A Woman of Her Time

Bates’ new president sees new fulfillment in moving to Maine from the Main Line

Story by Doug Hubley, photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen

Scholar, teacher, administrator, and now Bates' seventh president: Elaine Hansen's career path reads like an index fund during a bull market.

Scholar, teacher, administrator, and now Bates' seventh president: Elaine Hansen's career path reads like an index fund during a bull market.

If you want an example of the kind of critical thinking that typifies the liberal arts mindset at its best, how about this:

Last September, a group of Haverford College officials met with a consulting engineer to go over specs for the college’s new athletics center. In a lineup reminiscent of the old jokes about mixed clergy in a life raft, the Haverford contingent was well-assorted — a theoretical physicist, Haverford’s director of Facility Services, its vice president for finances, its president, and the college’s provost, a Chaucerian-turned-feminist scholar named Elaine Tuttle Hansen.

The engineer was talking, says Lyle Roelofs, the physicist and the college’s associate provost, and “we were all nodding our heads,” technical minds finding mutual nirvana in the realm of measurements and projections. All except Hansen. “She finally says, ‘The amount of extra power you say we need is more than what the total campus uses right now. What’s going on?’”

It turns out that the engineer had goofed — or, to use the technical terminology, goofed — and Hansen, the humanist, was the one who noticed. “It’s not just that she saw it, but that she was doing her own thinking about it,” Roelofs says.

That questioning perspicacity has distinguished Hansen’s literary scholarship and, in broader terms, given her an eye for ripening opportunities. “I like to think I’ve been able ‘to maken vertu of necessitee,’” she says, borrowing a phrase from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” — in the sense of being “ready to take advantage of any opportunity, to be ready to find in almost any situation something to be done, to make sense out of chaos, to formulate the problem so you can solve it.”

And if that makes Hansen an opportunist, it’s only in the best sense of that term. “I don’t understand the phenomenon of Elaine Hansen, I really don’t, but I surely admire it,” says Joanne Hutchinson, a longtime friend and colleague who recently retired from Haverford’s English faculty. “If you don’t know her at all and you read her CV and see the lists and lists of things she is doing, you think, ‘Well, this must be a really driving personality’ — and that has nothing to do with my warm and witty friend.”

In talking about the progress of her career in academe, Hansen likes to describe herself as a woman of her time, and as teacher, scholar, and administrator she has tracked the expansion of opportunities for women like some kind of bull-market index fund. When inaugurated as Bates’ seventh president, in October, she will be the lone woman among current NESCAC presidents.

It could also be said that Elaine, husband Stan, and daughters Emma and Isla are a family of their time, and that, too, has a bearing on their arrival as Bates’ first family. A generation or two ago, an aspiring college president could, and was pretty much expected to, pursue his destiny — the masculine pronoun is intentional — independent from the push-pull of family life.

That has changed at Bates and elsewhere (indeed, family dynamics were at the forefront of presidential transitions at peer schools in Waterville and Brunswick). At Bates, at least since the 1970s when dance instructor Marcy Plavin began showing her students the expanding possibilities of family and professional life, faculty and staff are role models not only in their work, but also in leading lives as diverse as the world their students will enter. With Elaine Tuttle Hansen’s arrival on July 1, the example of how family life influences professional destiny has reached the Office of the President at Bates.

A clue to the inner workings of family Hansen appears on a brilliant April morning at Haverford College. Seated at a long table in her office, she talks about her family and how the four of them — Stan, her husband of 30 years, Emma, a junior this fall at Macalester College, and Isla, about to enter high school — have fit together the puzzle pieces of careers and family life.

Elaine is energetic and enthusiastic, but she has had a nearly sleepless night taking care of sick Isla. And Stan, a speech pathologist who leaves time in his schedule for the very purpose of tending to the household, is home with the child.

“I have a husband who’s extremely supportive and interested in domestic things,” Hansen says. “That makes it easier. We have not had the traditional problems of a two-career family, in that Stan’s career has been flexible so that mine could be more demanding.”

Shown here with executive secretary Linda Sarro, Hansen gets high marks from her staff. "I never cringe at the thought of a decision she's made," says Sue Waddington, assistant to the provost. "We're pretty much all on board with her. She will consult the lowest-ranking member of the staff as well as the president."

Shown here with executive secretary Linda Sarro, Hansen gets high marks from her staff. "I never cringe at the thought of a decision she's made," says Sue Waddington, assistant to the provost. "We're pretty much all on board with her. She will consult the lowest-ranking member of the staff as well as the president."

