2020 State of the College Address

President Hanlon delivered his annual State of the College address at the fall meeting of the general faculty.

Good afternoon. I'm sure I speak for all of us in saying that I look forward to the day when we can be together again in person. But for today we have Zoom and I appreciate you joining us. 

As you know, it's Dartmouth tradition for the President to speak to the state of the College at the annual meeting of the General Faculty. Given all the turbulence and disruption in the way we go about the important work of the College, it is a little difficult to know what to say about state of the College!

But one thing I am inspired to say at this juncture is a huge "thanks" to you, the faculty of this great institution. There's no way we would have been able to return to our current level of operations without the dedication, creativity and hard work you've given to the College over these past eight months.

I recognize how difficult this has been.  On the fly, you've had to adopt entirely new ways to teach.  Your labs, field work, research travel have been disrupted.  For many of you, this has come on top of challenges at home, whether it has been children out of school, sick relatives or spouses and partners out of work.  Thank you for keeping your community spirit and putting our students at the forefront during what's been the most challenging period for Dartmouth and all of higher ed in my lifetime.

I also want to recognize and thank those of you who are carrying heavy service loads this year … whether it's by serving on critically important committees, helping us with budgetary issues, going the extra mile in mentoring our students or participating in ongoing virtual events related to the campaign. In a year of difficult decisions, nothing pains me more than having to forgo faculty and staff merit increases when I know that all of you are going to great lengths to serve our community.  Please know that your efforts do not go unnoticed, and that they are certainly appreciated, both by me and by the Board.

Even as we manage through these uncertain times, we must also look past the pandemic, keeping our sights on the vibrant future that this institution will have. We will not let this pandemic define us, nor will we let the challenges it presents get in the way of our long-term goals.

With that thought in mind, I want to address the State of the College over three timeframes – the next week, the next year, and the next decade – because within each, there is much to talk about.

As you all know, tomorrow is Election Day.  Every four years, I say that this is an especially consequential election.  This time, I really mean it!  The two presidential candidates offer starkly different visions for the future of our country.  In doing so, they present starkly different futures for higher education – differences that are meaningful as we gather today to reflect on the current and future state of the College.

So if you are an eligible voter, get out and vote tomorrow.  And if you have already voted, well done! 

I know that some of you are concerned about disruption at the polls.  We have remained in close touch with the Town of Hanover and I can report that they have done a great job of thorough and thoughtful contingency planning, working not just with the College but also with the authorities.  So again, please join me at the polls tomorrow with hopes for robust participation in the electoral process.  

Let's turn now from consideration of the events of this next week to a look at this most unusual year.  As I mentioned earlier, the challenges we face are the most daunting I've seen in my decades of experience in higher education … because we don't just have one challenge to overcome, we have three:

  • How do we keep our campus healthy?
  • How do we carry out our core mission in the face of all this disruption?
  • How do we deal with the financial fall-out? 

Let me touch briefly on each of these.

You are aware of the ambitious plan we have in place to maintain the health of our campus.  Many deserve thanks for the development and execution of this plan, but I especially want to thank Joe Helble and the COVID-19 Task Force as well as our colleagues in Student Affairs, for their tireless efforts.    

So far, the plan is working!  To date, we've had only 11 confirmed cases on campus out of 38,000 tests! 

Across the nation, those campuses (like ours) that strictly enforce face masks, social distancing, broad-based testing and contact tracing, and rigorous quarantine practices have prevalence rates below .05% and are amongst the safest environments in America.  The much-publicized disasters have been on campuses that deviate from those best practices.  This observation was confirmed in the COVID sessions at the AAU Presidents' meeting last week.  In dealing with the health challenges, the steps we are taking are working for us and are validated amongst our peers.

But these same steps disrupt the traditional ways we carry out our mission.  On the research front, I am aware what sacrifices you've endured.  The productivity of your labs has been limited, travel to conferences and to conduct archival and field work has been shut down.  I empathize with the challenges you are facing and appreciate the creativity and ingenuity that many of you have employed to maintain as much research productivity as possible. 

As usual, I am teaching this Fall, delivering my class through remote learning … just catching up with the experience that most of you have had more than once at this point.

I'm teaching an advanced class in my research specialty this term.  It's a subject with many diagrams and visuals that I would normally draw on a blackboard.  In the run-up to the class, I was more than a bit apprehensive about how I would replicate a blackboard over Zoom.  In true Dartmouth spirit, my faculty colleagues as well as the expert staff at DCAL gave me the guidance that has allowed me to replicate and, in some aspects, even surpass the classroom experience. 

