Phil Hanlon’s sensible proposals for Dartmouth

Dartmouth’s president Phil Hanlon has announced several significant measures designed to curb student alcohol abuse, improve the College’s culture, and make it a more academically serious institution. The student newspaper summarizes them here. Not surprisingly, though, the best discussion can be found on Joe Asch’s Dartblog.

The most publicized element of Hanlon’s plan is an on-campus ban on hard liquor. Hanlon, who impresses me as a data-driven guy, found that hard alcohol poses the most significant risks to student health.

The obvious objection to the ban is that students will simply drink their hard liquor off-campus and this will increase the incidence of drunk driving. Maybe. But as long as frats and sororities are around (Hanlon resisted pressure to do away with them) and beer and wine are served there, it seems likely that hard liquor consumption by students will decline significantly under Hanlon’s new regime, assuming it is enforced.

Hanlon also announced a new policy for student housing. As I understand it, freshmen will continue to live in separate dorms, but now they will be assigned to one of six clusters of dormitories where they will reside thereafter. These “communities” will organize and host social and academic programs, and eventually each will have dedicated space for study and social interaction. Each will have a house professor and graduate students in residence.

This system, which will resemble those used at Yale and Harvard, is intended to foster communal ties. It addresses, among other concerns, what I understand to be a real problem at Dartmouth — the fact that, after their freshmen year, students tend to be shuttled around from dorm to dorm, sometimes within the same year, as a product of the “D Plan” and all of the studying abroad. Students may still need to be shuttled, but at least they will be part of a common community throughout.

Hanlon also takes on, albeit very tentatively, what I take to be the biggest problem at Dartmouth — declining academic seriousness, manifested most starkly in grade inflation. He stated:

I am asking the faculty to consider a number of ways to increase the rigor of our curriculum — from curbing grade inflation, limiting lay ups, to not cancelling classes around celebration weekends, to earlier start times for classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

Hanlon appears to have heeded the wisdom expressed in this statement from Mike Mastanduno, dean of the faculty:

More than I’d like to, I hear this: “It’s really hard to teach on Thursday morning because of what the students do on Wednesday night.” I hear that from faculty. What I never hear, and what I’d love to start hearing from students is, “It’s really hard to do what we want to do on Wednesday night because of what’s expected of us on Thursday morning.”

Hanlon may also be mindful of a study cited by Dan Rockmore, a professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Dartmouth. It shows that studying time has declined from an average of 24 hours/week to 14 hours/week since 1961. Meanwhile, average grades have risen steadily.

There’s more to Hanlon’s proposal, including an unfortunate bow to hiring a “representative” faculty. I’m confident that he does not mean a philosophically or ideologically representative faculty.

On balance, though, Hanlon’s ideas seem well thought out and more likely to help Dartmouth than to harm it.

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