Her office at Haverford is roomy enough to accommodate a sort of living-room area with sofa and chairs. Wall objects include abstract oil paintings, a portrait of Haverford donor Margaret Gest, a reproduction of G. C. Beresford’s photograph of a youthful Virginia Woolf, and a coat hanger modeled after a flamingo. There’s a cache of spare shoes behind the table, and portraits of Stan and the girls are clustered in front of wire racks jammed with files on a windowsill near Hansen’s desk.

She continues, “My hobbies are having two kids and trying to stay involved in their lives,” no mean feat considering how active these young women are in athletics and in saxophonist Isla’s case, music.

“More than once,” adds Hutchinson, “I’ve seen her leave a meeting at 10 o’clock and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to go check Isla’s French.’”

Though no longer formally affiliated with the Quakers, who founded Haverford in 1833, the college that Hansen leaves behind retains much from the Friends, including an explicit commitment to peace, justice, scrupulous civility, and consensus. It’s a set of values, Hansen notes, in tune with Bates’ own egalitarian traditions. The Haverford student Honor Code inculcates lofty standards of responsibility for oneself and one’s fellows: The backpacks left lying around campus haven’t been mislaid, it’s just that students are sure that their possessions won’t be bothered.

Amidst the conspicuously consumptive Main Line, with its Ferrari-Maserati dealership, gourmet shops and palatial homes, Haverford is an oasis with an English accent. Walled in by trees, carpeted with lawns that are lush, and dotted with gorgeous shrubs and flowers, the grounds pay tribute to Humphrey Repton, a noted English landscape designer. The buildings too say cheerio, with their facades in half-timbered stucco or heavy stonework. The clincher is the sight of white-clad cricket players straggling toward the pitch.

Meeting with an advisee in her office.

Meeting with an advisee in her office.

Haverford students make themselves nice omelets and Belgian waffles in the Dining Center; they lie in the sun for hours on the quad. On this April day, in a spontaneous demonstration of youthful something or other, they have studded the lawn in front of Founders Hall with foil pinwheels. Because it’s staff appreciation day, a cappella groups serenade the office workers inside Founders Hall, the administration building.

The numbers support this vision of academic health. The endowment is $300 million, and with a student body numbering around 1,100, Haverford’s student-to-faculty ratio is 9.3-to-1. Students of color constitute 30 percent of the whole, and the faculty is 20 percent persons of color, which among liberal arts institutions is about as high as it gets.

Of course, the real measure of a school’s strength is the quality of its teaching. “Haverford has come off a string of some very successful hires” to the faculty, says Mark Hulbert, a member of Haverford’s class of 1977. Publisher of the respected Hulbert Financial Digest, he sits on the Board of Managers and the College Planning Committee. “We’ve gotten our first choice in a number of different searches in a highly competitive environment.”

Which speaks to Provost Hansen’s success in making the place attractive to talented teachers. Acutely aware of a sabbatical policy more generous than Haverford’s just up the road at wealthy Swarthmore, Hansen spearheaded the formulation of a sabbatical policy that affords more time away — the option of a semester every fourth year or a full year every seven — but increases the faculty obligation to find outside funding, a stipulation the faculty themselves advocated. With her counterparts at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, Hansen has been involved with a nationwide effort funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation to assess how faculty’s needs change as people cycle through different phases of life and career.

What started as a discussion about renovating a 1963 science building blossomed into the achievement most prominent during Hansen’s Haverford years, the creation of three comprehensive interdisciplinary programs complete with plans for capital funding. Of course, Hansen is not solely responsible for the Integrated Natural Sciences Initiative, the Haverford Humanities Center, and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, but she is widely credited with keeping their development moving apace with the minimum of rancor. That’s a sublime feat considering the potential for jealousy as millions went first to the construction of the 144,000-square-foot Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center. (By way of comparison, Bates’ own Pettengill Hall is 91,000 square feet.)

“She made it as smooth as possible,” Hutchinson says. “She had to feel a great deal of resistance from the humanities and the social sciences, who felt that all the money was going in one direction.”

“People have told me it’s the best thing to happen to them intellectually since they came to Haverford, because they’re getting to study together and move forward together,” Hansen says.

“To study together and move forward together” — put it in Latin and you’ve got something for the Hansen coat of arms. You can follow that theme back to the house that E. Louise Tuttle, a homemaker, and Stanly Tuttle, a banker, built in the rural Massachusetts town of Mendon, about 30 miles southeast of Worcester. (Louise now lives in Worcester, and Stanly died in 1997.)

