June 9, 2021: Community Conversations Transcript

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Joseph Helble:

Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to our 30th Community Conversation, addressing planning, response, and operations in the time of COVID-19. I’m Joe Helble, the provost of Dartmouth College, joining you from the Star Instructional Studio in Berry Library on another warm and summer-like Wednesday afternoon, today, June 9, 2021. I’m joined as always by Justin Anderson, our vice-president of communications, who’s with me from another studio on campus. And Justin and I are joined today by three guests, two of whom were returned visitors to Community Conversations and one who is with us for the first time.

We’re joined by Phil Hanlon, a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1977, a professor of mathematics, and since June 2013, the 18th president of Dartmouth College. Laurel J. Richie, a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1981, a leadership consultant with Merryck and Co., a member of Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees since 2012. And for the past four years, the chair of the board of trustees. And by E.J. Kiefer joining us for the first time. E.J. is Dartmouth’s executive director of conferences and events. He is in his 21st year at Dartmouth. And E.J. is the person who oversees the logistics of major campus events, including commencement, which he will be doing this weekend for the 18th consecutive year.

We’ll follow our usual format today with a brief campus update, live Q&A moderated by Justin, a conversation with Phil, Laurel, and E.J. on a range of topics, including this weekend’s investiture and commencement ceremonies, and then ending with an opportunity for them to answer your questions directly.

Let me begin where we usually begin with our bi-monthly update on COVID surveillance testing and on vaccinations with positive trends continuing in both areas. At Dartmouth this morning we noted our first positive student surveillance test after 11 consecutive days with zero new student cases. Our testing volume has decreased because of the conclusion of the term for most students, including professional school students.

Last week, for example, we conducted 4,844 tests, a decrease from approximately 7,500 tests per week that we had been conducting for all of spring term. Overall, the positivity remains low and as I reported two weeks ago, it in fact remains at levels lower than the lowest we saw during fall term operations. For calendar 2021, our overall positivity for students and employees combined, meaning for all of our testing, has now dropped to just under 0.2%. And since the start of testing on July 1, 2020, as of yesterday, we’ve conducted nearly a quarter million tests, 241,217 to be precise with a total of 408 positives and therefore an overall positivity of 0.17%.

Now, before I turn to vaccination progress, I’d like to note how remarkably routine this data report has become and what a positive sign that is for our community. Think back to this time last year. We were focused on standing up comprehensive surveillance testing by July 1, making decisions on who would be tested, how often, what methods and where, doing something that this campus, and in fact, every other campus had never attempted. It required the hard work and collaboration of the members of our COVID-19 task force, external vendors and contractors, and many, many units within Dartmouth. And here we are a year later and it nearly always runs seamlessly.

In fact, when I got my weekly test at Leverone this morning, there was no line for students. There was no line for employees. Everything ran efficiently and as it should. Now I’m saying this because we always note when things go wrong. It’s human nature. And this past year, I have often been one of the first to hear about it when something hasn’t gone quite the way we intended or hoped. We should own it when things go wrong. We should fix it. We should hold ourselves to a high standard. But here, from working with vendors to securing the testing contracts to organizing the logistics to managing the supporting software, to making available, preparing, and maintaining the facilities to fielding questions all year long, I want to remark how remarkable it is that this complicated operation that didn’t exist a year ago has become completely unremarkable.

We don’t even think about it anymore. And in that spirit, I’d like to ask that all of us remember to thank all of those who’ve made this challenging and complicated operation with so many moving parts go right. It’s been central to our ability to assure the Dartmouth community and the local community that we had the ability to detect disease quickly and take action when needed. So, to those of us who were getting tested, the next time you’re in Leverone, if you don’t mind, I’d ask that you just take a moment to pause, look around you, take in how normal and predictable it’s become. And thank the staff from Axiom, thank your Dartmouth colleagues who have been there quietly behind the scenes, making it all happen and enabling us to operate as smoothly and seamlessly as we did this past year.

Now turning to our peers. As our peer institution semesters have come or are coming to a close, there’s been little change in their data as well. Through our Ivy peers reporting data, their own downward trends continue. For the year 2021, all of them now lie between 0.09 and 0.57% positivity with the upper bound on that range down from 0.61% one month ago. Our NESCAC peers continue to report positivity ranges from 0.03 to 0.25% for calendar 2021. And that should not change for the next several months, given that their spring semesters have largely concluded.

Our state university peers, UVM and UNH also remain unchanged. In terms of vaccination progress, four weeks ago, the percentages of students and employees on or accessing the Dartmouth campus who had been fully vaccinated were reported to be in the 20s and 30s on a percent basis. Two weeks ago, I reported that those numbers were now above 50% for both groups. And I also noted that if progress continued, we would be able to ease additional restrictions. We, in fact, over the past two weeks did see continued progress in vaccination. Last Friday, we therefore removed the outdoor mask mandate for the physical campus in an announcement that was sent to the campus Friday afternoon from the task force co-chairs.

