With her installation, MaryAnn Baenninger is feted as Drew’s 13th president.

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Drew’s first, full-term female leader, with Board Chair Dean Criares.

October 2015 – When Dean Criares, chair of the Drew University Board of Trustees, first met with MaryAnn Baenninger about the role of president in early 2014, he was in full pitch mode, knowing that several schools were pursuing her.

During a breakfast at the Hilton in Short Hills, New Jersey, Criares aimed to sell Baenninger on why she should choose to lead Drew instead of another school. Quickly, however, Baenninger disarmed him with a single sentence: “Please Dean, hear me out: I – want – this – job.”

Criares described it as his Jerry Maguire moment (“You had me at … “), adding that he remembers little after Baenninger said those nine words. His telling anecdote of directness was among many at Baenninger’s inauguration ceremony Friday that collectively and perfectly captured the essence of Drew’s 13th president.

Trustees, administrators, professors, students, former colleagues and Madison Mayor Bob Conley described Baenninger as personable, decisive, hands-on, driven, caring and inspiring. Indeed, the first female full-term president in Drew’s history made a big impression in just 15 months in office.

Pipe and drum is a Drew tradition.

Baenninger, for her part, deflected attention from herself, focusing instead on the school’s unique qualities—particularly its real world connection to cities both nearby and abroad—and the accomplishments of top students. As she explained, “This celebration is about the university; my presidency is just an excuse for it.”

Indeed, there’s plenty to celebrate at the University in the Forest. New student enrollment grew 23 percent this fall; giving to the school’s annual fund totaled a record $1.33 million in the last fiscal year; facilities are improving; new academic programs are being launched; and the first-year experience now includes a daylong trip to New York City.

Both the president and Associate Dean Debra Liebowitz referenced that trip during the inauguration ceremony, which took place inside Simon Forum and featured choral music, a poem from Associate Professor Sean Nevin and the presentation of four gifts, including a scholar’s lamp and a Bonsai oak tree.

The Bonsai oak is strong and majestic.

Baenninger recalled the comfortable and confident exchanges she witnessed between new students and their teachers on the trip, just a few weeks into the semester. In them she saw the seeds of mentorship and future success.

“Drew students seek out and sustain experiences that provide practical or professional learning as a matter of course, and their professors are the catalysts and the matchmakers between student and experience,” the president said.

She added that “when alums reflect on their time at Drew, invariably they rhapsodize about a particular faculty member and the centrality of his or her teaching or mentoring to the alum’s success.

“It’s not about an archrival football contest or Friday night drinking games,” Baenninger added. “In describing our professors, one student said, ‘Our professors will know your name, your dog’s name, your birthday and what you did last weekend.'”

For Liebowitz, who organized the trip, the day represented quintessential MaryAnn. Not only did the president greet students on the train platform in Madison and ride with them in the first car, she also participated in a museum tour and joined a class lunch in Chinatown, even offering a bit of culinary advice.

Associate Dean Debra Liebowitz describes the president as open and direct.

“I’ll not soon forget—and this is a story that most people cannot say of their university presidents—that she instructed some intrepid students how to eat chickens’ feet with chopsticks,” Liebowitz said.

Big picture, she added, Baenninger personifies the culture at Drew, where professors work closely with students and the student body is active and tight-knit.

“In the short time that we have worked together, I have already learned an incredible amount from her,” Liebowitz added. “She is honest and open and direct and constructive when something needs to change. On the flip side, she is absolutely generous and takes the time to give credit and appreciation for people when it is due. And most importantly, she is a tireless champion for Drew.”

Sounds like the makings of a long and fruitful presidency.

The president’s speech. 

The president says the celebration is about the university.

Although Drew’s 13th president changed some of the words in the final version of her speech, most stayed the same. Here’s the text she read from.

Good morning, everyone. I must begin with thanks to the Board of Trustees of Drew University for believing I could lead this university toward a shining and sustainable future, and for their constant support of my leadership. Thank you.

This celebration is about the University; my presidency is just the excuse for it. It is my many colleagues and our students at Drew—our team—who made this day, this week, happen. They did everything from composing poetry and song to preparing meals and venues to even picking up stray cigarette butts to make this a special day and to welcome our guests. It is with deep gratitude that I thank each of you.

I offer a special thank you to Marti Winer, College of Liberal Arts, Class of ‘97, Chief of Staff at Drew, who has become “Chief of Inauguration” for the past few months. There is no way we could have done this without you, Marti.

My family is here today, my husband Ron, who has supported me on all of my crazy adventures; my children and their spouses, Maggie, Karl, Lucy, and Dan, who are also my friends and a constant source of pride, and our grandchildren, Lukas, Sela, Jack, and Luke, who are all just plain awesome, and an even greater source of pride. My dad and other family members and friends are here today too. My Dad, I have to thank for my ability to “work a room,” and my Mom, whom we all miss so much, I have to thank for my persistence and my brains. Right, Dad? I love you all very much.