Playing school was a favorite pastime for their two daughters. Dark-haired Cynthia was the teacher and blonde Elaine, seven years younger, the student. She just loved school. “Growing up it was the thing I was good at,” she says, although Cynthia describes the young Elaine as a talented artist and musician to boot. (Cynthia, who now lives in Deerfield, Mass., also went into education and nowadays is a coach for math teachers.)

“She always liked to read, no matter what,” adds Cynthia. “Her whole life is reading. And we both love the beach — but her concept of going to the beach is taking a book to read.”

“I read Gone with the Wind, I remember, when I was 11, and wondered, ‘Why aren’t there more books that are 1,000 pages long?’ Because this one lasted a few days,” Elaine laughs. But it wasn’t all potboilers. Good English teachers imparted a feel for literary substance at a relatively early age. Her all-time favorite authors include Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James.

“As a kid, I think, what attracted me to reading was imagining lives, projecting yourself into the stories and having relationships with people that were better than the real relationships you could have,” she explains. “And the world of ideas, too. I grew up in a little town where people didn’t talk about ideas — they talked about things and they talked about each other.”

She graduated from the Nipmuc Regional High School, where her French teacher, Muriel Henry Tinkham ’47, remembers a “composed and confident” Elaine Tuttle, “the kind of person you’d like your daughter to be.” She achieved a perfect 800 in the SAT verbals, for a combined score in the mid-1500s.

Hansen’s aspirations for college were similarly lofty: She wanted the most academically rigorous college she could get into. In 1965, when she graduated from high school, that pretty much meant a single-gender school (except, maybe, for a small college in Lewiston, Maine).

“I would have looked more broadly, but I wasn’t from the sort of socio-economic class where people could really imagine going very far away from home. The logistics — how would you visit a campus if your dad didn’t drive you there?”

Hansen’s choice was Mount Holyoke College, and friends told her she was the first kid from Mendon to attend anything like an Ivy League or Seven Sisters college.

She left Mount Holyoke with a fondness for Jane Austen, but the lasting impact of her undergraduate education is the influence of a favorite English professor, Marjorie Kaufman. One Kaufmanism in particular stayed with her: “That A people write D papers, and D people write A papers,” Hansen recounts. In other words, “what we were writing for her had nothing to do with our worth as human beings.”

“It’s a principle that I found very applicable to my own skills in the classroom — that it was important to not get so absorbed in the academic world that you lost sight of both the value and the limits of the academic world,” Hansen says. “The academic is the way I see the world most clearly, but it’s not all there is. I’ve learned as much from students who are struggling as from students who were at the very top of the class.”

“I think that’s what I value about a liberal arts college,” she continues. At such colleges, ideally, teaching transcends the bare academic merits. “It has more to do with personality and engagement, and the level of inquiry and curiosity,” she says.

Majoring in English, Hansen graduated seventh in her class. Drawn by warm memories of her junior year in Scotland at the University of St Andrews, she returned to the United Kingdom and landed an administrative assistant job at the International Federation of University Women.

“The complete British approach to work was fantastic,” she says. “I got a lot of brownie points because I actually offered to get in at 10 o’clock in the morning and open the door and be the first person there.” That grueling schedule would continue with a pause at 11 for coffee and cookies and then a two-hour lunch break, which Hansen would while away in the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert. “It was heaven. But it also made me realize that I was intellectually dying,” she says. “I needed the stimulation of more academic work.”

She got that and more at the University of Minnesota, where in 1971 she began working toward her master’s in a field new to her: Old English. It was in a course on that topic that she met Stan Hansen, a Salt Lake City native who, says Elaine, “liked to read and talk about words and books as much as I did.” (She claims that they have been known to read the Oxford English Dictionary at the dinner table.) They married in August 1972 and headed to Seattle for her doctoral work at the University of Washington.

In 1978, Hansen started teaching adult and community college courses in her spare time while serving as a lexicographer at the Middle English Dictionary project at the University of Michigan (see sidebar). Fairly soon, she realized, “I missed the classroom tremendously. It wasn’t as much fun doing somebody else’s research as I thought,” she says. “I liked it, I was learning from it, but I wasn’t doing my own thinking.”

She moved into the classroom full time in 1978, joining the English faculty at Hamilton College, in Clinton. N.Y. Two years later she went to Haverford, where her teaching style won fans from the start. Joanne Hutchinson remembers Hansen’s candidate presentation, an exploration of Chaucer’s poem “The Legend of Good Women.”