Having said that, I miss the deeper connection with students that comes with in person instruction.  It is more difficult over Zoom to read the body language in the room, to look for the deer-in-the-headlights look that lets me know "I've just lost you." And what I hear from both students and parents is that they crave more in-person instruction.  Looking ahead to spring term, I am hoping we will be able to offer a larger portion of our classes in person. 

But whatever the differences between online and in-person instruction, one thing is the same: it takes effort and creativity to be a great teacher and you, the Dartmouth faculty, never disappoint.  Regardless of the mode of delivery, you are unwavering in your commitment to teach as effectively as you can.  I admire and thank you for that.

We mustn't forget, though, that an important part of the Dartmouth experience takes place outside the classroom – learning through student organizations, outdoor activities, athletics, over meals and yes, at parties.  In this realm, the challenges posed by this pandemic have put a tremendous strain on everyone, particularly our students.  While they haven't followed public health guidelines perfectly, I hope we can acknowledge the positive effort they've made.

In summary, I am deeply appreciative that so many members of our community are working so hard to carry on with the important teaching and learning and scholarly work of this institution, under extremely difficult circumstances.

Finally, the pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on our finances.  Demand for financial aid has skyrocketed; we're spending millions on testing; lower density in the dorms has meant less room and board revenue; and a number of students have decided to take a gap year, lowering our tuition revenue.  We are projecting a shortfall of approximately $90M in this current fiscal year alone. 

These formidable challenges have forced us to make extremely difficult, but necessary decisions across campus.  We instituted an across-the-board salary and hiring freeze. We achieved significant savings in non-compensation expenditures and through salary give-backs by many members of the senior leadership team.  We eliminated five varsity sports and closed the Hanover Country Club. We've undertaken staff reductions in many units, and we're leaving many faculty vacancies unfilled across the institution. And much more – belt-tightening that touches every corner of the institution.  I know that all of these steps are painful and you may not agree with some of them. But I can assure you that we've made them with great care and with the future of Dartmouth front and center.

Looking now beyond the pandemic at the next decade, I see two highly intertwined strategic priorities for the institution. The first is understanding – and preparing for – higher ed's future and Dartmouth's positioning within that landscape. The second is building a more welcoming and inclusive Dartmouth community.

Let me start with the second one first.

Building a campus that is safe, equitable, diverse and inclusive has been one of the North Stars inspiring actions we've put in place over the past 7 years.  To this end, we have rolled out three complex initiatives – Moving Dartmouth Forward, Inclusive Excellence and the Campus Climate and Culture Initiative which together include scores of concrete actions.  These actions have ranged widely and comprehensively across campus … from steps aimed at improving the student social scene … to support for recruitment and retention of faculty who are under-represented in their fields … to structures that build community amongst BIPOC staff.  And much, much more.  But this work is certainly not complete and very shortly, we will announce a new set of actions that we'll be taking inspired by the Open Letter from Black Faculty earlier this year. 

Each of these major initiatives – MDF, IE and C3I – were assembled with significant thought and care, tapping campus as well as external expertise.  Still, as you'd expect, some of the steps we've taken have worked well for our campus, and some have been less effective.  Now is an opportune moment to step back and see what we've learned from all this work so that we can amplify those things that are working well.    

As we move from initiative-based work to a more proactive, integrated approach, we will need to tap all the expertise that sits with our faculty and staff.  I am delighted that Matt Delmont, the Sherman Fairchild Professor of History, has taken the position of Special Advisor to the President as we look to significantly improve the recruitment, retention and success of BIPOC faculty generally, and Black faculty in particular, at Dartmouth.

Also integral to our efforts will be the newly constituted position of Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer. In creating this position, I am aiming to strengthen and empower the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. Pursuant to that effort and in order to improve planning and effectiveness, we will be bringing our Title IX Office, Inclusive Excellence (IE) and the Campus Climate and Culture Initiative (C3I) under ID&E.  The SVP/CDO will report directly to me and be equipped with the attendant resources, authority and visibility needed to succeed.  I am excited by what this person will bring to the senior leadership team. 

The national search to fill that position, co-chaired by Matt Garcia from LALACS and our general counsel, Sandhya Iyer, is actively underway and I can't wait to receive their list of finalists.  


And as I think about the talent and promise that resides in our current and prospective students, there is no question in my mind: this moment demands that we be there for them.

In fact, if we look at what's happening through a broader lens, the pandemic, the recession, and the national reckoning on race are exacerbating the challenges of access to our current system of higher education in this country.