I need the love and support of all of them, because the role of the university president today is not a gentile social one in which the president gracefully transitions from a scholar to a benign figure head who leads unassumingly, armed with knowledge of academic governance, decent cocktail banter, a penchant for impromptu chats with students, and a sense of when not to overstep one’s bounds.

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The presidential medallion features Drew’s shield.

I do aspire to and enjoy some of those things, and I hope the Drew family sees in me a scholar who cares deeply about shared governance and collegiality with faculty, and who craves the presence of bright young people.

But today’s college presidency requires the ability to lead a responsive institution to face the ever-changings demands of the world and the higher education marketplace in unique and meaningful ways, on behalf of its students and alumni. That leadership requires acute perception, grit, organizational and financial acumen, calculated and repeated risk, and, at times, bravery. But those attributes, to which I also aspire, will be useless to me as a leader if I don’t understand what makes Drew, Drew. To be successful, I must crack the university’s “genetic code,” and ensure that the university’s identity and programs offer a distinct pathway. To paraphrase theologian Frederick Buechner, between a student’s gladness and the world’s great needs. And it would be good too, if that pathway led to a job.

Without knowing its distinct attributes and communicating them clearly, a university will fail in today’s market. In contrast, a president armed with the knowledge of her institution’s indelible character, and with the ability to communicate the essence of that character, can lead with her colleagues to do great things, and along the way compete well in the market.

To tell you about Drew University’s core identity, its essence, and how it provides that pathway for students, it will help to first tell you about my lifelong love affair with cities, and how it figured highly in my decision to come to Drew.

I am not a scholar of the city, or an artist or writer who uses the city as her muse. My credentials for describing the city come from my own experience, my understanding as a research psychologist about how learning occurs best in context, how attitudes are formed, and how a variety of experiences prepare us best—particularly in our formative years—for a successful and fulfilling life. I am a learner, an explorer, and I am full of confidence when I am in the city, because I am at home there.

Students present a photo of their present: a scholar’s lamp.

My home city was Philadelphia. Without Philly and what I learned there, I am certain that I would be less prepared for my own successful and fulfilling life. I would not be who I am. As far back as I can remember, the city has been a vehicle for learning and independence for me, and it certainly set me on the path to Drew. My grandfather, particularly, acquainted me with the city, teaching me public transportation, how to hail a taxi, and how to tip well, as soon as I could walk. In the city I learned how to navigate, literally and figuratively. I learned independence—so much so that I was able to take the El to my grandparents’ house alone for the first time at the age of 9. I learned street smarts, to haggle when appropriate, to help people who needed it, to vote and follow politics, to use the library, to appreciate art, music, theater, and food, to test my nascent language skills, not to litter (that was the forerunner of sustainability). I learned about race, about difference, and that I could both see and appreciate difference. I also learned to tackle bureaucracy, interact with all types of people, and to not be afraid of strangers. In the city I could easily test the values that my parents wanted to instill in me—people are good, prejudice is the worst sin, be a good citizen in whatever form that takes…oh, and don’t litter.

Nearly two years ago, when I was recruited to the Drew presidential search, I had already decided to retire (at a very young age, mind you). But I felt compelled to explore Drew more deeply. I knew of Drew, and its stature as a national liberal arts university, but I knew little about its essence, its core identity, what I am calling its DNA. My husband Ron and I visited—like many prospective students do—on a stealth drive.

My reaction was instantaneous. There is no better location in the country for a liberal arts university. Did you hear that, Drewids? You know this: there is no better location in the country for a liberal arts university. For me the decision was done. To hell with retirement, I desperately wanted this job. I wanted to be here in Madison, where it, Morristown, Newark, and New York provide an unparalleled extension of The Forest. And I knew even then that what we do in partnership with these cities, how Drew relates to them, how we keep seamless our connections to them, will be the route through which this great University offers a distinct opportunity to students in each of our three schools. It will also be how we attract students who want to use their education to be in the real world, not to be apart from it. I understood then, as I understand now, that there is opportunity here like none other.

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Associate Professor Sean Nevin writes and reads a poem for the ceremony.

Last Saturday some brave first year seminar faculty members and equally brave upper-class writing fellows, and a couple of deans, with me tagging along, spent the day in New York City with the College of Liberal Arts entire first year class. With 360 students, we created our own rush hour, beginning our journey on a train platform whose signs say “Madison, New Jersey: Home of Drew University.”