And today, I can report that we are now above 70% vaccination for students who were on or accessing campus and above 70% vaccination for employees who are on or accessing campus. Geisel remains leader among graduate and professional programs with over 90% of the Geisel student body reporting that they’ve been fully vaccinated. And among our non-medical student community, Tuck stands the leader at 77%, Thayer catching up strong and quickly at 73%, the undergraduate student body at 69%, and Guarini at 65%, all of these in a way remarkable in how close and consistent they are with one another and all representing percentages of students who are enrolled in on-campus spring term and who have uploaded information confirming that they are fully vaccinated, meaning they are now two weeks or more beyond their final dose.

We expect that most, if not, all of the actual numbers are higher, as students are still uploading vaccination confirmation data. And so let me use that as a reminder to all of us, students and employees alike to please upload your vaccination information as soon as you receive your second dose, so we can keep track of progress. And again, use that as one gauge of moving towards more flexible campus operating conditions. A reminder to our students, that the deadline to submit evidence of at least one first dose or to complete a medical religious waiver is June 30 of 2021, just three weeks away. Documentation showing that you are fully vaccinated, again, meeting all doses plus 14 days will be required two weeks before you arrive on campus in July, August, or September, depending upon the specific start date of your own fall term.

For all members of our community, employees, and students alike, a reminder that those who have gotten vaccinated and uploaded their confirmation will have a reduced surveillance testing regimen of only one time per month, starting July 1. Unvaccinated individuals will continue to be required to be tested twice per week.

Now, as I’ve reported previously, we also anticipate requiring vaccination for our employees with the same exceptions provided as for students. We expect to be finalizing this policy and providing details shortly in the next several weeks. In terms of campus operations, last Friday, the COVID taskforce co-chairs announced that we had moved to the dark green, less limited access plan of our five phase campus reopening plan, a plan that’s available in the on-campus life section of Dartmouth COVID website. While employees are still encouraged to work remotely as they can, more flexibility, including rotational schedules is now permitted. And in fact, this morning, I found myself in my office with three staff colleagues, easily the largest group that’s been in the provost office in ages. And with one of my colleagues smiling from ear to ear. You could tell even with masking, how happy she was to be back in the office for the first time in 15 months.

And for me, it was so energizing to see the three of them together in one place, engaged in conversation about their work, a clear sign that we are well on our way to returning to our normal operations and a fully residential fall term. Now, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, we also announced last Friday that we are no longer requiring face coverings in outdoor spaces on campus. The town of Hanover’s mask wearing ordinance is, however, still in effect. And so I ask you to please be respectful of this. Wear your mask, even in outdoor spaces when in downtown Hanover or anywhere other than on the Dartmouth campus.

In addition, here at Dartmouth, we’re still requiring individuals to wear masks when indoors and when in large gatherings, such as at commencement or investiture ceremonies this weekend. We do anticipate that these kinds of restrictions will be relaxed over the course of the summer and relaxed sooner if vaccination percentages continue to rise to 80% and beyond, which does seem to be in sight. But for now, these requirement`s do remain in place. So again, please mask up in support of the community and in inherence with our regulations while participating in commencement this weekend.

Now finally, looking ahead to summer and fall, there are three operational areas that I’d like to touch on briefly before closing. First, travel. Given the good progress we’re seeing with vaccination and the expectation that percentages will continue to rise, I am announcing our intention to ease restrictions on travel effective the start of fall term for each school. Please note that this is not taking effect today. Again, these new policies will take effect at the start of fall term for each school and program, but we are announcing this today to facilitate advanced planning for them fall term. With that background and caveat, individual vaccinated Dartmouth travelers will be permitted to travel to specific countries outside the United States that have been vetted for health, safety, and security risks, including having appropriate COVID safeguards and manageable levels of infection, and to do so without having to seek an exception or special permission to our travel policy.

Now, I recognize that this announcement that I just made will lead immediately to questions of which countries are on that list. The task force is finalizing those details. And I ask for your patience. I simply wanted to let you know today that with the start of fall term, international travel to approved destinations will be possible without the traveler needing to seek an exception and gain permission. In addition, vaccinated individuals may apply for permission to travel to countries that are not on the vetted and approved list. Those countries will still require individual review and approvals exception to the overall policy, but travel permission will be possible to be received depending upon circumstances for vaccinated individuals. Individual unvaccinated Dartmouth travelers will be permitted to travel domestically without requiring an exception and any international travel for unvaccinated travelers will still require an exception and that special permission.

Finally, also upon the start of fall term, group travel in the United States will no longer require an exception even if the group consists of a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Again, this is for domestic travel. As was the case before the pandemic, travelers and organizers of travel must adhere to the Dartmouth travel safety policy and must register international travel. During the pandemic, all travelers must also register domestic travel outside of New England, which was encouraged before the pandemic. It is required, but it is a registry, it is not a seeking of permission. These details, including the list of approved countries for vaccinated travelers will be posted shortly through an update on our COVID travel website expected later this coming week. And again, a reminder that these eased restrictions will take effect the start of fall term for each school.

