An interview with Dennis Hanno, Wheaton’s eighth president

Wheaton Wire: A major theme that’s been part of your first few weeks here has been this one of “Let’s Get Started, Now.” I’m wondering now that you’ve settled in, what does that entail? What do you want to start here at Wheaton?

Dennis Hanno: I guess I’d like to take the things that we already do at Wheaton and really start to figure out how we can take them to a whole new level — how we can actually spread the word about the good stuff that’s happening here. … Some of it is around even the way we talk about Wheaton. … So that means being much more external in our focus. I think sometimes we tend to be enclosed in our beautiful little campus here, and ignoring … what goes on in the rest of the world. … So, “Let’s Get Started, Now,” to me, is thinking about how … we take what we’re already doing and spread a lot more enthusiasm among people outside of Wheaton. It’s also thinking about what are the programs and the needs of the college to attract more students. … I think every student that graduates from Wheaton should have  

the opportunity to be engaged in something that’s real hands-on learning; a lot of that does take place in the classroom, but let’s provide even more opportunities for students to do it in the form of internships or research projects or a third option of even being able to create things on your own as a student here. … So it’s the spreading of the word, it’s actually taking the whole experiential learning possibilities here to a whole ’nother level … and the third part I guess is really strengthening the community. … Let’s think of ways that we can work together on some fun things, and some challenging things. …

WW: You mentioned making Wheaton more of a draw for students. Is this part of a broader institutional strategy?

DH: I always believe that if the people that are at a place really are excited about it and are doing great things at the place, more people will want to come to the place. Obviously the natural one is more student applicants, but it isn’t just students, it’s actually the more you do that’s exciting and energetic, the more alumnae and alumni want to come back, the more visitors want to come here for one thing or another … the more it enables us to attract highly skilled, energetic and excited faculty and staff. … Obviously it has an impact on the number of students that are here, which we’d like to grow a little bit, it has impact on the alumni engagement and involvement, which often then [translates to] more philanthropy towards Wheaton from alums, which obviously would be good to have, as well. It relates to more opportunities for students because people who are friends and neighbors of Wheaton feel connected and want to do things for Wheaton. …

WW: A president’s primary job  — usually — involves being a fundraiser. How do you intend to balance your clear interest in being accessible to students with your more typical duties of raising money for the college through interacting with alums and donors?

DH: It’s a really good question and it’s one that’s back to what the boundaries [are]. … I was off with [a student] who wants to talk about grad school this morning, so I usually try to carve out early morning for those kinds of things. Where was I till ten o’clock last night? I was off with Dasho [Tenzing Yonten P’12, founder and director of Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan], the visitor from Bhutan. … The hours of a president in my mind really are 24 hours basically. … So for me it’s just throwing myself into it and spending as much time as I can both connecting with and learning about the internal constituencies and doing the same with those external constituencies, and then in the end, words like internal and external hopefully … go away and we’re all just part of the same community.

WW: You were provost at Babson — what is it like transitioning from the role of chief academic officer to what is essentially that of a head administrator?

DH: So the progression of my career, especially towards the tail end when it started to accelerate, is that I’ve done just about every senior administration job that is there, from associate dean to dean to vice provost. And what had evolved … at Babson [was that] … as provost I did oversee student affairs … athletics and public safety, and things like that, so provost was more like the senior internal officer. … So the learning curve around the functions hasn’t been that steep … it’s always about the organization, and every organization is different and the culture and priorities about Wheaton are different than a Babson or a UMass Amherst, but it’s also that I’m recognizing that it isn’t like forcing the culture from another place on an already existing culture … it’s about figuring out how to work together to build on the culture that’s already here, and to think about what progress means in the context of Wheaton, and not some other institution.

WW: I don’t think this is the prevailing conception, but the concern hasn’t gone unvoiced: Do you want to turn Wheaton into a business school?

DH: No, absolutely not. The last thing the world needs is another business school. Seriously. In fact if you look at business schools, and I’ve spent my whole life in them, the market in business schools is so competitive that they’re basically eating each other … I think “Why Wheaton?” for me — and this question obviously has come up a lot of times — is that I’ve spent more time working with business students trying to convince them, and hopefully being successful at it, that it … won’t be more technical business knowledge that will be the differentiator for a student; … it’s what they do outside of that, it’s their ability to understand culture and society … to think broadly about how to tackle various issues. And that usually doesn’t derive from taking more courses in accounting and finance; it derives from taking courses that provide a number of different perspectives on a topic. I think the new Business and Management major here is an extraordinary opportunity to do business in a different way. … We’re not about teaching students how to do business in the traditional way; with Business here, with preparing students in general, it’s about going out into society and having an impact by thinking more broadly about the challenges that society faces. … So I really do view it as an incredible opportunity, and I am not lowoking to produce hundreds of accounting majors, like myself… My work in Africa has been very transformative for me because I go over there and everybody wants a skill, teach me how to do whatever it is, and I spend all my time teaching them not how to have a particular skill but how to use the skills they have to build things. And to me that’s what Wheaton does.