Our goal, metaphorically, was to drop crumbs along the route between Madison and Manhattan, to give students a glimpse of the limitless experiences right within their reach, and to instill in them that urge to explore. We wanted them to see Drew and Madison as home, but also as a gateway, an extension of the Drew Arch.

But that trip, for which 20 CLA faculty members gave up their Saturdays, highlighted two other characteristics that reveal the essence of Drew University. Faculty members in our three schools—the Theological School, The Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, and the College of Liberal Arts—exhibit an uncommon devotion to our students and their success. Every liberal arts college and university promotes the personal relationship between the faculty and students, but I have come to learn that it really is different at Drew. When alums reflect on their time at Drew, invariably they rhapsodize about a particular faculty member and the centrality of his or her teaching and mentoring to the alum’s success. It is not about an archrival football contest, or Friday night drinking games. In describing our professors, one student said, “our professors will know your name, your dog’s name, your birthday, and what you did last weekend.”

That appears to me to be true, or at least essentially true. When I sit with Drew faculty members and listen carefully, I hear that most of their conversation is about their students, offering to help colleagues in support of a student, reaching out to garner leads on an opportunity or internship, highlighting the success of a particular student mentee.

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Assistant Professor Jason Bishop leads the combined choirs.

On our trip to New York, I watched the faculty-student relationship in action. New first-year students questioning and responding to their professors with abandon and a sense of confidence after only four short weeks of class. The trip to the city became an opportunity to see their professors as people with multi-dimensional skills and personal attributes. On Saturday, I saw faculty members do everything from bringing life to a discussion of eradicating disease, making students feel safe in a brand new environment, and teaching them to use chopsticks.

The relationships between students and faculty, which start out classically around some academic subject matter quickly turn to a relationship between mentor and mentee, researcher and apprentice, counselor and discerner. The vehicle for these more personal relationships is most often an experience outside of the classroom. Drew students seek out and sustain experiences that provide practical or professional learning as a matter of course, and their professors are the catalysts and the matchmakers between student and experience.

Lately we have been interviewing students on video about their experiences at Drew. Three common themes emerge as they speak. Students know their faculty members well; faculty members serve as bridges or connectors between the student and research opportunities, internships, civic engagements, supervised ministry, cross-cultural experiences, practical and creative projects, and; our location and the connection to “our cities” and other cities around the world facilitates these experiences, nearly always resulting in multiple opportunities for each student.

When the media report on surveys indicating that today’s graduates are not prepared to step into the job market, what they mean is that students are not able to generalize, extend, and operationalize what they have learned the classroom, and nor can they translate their learning for use in the dynamic environment of today’s workplace.

The reason for that is that even the best teacher cannot replicate the messy, multivariate, experiences that a student will encounter in his or her first post-graduate job, and no campus alone can simulate the glorious diversity of culture, talent, and perspectives that the world has to offer outside of its gates. An undergraduate or graduate education is by nature somewhat structured, predictable, and constructed: Areas of study or majors require a certain number of credits and a specified menu of courses. The work of each semester is artificially concluded before the holidays or the summer. The very construct of a liberal arts education is being questioned today in part because of perceived stasis, lack of innovation, and penchant for the abstract.

Professor Janet Davis serves as chief marshal.

But it is also true that experience without reflection is less enriching. A person might learn how to do a singular job by getting hired on as trainee or apprentice, but the skill set they develop is not likely generalizable. Discourse in the classroom with faculty members and other students and writing and presentation competencies acquired inside the gates of the university, combine with practical experiences in “our cities” to create a gestalt, a whole greater than the sum of its parts for our students.

The very combination of inside and outside the classroom learning is together better than either type of learning alone. Together they do an unparalleled job of launching students on the path to an adaptive life and a robust career.

Drew’s location provides an incomparable venue to accomplish this goal. And these experiences begin the day the student arrives at Drew—no waiting here for the “junior year abroad,” “senior internship,” or graduate thesis to integrate learning.

Real examples best illustrate how this works at Drew University:

Kishan Patel, who graduated in May: Baldwin Scholar, Civic Scholar, United Nations Semester, Kean Internship New Jersey State House, Morris County Courthouse internship, Grassroots campaigns internship. Kishan is at Oxford University studying international law.

Khemani Gibson, who graduated last year: Van Hooten Writing Fellow, conducted research in D.C., Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice at UNC Chapel Hill, a Civic Scholar working at a program for Gifted Students in South Orange; Study Abroad in South Africa and the Dominican Republic. And in his research on West-Indian immigrants working on the Panama Canal, he was able to discover his own great-grandfather’s name. Khemani is in a PhD program at NYU.

Here’s Gabi Bisconti’s resume so far—she just began her senior year: Civic Scholar, Joseph R. Patenaude Theater Internship Program; Internship with New York Women in Film and Television; Internship with Night Castle Management; Internship with Greater Media NJ, Internship with ARTS by the People; Drew London Program, Drew University Dramatic Society. I think Gabi will be ready for what comes next.