Second, I’d like to provide an update on our community expectations agreements that were signed by all students prior to the start of the 2020-2021 academic year. Many of you will recall that these agreements were developed last summer and designed to acknowledge the commitment that we were and are making to one another as a community to I quote, “act responsibly as we face the difficult challenges brought about by the global coronavirus pandemic.”

Among other things, these agreements articulated what I will call the operating conditions for the campus, outlined the conduct resolution process for violations, and asked each student to sign and affirm their commitment to adhere. We all learned a lot this past year and we made operating adjustments each term based on measurable data, including case counts and based on feedback we received from the community and particularly from the student community.

This spring, as part of that process, we sought input from undergraduate, graduate, and professional school student focus groups. And we consistently heard requests for simplification and clarification of this agreement. We heard you, and we will therefore be moving forward with a streamlined statement of community expectations that will be effective at the start of each school’s fall term. It reiterates the vaccination requirement that’s already been announced and otherwise references a need to follow all COVID-19 policies and campus standards. It mirrors other policies that govern campus operation. And as such, signature on this specific document will not be required this year. It will become one of the campus policies that members of the student community are expected to follow. Details will be distributed in the coming weeks in written form. And again, will become effective at the start of fall term for each individual school.

Third, and finally, I’d like to offer just a few comments on summer and fall terms that lie just around the corner. Summer term, as I’ve said often, is a transitional term. We will have more classes in-person. We will have more faculty meetings with students in-person. These past two weeks, I’ve met with many of my own individual undergraduate advisees in-person, sitting at a table outside, sometimes sitting on the steps of Parkhurst, or in one case, taking a walk down to the West End to see the new Center for Engineering and Computer Science and the Irving Institute building taking shape.

We will see more of this, this summer. Renewal of these personal connections between faculty, staff, and student, I have no doubt. But I continue to be asked why we do not simply mandate that all classes be taught in-person this summer.

I will say again, with due respect, we will not issue that mandate for the summer. We gave our students a commitment to flexibility for this full year. We gave our faculty our trust in them to determine how best to connect with students in their classes, students who are present as well as those who are studying remotely. As tempting as it is to push everything to in-person operation, we will not compromise the learning of the 20% who were away this summer. We will not compromise the commitment we made to them as full members of the Dartmouth student community.

I know that we will see more of the face-to-face interactions that I described. We will see more faculty-student interaction. And I am confident that the sooner we push our vaccination levels to 80% and beyond, the more of this we will have.

Finally, let me close with just a few brief comments on the year ahead for the Class of ’24, who have had anything but a normal first year of college. We’ve gotten many questions about recreating some of the elements typical of a first-year experience for our ’24s during their sophomore year. Certainly, the most important of these is the opportunity to be side-by-side with classmates and with faculty in the classroom, in the field, in the lab, in the studio. And as I have said repeatedly, that is coming at the start of fall term.

We also know that the co-curricular experience is on the minds of everyone, and the Office of Student Life is working with the Class of ’24 Class Council to survey our students on different welcome back opportunities that would likely occur over the full year, including through sophomore summer, to help build the kind of Dartmouth community that’s such a hallmark of the Dartmouth student experience.

We will be redoing the class’ candlelight ceremony at the Bema, and we will be redoing matriculation with President Hanlon. Those are confirmed and happening at the request of the members of the student assembly. Many other things are in the planning stages and or pending input from the survey I just mentioned. Much more to follow in the coming months, leading up to the start of fall term.

So let me end by simply saying fall is so close. I expect fall to bring the return to the Dartmouth we know, that we expect, and we love for all of our students and for all of our community. I’m asking that you work with us in making summer a transitional term that brings back much of what makes Dartmouth special, and does so in a measured and controlled way as we move towards full-access conditions on Aug. 1, and an in-person fall term nearly immediately afterwards.

Thank you for your understanding, and to the Dartmouth community, thank you for your work during a full academic year of pandemic operation, something none of us anticipated just 12 months ago. Thank you.

Justin, over to you. Happy to take any questions that may be on the minds of our audience today.

Justin Anderson:

Thank you so much, Joe. And nice to see you. I think it’s safe to say that there are two issues that are on the minds of our viewers today, primarily. The first I think you’ve really addressed towards the end of your remarks. It’s some variety of, when are you going to open up fully? And I think you addressed that. But I guess, if we could just try to put a finer point on it. There were a lot of questions about what the threshold level of vaccinations is in order for us to open up.

And you said, or completely open up, I should say. You mentioned 80%. Is that sort of the magic number at which point restrictions will quickly go away. And then, and again, I think you addressed this in some of your remarks, but to what extent does that impact, if not bringing all students back to in-person, does it increase the likelihood of some sort of hybrid?

That’s really probably the most popular question, is when and how will we see these restrictions fall and get back to what is more typically expected of a summer term.


So as of today, Justin, thank you for the question. And I hear variations of that frequently, including when I’m out walking or running through town. Eighty percent is the number we are describing. Now, I want to be clear in that I’m not waffling, but that’s not a firm commitment today, but that is our expectation. That once we exceed the 80% level, it is going to give us the flexibility and the confidence to remove additional restrictions, even if that well before the Aug. 1 date that we have already announced as a return to full-access conditions.

