MaryAnn Baenninger moves into the president’s office July 21.
By Mary Jo Patterson
Not long after 9/11, MaryAnn Baenninger, like a lot of Americans, found herself in a reflective mood, pondering whether she was spending her life as she truly wanted. Baenninger was a tenured professor of psychology and an innovative administrator at The College of New Jersey. Yet she ventured from her career track to become an executive with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. “And that’s what started me on the road to becoming a college president,” says Baenninger, 58, who takes over as Drew’s next president on July 21. Currently the president of the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, Baenninger will become the 13th president in Drew’s 147-year history. She will replace Vivian A. Bull, Drew’s president since July 2012.
While Saint Benedict is a Catholic women’s college, closely allied with the all-male Saint John’s University nearby, Baenninger believes it shares many characteristics—and challenges— with Drew. “Both value liberal arts, a broad education and a focus on international programs, and both have aspirations in the arts and humanities,” she says. “Both have a social justice orientation and value community engagement. The same forces are also affecting the two schools. Trying to provide the best education you can for students, without making it impossible for them to afford it, is the reality of a college president’s life today.”
After three years at Middle States, Baenninger, a Philadelphia native, became president at Saint Benedict. Although the prospect of moving to the prairie was initially daunting, she says, “I fell in love with the college and the people there. In the beginning, people thought my personality was very forceful and East Coast. Now I don’t think anybody even thinks about that.”
Colleagues agree. “She’s a visionary leader, with a marvelous intellect and incredible people skills,” says Rita Kneusel, the provost at Saint Benedict. “Often she’s the smartest person in the room.”
The oldest of three children, Baenninger was the first in her family to attend college. After graduating from an all-girls Catholic high school in Pennsylvania, where she was student body president, she attended Gettysburg College. But she left during her first year, turned off by the “pervasive fraternity environment.” Baenninger married and had two children, and continued to take college classes, eventually graduating from Temple University in 1984. She earned her PhD in psychology from Temple in 1991.
Much of her scholarly work focused on cognitive differences between men and women. At Saint Benedict, Baenninger wrote an article on the persistence of “a gendered culture” in the United States, which, she says, “limits women’s expectations for themselves and our expectations for them.”
In her spare time, Baenninger likes to renovate houses, and she possesses the carpentry, electrical and plumbing skills to do much of the work herself. She is a fan of English crime writer Dorothy Sayers, likes to sew and is a passionate gardener.
Baenninger looks forward to moving closer to family on the East Coast. She expects to live on campus with her husband, Ron, and their 16-year-old standard poodle, Wimsey, named for Sayers’ fictional sleuth.
“I can’t wait,” she says. “I need some vacation time, because I haven’t had any downtime in a while. But I’m just very eager to be there and get started. I feel very drawn to Drew. The way I’ve been treated, by everyone, has left me feeling at home.”
In the meantime, Baenninger has plenty of ideas about “how to keep Drew moving forward” once she takes over. “Presidents usually take office during the summer, and that’s a very good thing,” she says. “You have time to get acclimated, so that when the faculty and students arrive in the fall you’ve gotten your sea legs. You’ve had time to formulate the questions you need to ask.”
The Baenninger File
Date of birth: Feb. 10, 1956
Family: Husband, Ron Baenninger, retired psychology professor, Temple University; daughter, Maggie, 38, financial officer, Chicago; son, Dan, 35, insurance brokerage owner, Philadelphia; four grandchildren, ages 3 to 7
PhD: Psychology, Temple, 1991
Teaching history: Department of Psychology, The College of New Jersey, Ewing, N.J.; Philadelphia University; Washington College, Chestertown, Md.