Pressure will continue to mount on our nation's public university systems – community colleges and state universities – as the withdrawal of public funds intensifies.  They will be increasingly hard-pressed to maintain quality and service to the communities and states that support them, further accelerating the withdrawal of public funds.

Among private institutions, it's likely that the range and number of institutions will decline, as tuition-driven colleges shutter or consolidate, diminishing the diverse market of options available to students today.

We can also expect to see a growing divide between four-year private undergraduate colleges and research-focused universities, further consolidating into two extremes.

These pressures will rapidly expand the pool of low- and middle-income families who question their ability to afford a private education, with implications for first-gen and minority students. 

And finally, we may see a number of our peers waiver in their need blind commitment, as being need aware helps them keep classes full and revenue in line with expenses.

In the midst of this maelstrom, Dartmouth is resolved in its commitment to hold to the dual promise of need blind admissions and meeting full demonstrated financial need of every one of our students. 

Why? Because socioeconomic diversity deeply enriches our campus community.  And we've worked far too hard to achieve socioeconomic diversity in our student body to back down from that commitment now. 

This conviction stems from three driving principles:

First, that talent is distributed evenly, regardless of income level, race, or country of origin, even if opportunity is not.  We want to attract the very best talent to Dartmouth, period.  That's why I feel ever more strongly the imperative that we not only hold to our current financial aid program, but also enhance it.

Second, that Dartmouth offers an unparalleled educational experience: experiential learning enabled by scholars who love to teach in an institution that fuses together the best of a liberal arts college and a world-class research university.  There should be no barriers to this learning opportunity. 

Finally, that students who learn in this kind of environment are most likely to lead effectively across difference.  Our ability to improve society is best measured in the effectiveness and reach of our alumni, who model leadership every day.

Today, Dartmouth is one of only 20 U.S. colleges and universities that make the dual need blind/full need commitment.  It is a rare space to occupy and one that's incredibly resource intensive to maintain. 

When we launched the campaign, we made scholarship a central priority, devoting one third – $1 billion of the $3 billion goal – to financial aid, both through the Dartmouth College Fund and endowed scholarship. 

At when the onset of the pandemic and resulting economic crisis last spring saw financial aid applications skyrocket, we knew we needed to act.

In early May, I formed a special Presidential Commission on Financial Aid, co-chaired by Leslie and Bob Dahl and Julie and Dave McKenna, four extraordinary volunteers who, as alumni, understand the magic that is the Dartmouth experience.  The Commission is working with me on four critical fronts to raise $275 million more in endowed scholarships over the next two years.  Our strategy is crystal clear:

We aim to preserve and strengthen the need blind commitment to our students in the face of unprecedented fiscal challenges;

We want to extend that commitment to all students – including international students who now are accepted need aware.  If we achieve this goal, our talent pool will grow internationally, and we will be one of only six U.S. institutions that make this commitment.

We want to eliminate loans entirely from financial aid packages for low- and middle- income students.  Those who graduate from Dartmouth with debt currently average $18,000 in loans. We seek to lower that burden on our graduates and their families. 

And in response to the economic crisis that emerged this spring, we set our sights on raising the income level at which a family qualifies for a full tuition scholarship from $100,000 to $125,000 to respond to our most needy families.

This is a bold undertaking in extraordinarily difficult times. But this is what Dartmouth does best. Each generation of Dartmouth graduates steps up to help the next. We pull together as a community for what we know is important and right.

Already, the Commission has helped to secure $40 million in new financial aid commitments as part of the Call to Lead in the last four months, alone. It's a remarkable outcome, including $32.3 million in endowed scholarship funding and almost $7 million for our immediate Bridge funding needs. This is a great start and a huge testament to the Commission's dedication and hard work….and they've only just begun. Hopefully, much more to come on that front.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what all of you already know:  that the pandemic has required faculty at every institution to experiment with on-line instruction.  This period of experimentation will stimulate all universities – including us – to ponder what they can do with these new tools.  How they can generate new educational programs that tap their teaching expertise and broaden their reach.  

So what is the state of the College in November of 2020?  Resilient in the face of what's been the most serious set of challenges the College has faced in our lifetimes. Committed, as never before, to our mission of advancing the frontiers of knowledge and preparing graduates for leadership and impact.  And yes, a bit weary…but energized as we look past the pandemic to the inspiring goals this institution is positioning itself to achieve. 

Thank you for leading the essential work of the College.  The world has never needed it more. 

With that, I'd be happy to take some questions.