Part of it depends upon how the town of Hanover moves. We want to be respectful of our neighbors. We want to do this in partnership with the town of Hanover. And we were hoping to see relaxed restrictions in the town of Hanover being put in place over the coming weeks to months as well. And so this is an engaged conversation with the town, an iterative process, but at a high level. My expectation is that as we move past 80%, we are going to be in a position to begin removing additional restrictions.

One thing I want to emphasize is that we are not going to get there before the start of summer term. Summer term starts in a week and a half. We need to remember that we have 20% of our student body who will not be here this summer. And so even if we achieved 90% vaccination by say mid-July, we would not suddenly pivot all of our courses to in-person courses because we’ve got that percentage of the student body that we have made a commitment to, who are still very much members of the Dartmouth student community engaging in their learning and education, who are not here on campus this summer.

But what will happen is, access to campus facilities will expand considerably. What may happen is we will be able to have more people at events. What may and likely will happen is we will be able to host larger events without the same distancing requirements in place when we get to those higher levels of vaccination. And so what that all means, it is going to start to feel much more like a regular summer term heading into what will feel very much like a regular fall term.


Joe, I mentioned that there were two questions that were sort of the most popular access to campus. Opening up was number one. Number two, you could probably guess, but I won’t put you through that. It’s about housing in the fall. You addressed this two weeks ago during community conversations, and explained why there is going to be a little bit of a housing crunch in the fall. Lot of people are asking whether or not there is an update on that. And if there’s anything we can say about the status of housing in the fall, particularly for the 23s.


I think, Justin, here I’d say be patient. We can say a whole lot more in two weeks. We know that there is going to be demand that exceeds supply. It is not going to be a huge excess, but demand is going to exceed supply. We’ve seen this happen before, in years when we’ve had larger than anticipated class sizes, years where we’ve had higher percentage yield on our offers of admission to our incoming first year class. This last happened about five years ago with the class I believe of 2021.

And so, we’ve got some steps in place to help us deal with some of the excess demand. We also know that there are many more opportunities to live off-campus within close proximity of the Dartmouth campus, based on our experience this past year that we anticipate we’ll be able to accommodate students who are not able to secure a room on campus.

This is an iterative process, reaching out to students with room assignments, asking them to confirm having some students on a wait list. But I just, without being specific, would like to dispel the notion that there are going to be huge, huge, huge numbers of students who are not able to be accommodated.

There is going to be a supply and demand mismatch. It’s largely owing to two things; the fact that we will not be running most off-campus programs this fall because of restrictions on travel in most places, and because we have students who were not first-year students, but other years who took a gap year this past year who are coming back to campus. And so our student population is larger than expected. But the team in campus facilities and the team in residential life is working hard to address that. In two weeks we’ll have a lot more to say about this.


Joe, we have time for one more question before we bring our panelists in. And this question is, you actually touched on it a little bit in your last answer. It’s about it’s about off-campus programs and the international travel loosening of restrictions that you mentioned in the introduction. A viewer writes in to ask that, who will do the vetting of the health, safety, security risks, et cetera, for the specific countries to which Dartmouth students, faculty, and staff may be going? And how does that impact off-campus programs?


That vetting will be done by a working group that’s part of our COVID-19 task force that focuses very specifically on travel, both domestically and internationally. And it’s comprised of our global health experts, those who manage travel generally, and our epidemiologists. And so they are working through information that’s coming both from CDC, from the state department, and from other countries, equivalent bodies that provide information on health. And they will be the ones who will make recommendations to me that we will then approve and post. And that, of course, can be a living list And will change.

Part of the challenge, as we anticipate that happening, one could naturally ask, well, why don’t we simply open off-campus programs in those locations? Off-campus programs, internationally in particular, require us to be planning and securing contracts six to nine months in advance. And so we are at the point where it is challenging to anticipate being able to do more than just a token number of those by the fall.

I am far more optimistic about international travel, off-campus programs, language study and foreign study programs picking up significantly in winter term and continuing and turning back to normal levels in spring term. But fall term, because of the advanced planning that’s required, will be a challenge. So thank you for that question, it’s a very good question.

And on that note, let me turn to our three guests who were there on the screen with me briefly, just a few seconds ago. You disappeared. There you are. Welcome back. E.J. Kiefer, President Phil Hanlon, board Chair Laurel Richie. Great, great to have you with us as always, thanks for joining us today.

So, I would like to just get right into the questions. I’m sure our audience has many questions for you, and I have a few for each of you as well to tee it up. And Phil, if you don’t mind, I’m going to start with you.

And as I mentioned in my remarks, and as you all know well, we’re just a few days from a commencement that by definition is going to be different than anything that has come before. And it’s at the end of a year that’s unlike any other year that any of us at Dartmouth. Frankly, a different year than Dartmouth has experienced at any point in its past.

Before we turn to a conversation around commencement, just, can I ask you here we are at the end of the academic year, can you just reflect back and tell us a few things that you found most challenging about this past year, given your perspective as president?

