Dartmouth College names next president

Sian Leah Beilock, cognitive scientist and the current president of Barnard College, is Dartmouth College's next president. She will begin her role on July 1, 2023, after current president Phil Hanlon retires. Dartmouth College photograph

Updated at 2:06 p.m. on July 22.

Editor’s note: This story by John Lippman was originally published in the Valley News on July 21.

HANOVER, New Hampshire — Half a century after Dartmouth College first admitted women, a female scholar and college administrator for the first time has been selected to lead the Ivy League institution, ending the hegemony of men who have filled the role for 253 years and through 18 presidencies.

Sian Leah Beilock, the current president of Barnard College in New York and a professor of psychology, will succeed outgoing president Phil Hanlon upon his scheduled retirement next June, Dartmouth announced Thursday.

The news was welcomed inside the Dartmouth community — all but two Ivy League colleges have had permanent woman presidents since coeducation became the norm in the 1970s — and as a move that leaves behind a practice that many saw as anachronistic.

“It’s a milestone and long overdue,” said Diana Whitney, a 1995 Dartmouth graduate and a founder of the Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, which had been active in voicing the need to appoint a woman president. “I’m heartened. … My hope is that (Beilock) comes ready to create a more just and equitable campus culture.”

Beilock, 46, a cognitive scientist and recognized specialist in why people suffer mental blocks when facing stress, has led the Columbia University affiliate liberal arts college for women since 2017, when she was recruited from the University of Chicago where she spent more than 12 years as a professor of psychology and top administrator.

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, 75, who was provost at Dartmouth in the 1990s, in April announced his intention to retire next year after more than two decades leading Barnard’s brother institution. Columbia has not yet named a new president.

Beilock will stand out in another away among Dartmouth presidents, all but three of whom have been Dartmouth and Ivy League alumni. A California native and daughter of lawyers, she attended the public University of California at San Diego as an undergraduate and earned her Ph.D. in psychology and kinesiology at Michigan State University before her first teaching position at Miami University in Ohio.

And Beilock’s non-Dartmouth background is a big plus, according to Whitney, who said Beilock will not be beholden to the “Lest the old traditions fail” creed in Dartmouth’s alma mater that students learn by heart.

“Coming with fresh eyes and not an alumna is really positive,” said Whitney.

Former Dartmouth president and historian Jim Wright, who studied and trained at state universities, was one of the few non-Ivy educated presidents, although he joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1969 right out of graduate school and spent his career at the college.

Beilock — pronounced “bye-lock” — was attracted to Dartmouth because “it’s the best of both worlds: a model for how a leading higher education institution should unite a tight-knit community of undergraduates together with world-class graduate and research programs,” she said in a telephone interview with the Valley News on Thursday.

She credited the college’s “porous boundaries” where students and faculty collaborate and work across departments as unique and critical “to answer today’s most pressing challenges and opportunities” because “you’re going to need a multiple-discipline perspective.”

As an expert in the “psychology of stress,” Beilock said she is acutely aware of what students require to succeed “particularly coming out of the pandemic.”

“I take very seriously the institution’s responsibility of the well-being of the people inside it,” she said.

Acknowledging she is “thrilled” at becoming Dartmouth’s first permanent woman president — the trustees appointed former Dartmouth provost Carol Folt as interim president while it searched for a new leader between the departure of Jim Yong Kim and the selection of Hanlon in 2012 — Beilock said her background will be an asset in guiding Dartmouth going forward.

“My research focuses on the representation of women in math and science and how to ensure that we’re bringing women and girls to the table across disciplines,” Beilock said, adding that “the best ideas” happen and “companies make the most money” when they include “people with diverse lived experiences” in the process.

“That’s really the recipe for success,” she said.

Stan Colla, a Dartmouth and Tuck School alumnus who lives in Hanover, said that even though the college has been coeducational for 50 years, the male-oriented culture that defined Dartmouth’s culture has deep roots.

“Fifty years ago is less than 20% of more than 250 years in Dartmouth’s history,” Colla said.

“So there’s a culture of male primacy at Dartmouth that not only still manifests itself but directs what students are able to do and how people think about their roles at the college. And it’s not just male, but it’s also primarily white male,” said Colla, who formerly headed advancement and alumni relations at Dartmouth.

“For the culture to change it was important for Dartmouth to finally select and endorse female leadership at the very top,” Colla said, and for Beilock “to lay out her vision and for the board to support her vision in trying to achieve these goals.”

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