“Innovation through Addition”

In an interview with Times Higher Education this past Thursday, February 20th, College President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 addressed the unaddressable – why American colleges and universities are bloated, often bureaucratic, institutions.


Source: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~president/bio/fullbio.html

Source: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~president/bio/fullbio.html

Hanlon explained the process of “innovation through addition,” in which colleges and universities are constantly funding new research projects while neglecting to address the existing backlog of previous research pursuits. With a constant stream of new research projects on top of pre-existing ones that need to be bankrolled as well, the process effectively results in the continuous growth of administrative, faculty, and research costs.

To hone his argument, Hanlon compared “innovation through addition” in non-profit academic institutions with the standard operating procedure for real world businesses. “What many businesses would do,” Hanlon explained, “is say: ‘I want to do this cool new thing, so I am going to figure out what the lowest priority stuff I am doing right now is [and] stop doing that.”’ This continuous process of priority-determined substitution has allowed many businesses in research-heavy fields like pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, or technology to stay on top of cutting edge innovative developments while keeping their administrative and R&D (research and development) costs as lean as possible.

The rising cost of upper education is indeed an important issue not just for students and their families struggling to make burdensome tuition payments, but also in the black hole known as national politics. For our leaders in Washington DC, the solution lies in one of two myopic stopgaps – easier access to cheaper student loans or simply forcing some students to not attend college at all. Most institutions, no differently, have also addressed the issue of rising costs on their end with easy, short-term stopgaps of their own – the College’s Masters in Management program at Tuck or the (now reversed) decision of ending the Geisel School of Medicine’s MD/PhD program are two prime examples most relevant to us.

Some example solutions Hanlon mentioned in the interview are, however, also questionable. He mentions a plan to hire 15 “teams” (how big such teams will be isn’t clear) of cross-departmental faculty to “do research together… [and] develop new courses on their particular subject.” It’s not quite clear how hiring more faculty will enable the administration to make difficult decisions towards the end of streamlining costs or even reversing the expensive process of “innovation through addition” (it indeed seems to be yet another example of it).

Nevertheless, the fact that the president of an American college is willing to address the rather important role of administrative and institutional bloat and inefficient allotment processes is an important landmark step to be lauded. Hopefully such words manifest into some much needed cuts in Dartmouth’s tuition bill.


– Kush S. Desai ’17