Philip Hanlon:

Sure, Joe, thanks for the question. And actually, before getting to your question, I do want to take a minute to recognize both Joe and Laurel for your many contributions that each of you has made to campus over the past years. As many of you may know, Laurel will complete her term as board chair later this month. And later the summer, Joe will depart Dartmouth to assume the presidency of his alma mater, Lehigh University. So thank you both. You will be sorely missed.


Thank you Phil.

Laurel Richie:

Thank you Phil.


To your question, without doubt, I have to just begin by noting that the most wrenching part of this past year for all of us has been the loss of four students. Four bright lights within our campus, and my heart goes out to their family and to their friends. During my time as president, we have had 15 tragic student deaths, and each has just been devastating to such a tight-knit community as ours. And so this year hit particularly hard.

Beyond those tragic losses, the year’s been difficult and complicated, because the pandemic brought us not one but four simultaneous challenges. One was taking the steps necessary to keep our campus free from COVID of course, but then protecting the mental health and wellness of our community in the face of the isolation required to reduce the spread of the disease.

And then finding ways to teach effectively, and conduct research despite the restrictions on face-to-face contact. And finally, dealing with substantial financial losses that resulted from all of the above. And all of this with no playbook. None of us have ever been through something like this before, essentially no advanced warning. So it has been a year of challenge like no other that I’ve experienced.


Thank you, Phil. I know that I, certainly we all have learned a lot from this. It’s been a lesson in operating under challenging conditions in so many ways. I’m confident we’ll all take this forward and help make the institution even better. And I know that all of us would truly like to never live through a year like this again.


Of course.


Thank you for your leadership and steering of the institution through these challenging times.

Laurel, I’d like to turn to you next. And as Phil mentioned, your term as board chair is ending. Although I know it doesn’t formally end until after commencement, and later this month. But if you don’t mind, I’d also like to ask you for your reflections on your time on the board and as chair. Where, in your view, has Dartmouth made the biggest strides forward in your nearly decade of leadership positions at this institution?


Yeah, thank you, Joe. And let me first just echo Phil’s sadness about the students that we’ve lost. I think it has affected all of us very, very deeply, and I too send condolences to family, and students, and faculty who knew and loved these students. I also want to thank our entire community just for all that they have lived through, struggled through, and persevered through in this year. It has been like any that I’ve experienced, and truly appreciate the challenge and the difference in this year.

I’m excited to hear that we’re beginning to head back to something more normal, and I know we will all welcome that. So sorry with that little bit of a pretty mumble. So when I think back over these years, academic excellence, the fact that Dartmouth joined the American Association of American Universities, our return to R1 status are all indicators of, really, our presence within higher ed. I think a lot about the culture initiatives introduced by Phil and team moving Dartmouth forward, inclusive excellence, campus, climate, and culture. The fact that we have embraced a student liaison committee to engage with the board more directly. I think about some great strides financially in terms of the endowment and our long-term forecast for a balanced budget.

And I think a lot about diversity. This incoming class, they are incredibly diverse and reflective of our country and our world. Our board is 51% women, has the first Native American trustee in the history of Dartmouth, racially, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of industry participation, engagement, just a really rich and dynamic group that I think has served us well as we have entered into such challenging times. So there are many things that I’m proud of, and I know there’s a lot more work to be done, but those are a couple that I think have been noteworthy over the past nine years or so.


Oh, thank you. So Phil, I’d like to turn back to you with a question and begin to look ahead. Over the course of the next year, and we’ve been talking about this at length and we anticipate coming out of COVID, we’ve taken campus-wide actions to correct an underlying structural budgetary challenge. We’re setting aside funding to begin to address long-term campus physical infrastructural needs, and the hiring of faculty through the interdisciplinary cluster hiring initiative that you launched in your first year as president is nearing its final stages. That, on top of everything else that Laurel touched on, is quite a list. And yet, there is more to be done. There is always more ahead for an institution like Dartmouth. Are there three or four things that, top of mind, you anticipate focusing on over the course of the summer and in the year ahead?


So, yeah, thanks for that. Job one in the coming year is to focus on the student experience, helping strengthen their community, help build their connection to each other, to faculty and staff, to alumni, and to the institution. And I recognize every member of the community has sacrificed suffered as a result of the pandemic. But I think students have felt the loss of a full Dartmouth experience more intensely because their time with us as students is so short, and I think we need to do everything we can over the next year to rebuild the experience that they have and, as much as possible, restore what they may have lost. So as part of this, we are intensely focused on shoring up mental health resources. We’ve added five new counselors already and made additional commitments in our May 21 letter to the community.

We’re looking forward to the results of the JED Foundation review. Given their experience and expertise, they’ll help guide us forward as well. As you mentioned, Joe, we are intensely focused on the ’24s, who had a first-year that is not what anyone wanted. They missed out on some of the important traditions like trips and matriculation and building a bonfire that connect them as classmates. And of course, they suffered the loss of three classmates themselves. So, as you noted, Dean Lively and her team are working hard on this in consultation with the ’24s. And we all have our creative thinking hats on, and I know that they would appreciate ideas from anyone who’s listening here today.

