William Helman Looks Back

William Helman, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College.

William Helman, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College.

The Review recently sat down with Bill Helman ’80, current chairman of the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): You graduated from Dartmouth in 1980, the year the Dartmouth Review was founded, and John George Kemeny’s last year as president. What did you think of Kemeny as a president and any of the founders of the Review, if you knew them, especially Jeffrey Hart?

Bill Helman (BH): I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the president. Until my senior year. I heard him speak about the purpose of a Dartmouth education, very insightful, very inspirational. I heard him talk about what it meant to give back, to make a contribution to our society. He talked about the responsibilities of a Dartmouth education. He was very philosophical. In particular for a mathematician, his speeches were amazing. I hung on every word, and I was very impressed. My senior year I was asked to serve on a committee where I had exposure to President Kemeny every Wednesday for ten Wednesdays in a row. I must say, once again, this was an amazing man, a man of careful thought, he was an inspiring guy, he was an aspirational guy for Dartmouth, and I found him to be a real role model. I also took math 6 from him, which was a beginning math course, and I enjoyed having him as a teacher. I started off not having any idea who the president was, just inspired by his speeches and his thinking, his dedication, and ended up being a total fan.

TDR: Did you know Jeffrey Hart at all? What did you think of his political antics on campus?

BH: I had him for class. He taught a great literature class on Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Interestingly, Kemeny and Jeffrey Hart were the two professors of the time who smoked in class. Kemeny was a cigarette holder, and Jeffrey Hart had this beautiful meerschaum pipe. I didn’t have any exposure to the Dartmouth Review, except I would read it, and I didn’t know [the students who wrote it]. They were all younger and smarter than me. I don’t recall [his political antics] as being that influential on me. I know he had some office hours where we would engage in great, far-reaching discussions, but I never remembered him as having that much influence on me politically. That could have been because I wasn’t that politically active.

TDR: There’s been a lot of protest recently, from the Dimensions protest in 2013, to the Freedom Budget, the occupation of Parkhurst, and the recent Black Lives Matter protest. How has your perspective on campus activism/politics changed since you were a student?

BH: I was always in favor of activism. When I was a student, there was not as much activism as today, and I’m supportive of it. Can it go too far, and should there be any limits? I think President Hanlon has it right, which is that activism, vocal speech, and protest is right, and we should support it, but we should also bear in mind the community standards, the things that we have all signed up for, where we have agreed to be part of the greater Dartmouth community.

TDR: There have been a number of different initiatives to address the issues brought up by campus activism. One of those initiatives is the Inclusive Excellence program, which says it “seeks to address faculty diversity, staff diversity… to build a more inclusive community… create transparency…” and so on. Where are these initiatives coming from? There’s been some criticism on the part of students that they’re either attempts from higher up to reduce negative press, and that they don’t actually do much to change anything, or that they’re just coming from the bloated bureaucracy of the administration that’s seeking to create more of these self-sustaining programs.

BH: That’s the first I’ve heard of that, and it’s quite amusing. Most of our negative publicity is around unsafe behaviors, the social culture. President Hanlon did Moving Dartmouth Forward, which was incredibly intensely committed, and he has an outside review board. His view is that we should be transparent to the outside world in what we’re doing and we should hold ourselves accountable in making progress against those things we said we would do. Imagine someone actually saying they want to be held accountable; you don’t see that very often. That’s pretty impressive, and President Hanlon has done that time and time again. The good news is we’re making substantial progress as a community in almost any measure. We’ve made progress against the high risk behavior that President Hanlon was seeking to reduce. It’s great when the community comes together to amend the process at all. It seems to have really had impact, which is great. It’s hard for anyone to say that a reduction in high risk behavior is not a good thing. The reason for the focus on inclusion is because we don’t have an inclusive community. I know that sounds crazy, but that is the reason. If you look at almost any measure, and anecdotally, we need to do better. Inclusivity is something that is talked about often because people think you have to do it and check the box, but very rarely is real progress being made, including at Dartmouth. I give President Hanlon, Carolyn Dever, and others real credit for saying we need to make progress. That’s the driver of the initiative, not PR or trying to keep people employed.