“I was not interested in the slightest in the subject matter,” Hutchinson says — yet Hansen’s presentation was so engaging that at one point an engrossed Hutchinson stuck up her hand to answer a purely rhetorical question.

Nevertheless, “teaching was the hardest job I ever did,” Hansen says. “There’s something about the infinity of effort and achievement that can go into teaching, especially teaching about writing. I’d come out of class every day feeling, ‘Oh, I missed that opportunity,’ ‘Now I know what I should have said to that question.’ It was self-flagellation every day.

“That’s why I have so much respect for faculty and why I’ve loved my job as provost — to help faculty, to do the things that will just make their work smoother and easier from a logistic point of view.”

By the mid-1990s, the Hansen household had reached cruising altitude. Stan, with a graduate degree in linguistics from Michigan, was an accredited speech pathologist working in elementary and middle schools in Philadelphia; he was also enjoying his reputation as a baker of bread. Emma’s prowess at swimming, diving, and volleyball made an avid sports fan of her formerly non-athletic mother. Young Isla idolized her sister — a feeling that has become mutual — and looked to emulate her athletic career.

Elaine had taken on a formidable assortment of service and leadership commitments to campus committees and scholarly societies. When the provost’s position opened up in 1995, it was an eminently logical move. “It was clear from the moment she set foot here that she was destined for leadership,” says Tom Tritton, Haverford’s president.

Now, seven years later, Tritton adds that Hansen achieved something relatively rare in college administration. “She proved that someone can work at a very difficult job for seven years, and at the end of those seven years, people think more highly of her than when she started,” he says. “Because usually it goes the other way.”

Her approach to problems has been shaped by the consensus model of decision-making, which assumes “that any good decision depends on the understanding and agreement of many people,” she says. “I don’t want to give people the idea that I can’t make decisions, because in this job, you have to, quickly and on your own, take responsibility and make the decision. But if it’s a really big issue and a really tough problem, the solution will be better if more people collaborate.”

Moreover, Hansen “is a true believer in small liberal arts colleges, and that’s the most important thing of all,” says Mark Hulbert. “She is a strong believer in the role of teaching, so that it’s not just a research institution but one of teaching and working with students. That’s what will make her a strong president.”

If Hansen’s goals for Bates at times sound safe or generic — after all, who doesn’t want to increase diversity on campus and maintain the college’s high academic standards? — or if she offers more questions than answers, it’s plain that she understands Bates’ distinctive circumstances. Increasing diversity is tough in a state that is distant from major urban centers and is the nation’s whitest. Maintaining Bates’ academic standards requires consideration of what it takes to attract and retain excellent faculty who are wooed by the best colleges.

And if administrators in higher education everywhere — even at Haverford, with its Honor Code and its pinwheels glittering in the sun — worry about the perils of residential life, Hansen says that her Bates visits have given her a clear sense that the campus climate is ripe for continued progress against alcohol abuse and its attendant disruptions. The common wisdom, Hansen says, is that the quality of residential life ought to distinguish the model liberal arts college from other forms of higher education. “We know that, but I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of doing much more than plunking the students down, plunking the faculty down and letting everyone interact,” she says.

“I believe that education is what’s been called an associative good: You get more out of the people you’re there with, the other students,” she says. “That’s why you’re really going into a place like Bates, so we have to maximize the associative good.”

Essential to this goal of associative good, she says, is continued progress toward a new campus center at Bates, a major facilities goal since 1992. Years of residential and athletic expansion around the campus periphery have created a void: Where there should be a landmark gathering spot, Bates has small and shabby Chase Hall and a few band-aid campus-life facilities here and there.

“We haven’t controlled or developed the residential side of things very fully,” Hansen notes, speaking of U.S. college residential life in general. “The bridge between what students do in the dorms and what students do in the classrooms is very ad hoc and fragile.”

Of course, like Rome and all roads, virtually any aspiration one may have for a college leads back to the Mother of All Goals: raising money. Prospects for any contemporary presidency invariably begin with the new CEO’s flair for fund raising and friend raising. “I think she’ll be very good at it, because what you need to be a good fund raiser is to love people and to love ideas. Bringing them together is what fund raisers do,” says Tom Tritton. “And she does. So it will come naturally to her.” (A reasonable amount of humor helps too, and Hansen got big laughs at Bates in January when she humorously described how she was oddly fascinated, on the eve of her election to the Bates presidency, by the acceptance speeches during the previous week’s Golden Globes telecast.)

Bates’ endowment is about two-thirds of Haverford’s, and Hansen believes that Bates does everything right for its students and faculty but is straining its resources to sustain that effort. “Bates, like Haverford, is an overachiever,” she says.