And beyond the ’24s, we’re just looking to try to knit the entire community together with more casual events on the Green. We will definitely continue the skating, which you started, Joe. It was a big hit. We’re thinking about an oral history project, so that each of us can talk and reflect on our COVID year, ramping up our Take Your Professor to Lunch program. So in ways big and small, we are looking to enhance and reinforce the incredible Dartmouth experience.


Thank you, Phil. It’s great to hear that skating on the Green will continue. I may even come back during the winter just to check it out and experience it and see if my skating technique has gotten any better after a year away. But I think, kidding aside, these kinds of things were so important this past year. And as you and Kathryn and others have said, really focusing on rebuilding community, providing the support so that the students can reconnect, and we can all rebuild as a community after a challenging year’s hugely important. So, before we run out of time, I want to make sure I turned to E.J. with commencement looming on the horizon right in front of us. And E.J., I think you’re sitting in Leverone right now where the action is going to begin. I want to start by just asking you a few obvious questions, which are top of mind for everyone who’s going to be graduating or attending. How is this year’s commencement ceremony going to play out? How is it going to be different than a typical commencement?

E.J. Kiefer:

Thanks, Joe. I think I’m going to start with what’s going to be the same. And I speak on behalf of the Commencement Committee. So, there’s 20-plus people who are on the Commencement Committee and from departments across campus that help us with all of this. And as I sit here looking out at Memorial Field, we’re going to have chairs for students, we’re going to have guests in the stands, which weeks ago, less than a month ago, seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. So we have guests in stands. We’re going to have the ceremonial stage. We’ll have all the pomp and circumstance. And so those things will still happen. You’ll see many of the elements that you’re familiar with, with commencements and the investitures and class days. Of course, we’re not at the heart of the campus. We’re going to be in Memorial Stadium. We’re going to have great sight lines. We have all the infrastructure here. And besides being away from those usual places, we’ll be in a nice place and celebrations will be great.


Was there anything particularly challenging that you encountered in putting this year’s ceremony together? Does Memorial Field present different logistical, operational challenges than on the Green, or is it smooth and seamless either way?


It’s always smooth.


That’s a good answer, E.J.


I think the challenges were, it was 10 months ago, six months ago, it was the COVID protocols and not knowing. So at any given time, the commencement committee, we had eight or 10 different scenarios running at any given time, depending on where protocols would go, we’d go in that new direction, go further down that road and then switch. So we’re always changing. And that just took up a lot of time. So things that we would normally have done months ago, or, as the president just received the cue sheet this weekend, would have received weeks ago. So we’re a little bit behind. But in Memorial Stadium, working with our vendors that come in and also the Dartmouth services across campus, everyone’s really responsive. The stadium’s built for a large event. So sight lines, again, like I said, it will be great. We’ll have two Jumbotrons. We have electricity, we have water, we have bathrooms. It’ll be easy to get in, easy to get out.


Great. Let me ask you one quick, practical follow-up question before I turn to Laurel for the last question, and then we turned it over to Justin. What time should guests arrive? When will the gates open?


For the professional schools, the ceremonies are on Friday and Saturday. It will be an hour before the ceremony time. For commencement Sunday, it will be an hour and a half before. So 9 o’clock for Sunday. It says it on your ticket. And so, you can arrive around that time. There’s no reason to show up early. Everyone has an assigned seat on their ticket, can just walk right in. Your seat will be waiting for you.


Great. All right. Well, thank you. E.J., I very much look forward to being a part of it. So Laurel, if you don’t mind, let me turn to you and ask you the last question before we turn it back over to Justin. And as you step away after what I’ve said, it’s truly remarkable and a remarkable nearly decade of leadership and nearly decade on the board. Do you have any hopes or aspirations for those of us at Dartmouth that you’d like to share, things you hope we as a community will focus on for the decade ahead?


Yeah. This is very bittersweet, Joe. A couple of thoughts. One is a couple of years ago, the board of trustees came together and said that we wanted to focus on two things, the future of higher ed, where is it going? And where is Dartmouth’s place within that? And so I think that’s really important work, particularly for the board in our fiduciary and governance role. And the discussions have been bold, forward thinking. And so my hope is that we will embrace the future and approach this work full of possibility and what if, and take this adventuresome spirit that is such a hallmark of Dartmouth, to really think about our future and where we want to be and shoring up the unique position that we hold within the higher ed sector, but do it in a way that is reflective of where the future is for higher education.

And the second objective was around culture and creating an inclusive and welcoming and equitable culture for Dartmouth. And so I think if we’ve learned one thing from this past year, just how important culture and community are to the DNA of Dartmouth. And so I am excited about the work being done. I’m excited about the recent hire of Dr. Delalue. My wish is that every Dartmouth student leaves with the strong connections and bonds that come from what Dartmouth uniquely offers. So being bold in our ambitions for our future and being mindful of the specialness of the community and doing all that we can to nurture that, extend it, and make sure that every member of the community feels that sense of community.


