Dennis Hanno Embracing Community and His Legacy

The campus was devastated to hear Dennis Hanno’s decision to step down as President of Wheaton College in late 2021. But instead of dwelling on Wheaton’s now anticipated loss of such an inspiring leader, I aim to shine a positive light on the subject.

Dennis Hanno and Sydney Murphy speaking over zoom

The campus was devastated to hear Dennis Hanno’s decision to step down as President of Wheaton College in late 2021. But instead of dwelling on Wheaton’s now anticipated loss of such an inspiring leader, I aim to shine a positive light on the subject. 

Because this Spring is going to be another challenging semester of social distancing, I am writing this article with the intent of highlighting the challenges Hanno has helped Wheaton overcome during the years of his Presidency since first arriving at Wheaton in 2014 and to share the impressive legacy he will leave at the end of his term.

One of Hanno’s earliest initiatives arose from a strategic planning process that he led in 2015. This plan prioritized fostering self-direction and empowering students to develop interdisciplinary solutions to critical issues. Through Hanno’s academic plan, students are able to pursue innovative projects and experience an increased alumni engagement throughout their Wheaton experience. 

I had the honor of speaking with Hanno last week about his own Wheaton experience. 

Hanno said that when he came to Wheaton, he saw a great opportunity to work with the community to build a sustainable vision for Wheaton’s future. He hit the ground running with positive changes made to the campus including the renovation of the campus dining facilities. He prioritized modifications to buildings that were necessary to increase the accessibility of the campus. According to Hanno, quality of life was his priority then and still is today. 

With Hanno’s strategic plan in place, this led to the creation of the what does this stand for again exactly? (WIN) Hub and the social entrepreneurship program in 2018. These programs integrate social innovation into a liberal arts and sciences education. Innovation spaces such as the MakerSpace also create an opportunity for students to build things that they have envisioned to launch their own businesses or organization. 

The faculty constantly considers the topics of education that students are most interested in focusing on to build more opportunities for students. Hanno is proud of the creativity that the faculty has used when creating new academic programs and therefore growing the Wheaton student body throughout the past few years. Hanno has seen the connection between faculty, staff, students, and alumni drive the real changes that have occurred on Wheaton’s campus these past few years. 

“Evolution in high education is critical to continue progress,” said Hanno. 

Hanno has worked hard to build the structures around diversity on Wheaton’s campus. Diversity, Equity and Access Leadership (DEAL) was established in 2018 and is an entity that strives to create opportunities for innovative diversity work in leadership efforts on campus. It looks to increase inclusive, equitable, and accessible learning for all Wheaton students. 

“Diversity and inclusion are what communities need to focus on, especially in times like this,” said Hanno.

Since 2000, over a thousand college and university students, alumni, staff and professors have traveled with Hanno to sub-Saharan Africa with the non-profit program, IDEA4Africa, based in Rwanda and Uganda. This is one of the many projects that Hanno is spearheading in Africa to better educate young people on ways they can make a positive change in their own communities. Hanno continues to highlight the importance of African countries having the independence to create an entrepreneurial business environment for those in rural areas through social innovation. 

“It’s about changing their world. For me, it was all about giving students an opportunity to use the tools they developed [in educational settings] in a different way to change their own world,” said Hanno.

According to Hanno, the programs he is leading in Africa aim to teach young people the various ways in which the skills they have or develop can be used to make positive changes in their communities. Hanno described the change that he has seen in himself and Wheaton students after participating every year in leading the programs abroad as priceless. Due to the current COVID-19 Pandemic, Hanno plans to continue inviting students to participate in the program in-person when the environment in terms of health is safer for everyone. The project Hanno is leading in India will continue remotely and continue to be brought to fruition until it is safe to travel on-sight.  

Hanno has formed many connections with the Wheaton community while serving as president. He has learned many lessons from teaching courses in accounting at Wheaton and has a never-ending list of ideas he still hopes to initiate in improving the business major. The Business and Management Major had just been put into place when Hanno arrived at Wheaton. Hanno described his time in class and at events hosted by student organizations as a great way for him to get to know the students and speak to them honestly about their experience at Wheaton. 

“That provided me with a direct link between students and the experience they were having in the classroom and the faculty and the experience they were having in the classroom,” said Hanno.

Hanno has mentioned that he looks forward to continuing to advance the exciting and forward-looking initiatives the campus has underway. The faculty plans to continue creating new academic programs and continue to strengthen and grow Wheaton’s alumni base. Hanno mentioned the constant evolution of the Business program and the connections and opportunities that it is continuing to build for students outside of the Business and Management major. According to Hanno, the renovation of the old science center will transform it into a major academic building and bring all the innovation spaces on campus together with the generous financial support of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation

“Innovation is Wheaton College ––Wheaton College is innovation,” said Hanno.

With the very busy schedule he has kept up with during his many years at Wheaton College, Hanno looks forward to the change in routine the next year will bring. But taking Hanno’s self-driven personality into consideration, many students doubt he will leave much room for relaxation in the future. From Hanno’s standpoint, he believes he will maintain an unbreakable connection with Wheaton for many years to come. 

Hanno mentioned in his initial announcement to step down that his main goals after Wheaton are to spend much more time with his family and to continue to pursue his passion for education, especially for those who have traditionally been underserved. Though Hanno may not have concrete plans for where he will end up after Wheaton, he does see himself continuing his involvement in higher education. He plans to continue to lead his multiple projects in many countries in Africa and stay in touch with members of the Wheaton community. 

Hanno said that he will miss his time walking through the dimple handing out ice cream from his ice cream cart and mingling with students. Though he may not have the chance to catch up with students and share advice with them when walking around the dimple, he would like to share a few phrases of advice now that students may use in future years. 

“Embrace community.”

Hanno spoke about the support needed for all of us to get through the current challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. We all need a community to turn to in these uncertain times. He also reminded us of the motto that he lives by. 

“One step at a time.” 

Hanno explained that there are challenges in everything we do. f you get overwhelmed by those challenges then you won’t get anything done. Hanno wants to make sure that the campus knows that he would never leave the community in the middle of a pandemic. He is prepared to stay until the campus feels like it has taken care of the safety of the students to its full capability and that the community is comfortable with the campus environment. 

“Be realistic about what you can do and don’t get overwhelmed with what you can’t do,” said Hanno.

With Hanno’s busy schedule and the intense challenges that the campus has faced since the beginning of 2020, he has developed his own ways to deal with the stress that these challenges have brought. Spending time with family and getting out outside for physical activity have been a few major de-stressing activities for him. Hanno prioritizes self-care and emphasized the importance of pursuing projects that give you joy and allow you to pursue what you are passionate about.

Hanno has transformed Wheaton into the lovely campus that we have today and on behalf of the student body I would like to thank him for all that he has done.