TDR: On that same note, I want to talk about intellectual diversity. First of all, by the metric of faculty contributions to political campaigns, Dartmouth has one of the most liberal faculties in the country. Jonathan Haidt has been writing about the crisis of intellectual diversity on campuses, and how American college campuses are one-sided intellectually. I think that is starting to become true at Dartmouth that were starting to see this lack of diversity. Have you ever thought about this at Dartmouth? Are there any ways we can remedy this?

BH: I absolutely support intellectual diversity. Everyone on the Board does. Of course, intellectual diversity means a lot of things. When I talk to our faculty in different domains, different disciplines, different divisions, I see lots of diversity. I see diversity in research, I see diversity in basis of thought, teaching methodology, the way people deal with their students. I’m pretty pleased with that. Are there perhaps ways we could become more diverse intellectually? I’m open minded and always listening to people who have ideas about that.

TDR: President Hanlon has received a lot of criticism from different parts of the Dartmouth community, like the hard alcohol ban, which is seen as another form of ineffective prohibition. He’s received criticism for shutting down fraternities, seeking to end the Greek system, he’s received criticism from protestors for not receiving their demands, from Divest Dartmouth for accepting money for the Irving Energy Institute. What I see is a lack of institutional vision for Dartmouth. President Kemeny had a strong vision to modernize and diversify Dartmouth.

BH: There’s no question that there are students who are upset about it, but the general feedback was two or three to one positive in support of the hard alcohol ban. I don’t think those things relate to vision. What you’re talking about relates to how things are implemented, how we communicate, and we can always do a better job of communicating. When you listen to President Hanlon’s speech, he has a pretty clear vision. He has a pretty clear vision of building Dartmouth academically, around its core liberal arts, undergraduate focus, around its core teacher/scholar model. He has interest in scholarship and research and beliefs that it reinforces undergraduate education. I hear him talk about vision a lot.

TDR: Administrative bloat been a big concern among students, alumni, and faculty that the non-faculty staff of Dartmouth has been growing at a crazy rate. Joe Asch has been very critical of the almost 3500 non-faculty staff of Dartmouth. Why is that happening, and how can we reverse that trend so as to keep down costs and make sure the College is doing what it is supposed to be doing, which is teaching students?

BH: First of all, everyone on the board and all the administration need to be as productive and efficient as possible. We need to deliver the best education product that Dartmouth can in an efficient and cost-effective way. The cost of higher education is too high, we all agree with that. If you look at President Hanlon’s history, in terms of the rate of growth of non-faculty, I think you’ll find it’s been pretty modest. Then the question is, how did we get here historically? These are easy-to-understand concepts at the gross level, but when you get into the detail, when you say that we should be focused on the educational product, you have to look at the number of staff that support our faculty. What’s the discretionary staff? It’s not really as big a number as you think. I would argue that we should figure out a business model that allows Dartmouth to efficiently and productively deliver the best educational product possible. That may involve staff looking at staff, and other things too. Facilities, for example. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we should be looking at, and we are.

TDR: Part of the role of being a Dartmouth professor is being an excellent teacher, a role model, an intellectual mentor, and exemplifying research that challenges society and looks critically at things. These professors don’t know what the administration and the College want from them anymore. They’re being told that undergraduate education comes first, but by all metrics, they’re being pushed to put their research first and their students second. What should a Dartmouth professor be? What does the Board want from the average Dartmouth professor?

BH: I already answered exactly what we’re trying to do. I’m surprised to hear that some faculty feel that way, and I hope that they will drop a note to President Hanlon and say “Let’s talk.” That’s the way to deal with that.

TDR: There are allegedly people who want to rename the College into Dartmouth University, and it apparently was talked about at a recent Board meeting. Any thoughts on that?

BH: It hasn’t come up. Not a focus.