Thank you, Laurel. That’s certainly a direction I think we have made under your leadership and Phil’s leadership great strides, and an aspiration and a direction to guide us all. So thank you. Justin, let me turn it over to you now. Let’s see what questions are coming in from our audience today.


Great. So Phil, I’m going to start with you. As you know, on community conversations, I try to capture the most popular questions that come in and put them to our guests. I think that today, it’s safe to say that during this period, the most popular question is about students returning and what Dartmouth has planned for them. You went through a list of those things that we have in the works. I wonder if there’s one or two things that you think are particularly interesting. You mentioned the oral histories that we may be doing in the fall, and someone asked about what that’s all about. But is there anything that you would like to highlight that you have been thinking about or that you know is coming that we will be doing to welcome students back?


Sure. Thanks, Justin. And before I answer the question, that I know you’re asking what unique or special things that we’re doing. So I do want to emphasize, what I’m most excited about is just our return to all the things that made Dartmouth special all along. So, great classes taught by dedicated faculty who connect closely with our students. We’ll be doing artistic performances. Our students will be performing again. We’ll be playing sports. We’ll be doing outdoor programs. The DOC will be in full swing. So all the things that have always made Dartmouth so special will be back in the fall. And that’s really what heartens me the most, amongst all things.

But you mentioned one that I find really, I think, meaningful and exciting, which is the notion of doing an oral histories project. And I think that we all have sacrificed over the past year, but in different ways and with different intensities. And I think that it’s important for us to hear from each other about the experiences we’ve had and for us to articulate them so that we can begin to process what I think is going to be viewed over the next centuries as being an incredible moment in the history of the world and this nation. So I think the oral histories project is just a small piece of us all beginning to wrap our heads around that.


Laurel, because this question is really on top of mind for a lot of people, and I know this is something that you’ve been thinking about. And from your perch as a trustee emeriti in September, what is it that you hope that the Dartmouth community that is coming back to campus will be able to experience? And how do you hope that at Dartmouth welcomes folks back at that point?


Yeah. My hope, I agree with Phil. There’s just, I think, just a back to normal on some level is going to feel great, to be in a classroom with a professor and chat with them before and chat with them after. I hope that we can find a way to tap into some of the traditions. I don’t know if it’ll be a freshmen trip for every one of the ’24s, but something that brings class members together in the outdoors that is so unique, or at Moosilauke, I don’t know, but something where those who missed that signature event have something that may not be identical but is a really good representation that has the community, the outdoors, venture, and going off into the wilderness. You can do the salty dog rag anywhere.

We can have Don Pease read Green Eggs and Ham from lots of different places. So I think there’s a way that we can begin to create those experiences, maybe a little bit differently, but with the same meaning so that they start to build their Dartmouth memory bank and that their memory bank holds its own versus any other student from any other class. So those are the things that I’m excited about.


E.J., over to you with, I’m going to ask you two questions. The first one is very specific, and that is water stations. Are there going to be water stations in Memorial Field? I know on the Green there are those big bubblers all over the place, and I see people making good use of them. Will there be those bubblers all over Memorial Field or will people have to bring their own water?


Good point, and we did put that point on our website. Please bring your own water. It’s going to be helpful. There will be some boxed water that we’ll also have available for anyone that needs extra water. But the bubblers, because of contact, we will not have bubblers throughout the stadium.


This other question someone has asked, and this is a question that I think I’ve thought about asking you over the years. This person who asked it I think probably doesn’t know you as well as I, because I think that they are hoping that you’ll actually answer this question. That question is, you said that commencement always goes smoothly. This person wants to know about the disasters that you have helped avert over the course of your nearly 20 commencements. So this person’s looking for a little bit of dirt on what you may have seen that we narrowly averted sitting in the audience on the Green.


So, what happens behind the green curtain, doesn’t stay behind the green curtain? I think the most interesting thing was, actually George Bush was onstage. We had Secret Service onsite and we had the bell ringer who would sit up in the bell tower at the time before we had laptops to be able to control it. It gets hot up there, and the bell ringer raised the window about five inches, and I see everyone doing this, talking into their sleeves. So I stepped back behind the stage and I say, “Can I help you with anything?” And they said, “What’s going on up in the tower?” I said, “Our bell ringer’s up there,” and they said, “Tell him to close the window or we start shooting.” He was joking. He was joking. But they were concerned. Just to see how responsive they are, a window raising six inches. So we quickly got the bell ringer out of the tower, got him some fresh air, and the ceremony went on.


Well done E.J. Nicely handled.




I think beyond that, Justin, people will have to buy E.J.’s tell-all book.


I would buy that E.J. Put me down for at least one. Laurel, if I could go back to you. Pretty basic question, and I find this question—I get some versions of this quite often, COVID year or not, and it’s about how the board works with the president and senior leadership. And what’s the responsibility of the board versus what’s the responsibility of the president, and how did that change? The question really is about how it changed during COVID. How did the interaction with, or the relationship between the board, and the president, and senior leadership, change over this year? What kinds of adjustments did you have to make in order to get us through an extraordinary year?


