlon has set out to destroy the College’s very essence, and should he succeed, Dartmouth will lose its appeal and sink to the level of other small universities with nothing positive to show for the effort.

Should that happen, I, for one, will withdraw support for Dartmouth.

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