Donors want to help, Hansen says. “Contributing to places like Haverford and Bates is a way of doing good. Donors want to know from you how they can do the most good and make a difference. I just get very excited about it.”

Bates’ new president also gets excited, and not in such a happy way, about the escalating costs of an education. She points to expectations that today’s students and parents have for the level of plush at private colleges. And the colleges that define “plush” are the very richest, she says. “With widely varying support from our endowments, we’re all trying to be Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Pomona, and Wellesley. And we’re all trying to meet their standards, because academically we’re all as good.”

It’s a sort of race, she says, in which “it’s hard to see the traditional values of Bates and Haverford sustained. Yet if you don’t market those traditional values you have nothing to market.”
Consequently, near the top of Hansen’s to-do list is the drive to heighten public understanding of higher education in general as a social good, and in particular the value of the select liberal arts college, aka Bates. “Even people in higher education will often just offhand say that ‘liberal arts colleges are only for the elite, and of course we can’t all do it that way,’” she says.

“That’s very scary to me. I don’t want to be part of a rarified experience or a dying breed. And so to me the liberal arts college that does it best will be the one that is the least invisible to a wider group of people.”

Her predecessor, Don Harward, leaves a legacy of greater engagement with Lewiston and Auburn. For Hansen, who applauds that legacy, the model liberal arts college in this new century must make clear that what students learn makes a difference in the way people live their lives. “You see a process of opening students’ minds to the world at the liberal arts college, not cloistering them for four years,” she says.

Hansen’s feelings about engagement with the community are personal as well as institutional. “The Main Line is not a community the way that Lewiston is,” she says, “and one of the things I’m looking forward to is living somewhere where I’m part of a community.”

Hansen returns to her Railroad Avenue home near Haverford College

Hansen returns to her Railroad Avenue home near Haverford College.

Stan, who knows Elaine Tuttle Hansen better than anyone, welcomes the move to Maine not only because he wants to be near the ski slopes. He has a theory to test that will speak to anyone wondering if Bates’ new president is ready to trade the Main Line for Marden’s. “She talks a lot about the model of consensus that she learned at a Quaker institution,” he says. “But there’s part of her that really is still in New England, and I don’t think that New Englanders really do things by consensus. There’s a more independent kind of strain.”

At Bates, for example, that’s borne out in an egalitarian tradition resting on a flinty foundation of Freewill Baptist independence. “When they talk about the abolitionist past of Bates, that’s the spirit of New England that’s still somehow alive,” Stan says. “It’s still there, and it’s there in her. And I will be interested to see how it relates to Bates. She may find herself very consonant with the feeling of the place in a way that no one was quite prepared for, because she’s going back to New England after not having lived there for a very, very long time.”

Of the three Hansens still at home, the lone dissenter about the move — at first, anyway — was the youngest, Isla (pronounced EYE-la), who has now come to terms with it. “I realized it would be a good experience,” she says, and of course she is pleased that her mother has gotten something she wanted.

After considering a private school in Portland, Isla decided to attend Lewiston High School. The adjustment will be considerable, but worth it, Isla’s parents feel. Emma and Isla, Stan explains, have “grown up on the Main Line, and it’s given them a view of the world that’s very odd.” He says, “Their view of reality is so much different from the more working-class kind of worlds that Elaine and I grew up in. We are continually telling Isla, ‘You’re living in a dream world. This is not the real world,’ a notion she is not eager to embrace.

“Isla will now have two pictures of American life,” he says. “As great as the advantages are of having gone through her early school years here, she’ll know more about the world. And I see that as very desirable.”

But being uprooted is tough for any 14-year-old. Now “she’s leaving behind a world she loves,” Elaine says. “She’s involved in so many things that she imagined” continuing through high school — from friendships to the jazz band to the swimming team she loves.

“There were times when I was going to call Bates up,” she continues, only half-humorously, “and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take this job because I have to go to a swim banquet in 2006.’”

Some might say that none of Bates’ previous presidents would have such impulses, or at least admit to them, but even if you accept that particular gender stereotype, it can only work to Bates’ advantage. Consider Emma’s assessment of how Elaine Tuttle Hansen’s character may bridge her roles as parent and president: If one of her children has some kind of problem, Emma says, “she just always wants to be involved, she always wants to help, always wants to talk about it, always wants to figure out a solution.

“This can even get to be annoying for a mother, but probably not for a president,” she says. “I think she’ll be really great at that.”