Yeah. In the simplest terms, the role of the administration is to run and manage the institution, and the role of the board is to provide oversight to that management of the institution. We have a fiduciary responsibility. We think a lot about reputation management. And we think about the long-term strategy. While that is created by the administration team, we are trying to think about the future, anticipate the future, and provide input to that planning process. This year we just had more interaction is the best way that I can describe it.

I don’t think our roles changed, but it did change the level of uncertainty and unpredictability, the need to factor multiple constituencies and concerns in this sort of highly volatile environment, the board and the senior team came together more often. I can’t put a percentage or a number on it, but it was easier to do because we all got comfortable with Zoom and virtual meetings. But we just stayed in closer contact because of the uncertainty and to be there as a resource, and a sounding board, and gut check for Phil and his team.

That changed, and I think we’re all thinking about, amidst this year that was so different and so challenging, are there things that we can carry forward? And my hope is that now that we’ve found a cadence and a more frequent check-in, I suspect. I don’t want to speak for my successor and how she and Phil want to do things, but I think we’ve learned that upping our cadence a little bit, might be a good thing to continue in the future. Because four meetings a year, there’s a big gap sometimes between those meetings, and so my guess is that’s something that the board will carry forward.


Phil, we are running out of time. I’d like to ask you a question and then I’m going to go back to Laurel for the final question of today’s show. But Phil, for you, what is it that you’re most looking forward to for commencement this weekend, which is obviously going to be different than most? But what is it about this weekend that you are most looking forward to?


Yeah. Thanks, Justin. You know, to me it’s unchanged this year. The commencement is the culmination of the academic year. It’s to me the most meaningful event of every year. It’s a chance to celebrate the very real accomplishment of completing a Dartmouth degree. It’s also a chance for us to wish our graduates well as they head out to make a difference in the world. And more than anything else, when I sit up there on the commencement stage, I am filled with hope and confidence in the future knowing that we’re sending out in the world so many talented, passionate, Dartmouth graduates who are committed to open-minded inquiry, evidence, reason, respectful dialogue. Boy, the world needs them now more than ever, and so to me it’s an incredibly happy and uplifting event.


Laurel, a little bit of playing off that, I know that you will be on campus for commencement, participating in the event or attending the event on behalf of the board. Why was it important to you to make the trip up to Hanover and do that?


Yeah. First of all, you never have to twist my arm to get me from New York City to Hanover, N. H. Just put in a call and I’m there. Right? I don’t even need to pack. I’m just going to head straight onto the highway. Like Phil, it is the moment that we all come together and not only celebrate all that the graduates have accomplished, but it is for all of us a reminder of why we exist, what our purpose is, what our mission is, to provide this incredible education that is their intellectual development, but also their social, emotional development, and it’s launching, right? We’re launching these really talented, bright, full of possibility, young people out into the world to change it.

So, I feel like you never want to miss the launch of yet another class out into the world. And the other thing that I think is even more poignant this year is, this is a concrete symbol of the possibility of reopening. Right? Having not been able to gather last year, I don’t think we will. Not that we ever took it for granted, but we will never ever take it for granted. So to be able to be present and witness this launching again, after missing last year, I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. Because I think it’s going to have just a little extra specialness to it because of what we’ve all been through collectively.


Well, thanks for that. I wholeheartedly agree and look forward to seeing you somewhere on Main Street or Lebanon Street as we’re hopefully walking over to Memorial Field. And thank you, and Phil, and E.J. for joining us for a really interesting conversation. I greatly appreciate your time this afternoon of a busy week as we head into commencement weekend. So thank you, and with that, Joe, I will go back to you.


Great. Thanks Justin. Let me add my thanks, Justin, as always. Thank you for your moderation and the questions. E.J., thank you for everything you’re doing for commencement. I will see you in about 10 minutes at the Field House to walk through my paces and my role in anticipation of Sunday. And Laurel and Phil, I want to thank you both for your leadership throughout the past many years, but particularly this past year, and for your comments and remarks today. I’m just going to build on that in my closing. As I was walking over here to the library to join you for Community Conversations, just walking past the lawn in front of the library, I ran into Robert Gill, one of the campus photographers.

He was taking a photo of a student next to a tree. I asked him what he was doing, and he introduced me to Megan who’s one of our student marshals at commencement. And I took the moment just to ask a few questions to do the obligatory faculty thing. “What year are you? Where are you from? What did you like about Dartmouth? What did you major in? Where you going next?” And just in that brief conversation to hear about her trajectory as a biology and women’s and gender studies major, of what she’s going to do to help support pregnant women in an interim year as she thinks about applying to law school, it just filled me with such hope about the promise that these students bring when they leave this campus and go out and become leaders and help change the world.

Also, just that sense of excitement that I feel every year heading into commencement and the possibility that it offers. And so I have to say, Phil and Laurel, echoing exactly what you said, even in this unusual year this is such an extraordinarily special moment and signals to me very much an important marker and milestone in our return to normalcy. Something that we are all so desperately looking forward to and so excited about and by. So thank you all. Thanks to everyone who joined us. We will be back for Community Conversations in two weeks, and I look forward to seeing you then.