"We exist for the kid who is sitting in the back of the room bored," Hansen says. "At worst, those kids might drop out."
There is a research component as well, with faculty members taking data gleaned from 30 years of working with the gifted to devise new instructional strategies and to study everything from neuroscience to cultural ideas about intelligence.
"We know so little about how we learn, and we all do it differently," says Hopkins Provost Lloyd Minor. "Understanding those differences and being able to tailor programs to each of them is something to which we as a university can contribute. And I think Elaine is very involved in dialogues with our school of education and others about how CTY can be a part of that."
Hansen's concern for talented students became acute as she observed her daughter's experience in a Maine public high school. As No Child Left Behind took hold, she saw resources pulled from across the school to beef up remedial education. The focus seemed to swing entirely to pulling up the lowest achievers.
She was also bothered by what she perceived as low expectations for kids who could do much better. "My daughter's friends were just as bright as she was," Hansen says. "But no one was paying attention."
It all bothered her in a very personal way because of her own small-town background.
"There was almost an anti-intellectual culture," she says, remembering her childhood surroundings. "I was lucky that I had parents who cared about education."
As a young child, Hansen forced her sister, seven years older, to play "school" with her. But she didn't really find her place until she began taking Saturday classes in math and creative writing at nearby Assumption College.
She went on to become a scholar, applying feminist literary theory to Chaucer, and then provost at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She became Bates' first female president in 2002. As she contemplated her next step, however, she thought not of a bigger job but of a different one.
"I wanted to be a college president," she says. "But I didn't want to be one forever. I wanted to learn one more thing."
Instead of complaining about the trends that disturbed her in K-12 education, she thought, maybe she should try to do something about them.
"We thought her background was probably exactly what we needed," says Liz Albert, the center's senior director of academic programs. "We were impressed by her belief that CTY still has a lot of untapped potential to contribute."
Hansen says her mind is still swirling after four months on the new job.
She's excited about all kinds of questions. Can neuroscience tell us why one 8-year-old is wired to solve algebra problems and another is not? Is intelligence really a fixed trait or is it something that can be built? Is the digital world revealing new kinds of giftedness?
She's also interested in practical concerns like making sure the center serves more than the children of wealthy, well-educated parents. That's not easy, because the standardized tests used for admission favor such kids, and because the center, which costs $3,830 for a three-week residential session in the summer, is more likely to be touted in affluent school districts.
The program has made significant progress in offering scholarships over the last 15 years (it offered $7.3 million in financial aid in 2010 compared with $4.7 million in 2006). But Hansen says the demographics should look like those of the U.S. population.
"We're not there yet," she says.
For all of the big ideas and goals, says former director Durden, Hansen might most enjoy the simple pleasures of being around smart kids.
"She'll see their sense of humor, the way they look at the world," he says. "It's just delightful."