Leading the procession at the close.

RJ Voorman graduated last year: While at Drew he did the Wall Street Semester, he was CFO of student-run investment group, he had Internships with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, The Bank if New York Mellon, and he played men’s soccer. After two job offers before he graduated, he accepted a job in wealth management with Merrill Lynch.

To make a point I just read you some typical Drew University resumes—yes, I said typical. But we know that learning, whether in the classroom, or in the city is not about collecting internships or experiences. It is about the transformations that occur during those experiences and how they are connected as a whole to prepare the student for life beyond college or graduate school.

This leads me to think about the goals of today’s liberal arts education, and how experience shapes its outcomes. In particular, what are key attributes of a liberal arts education that are particularly enhanced and made meaningful by experience? How does The City—Drew’s location—offer a hyper-concentrated venue for learning? An answer lies in what a liberal arts education must do for today’s students, millennials, and generation Z’ers, who were born in a generation where there parents were striving to make their lives safe, structured, and predictable.

  • A liberal arts education must make what is comfortable challenging, and what is challenging comfortable. If things are too comfortable, we must shake them up. We must inculcate adaptability and resilience.
  • A liberal arts education must connect those things that appear separated, and it must make the predictable unpredictable. Deeply ingrained stereotypes—in other words, seemingly predictable characteristics about others, cannot be dispelled through classroom learning, but they can be dispelled through repeated positive experience of difference, and the simple act of getting to know well people who are different from oneself.
  • A liberal arts education must make the static dynamic and the abstract concrete. Learning in a classroom about business or the markets cannot hold a candle to immersion on Wall Street.
  • A liberal arts education must make the limited generative. Most college students in this country experience the natural sciences through canned laboratory experiments and video simulations. Our science faculty and RISE fellows (Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti) are doing real research in a setting that affords them easy collaboration with industry and other academic labs. Our students benefit from this, often working on real projects beginning in their first year. In my first couple of weeks last year I was indeed wandering around the dining hall talking with students. At one table I asked a group of first year students how their first weeks at Drew had been. They all had remarkable answers, but one young man said, in effect, “I’m working on cure for Alzheimer’s.” He had found his first mentor by talking with several faculty members about their research, and he was asked to join a lab—in his first semester.
  • A liberal arts education must make the constricting freeing. To have art, music, philosophy described in class barely whets the appetite; to have limitless opportunities for exposure increases the hunger.

The words of our own students illustrate how their experiences were freeing, disruptive, dynamic, and generative.

Ushering in an era of growth and progress.
Ushering in an era of growth and progress.

Chris Hardy—now pastor Chris Hardy—who will graduate with his Master’s of Divinity degree from the Theological School. As part of his required cross-cultural experience, Chris spent time in the city of Istanbul. In a sermon, Chris wrote, “the real test for me was not with the people whom I had arranged to meet, but rather with the chance encounters I had with the “regular” Turk on the street. I crossed paths with people, engaged in small talk and deep conversation, walked next to and stood beside, shared a restaurant and rode public transportation with, ordered food from, visited the homes of, and just plain old encountered thousands of people while in Turkey – and not a single person or a single incident made any of those fears about Muslims that I once held had come to fruition. My fears were erased.”

Aaron Sartori, a current sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts writes: “As a mentor in the Drew Summer College, I was there to help the students from Newark, the Bronx, and Brooklyn realize that they can achieve a college education. In one-on-one conversations with my mentees, a common theme among them was a lack of belief and support from others. I would tell them that I believed in them, and that they could do whatever they put their minds to if they worked hard. I told them that I would always be there to support them, and I do continue to support them. Now I realize that for my career I want to be the voice in students’ heads that tells them they can achieve their goals. My ultimate goal is to be a guidance counselor, like my mother has been for the past 31 years at my high school. If I hadn’t come to Drew and mentored in Summer College, I would not have realized my full potential.”

Stephanie Weymouth, a recent grad from the MAT program in the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies reflects: “Throughout my experience with the Masters in Teaching program, I questioned whether I had it in me to be a teacher. I was teaching in a school with very few resources, and very low expectations for student outcomes. Towards the end of my student teaching experience, I had a conversation with my senior class on why we should be fighting to keep arts programs in schools when so many other schools were getting rid of them. I picked on a particular student who I had had a hard time getting through to all semester, and her response was what I had expected, a shrug of the shoulder and a side eye roll. I moved on and other students gave inspirational and beautiful responses. After several, the first student I called on raised her hand. She said, “Theatre opens the doors for us urban kids to see that there is a greater life beyond the limitations our society puts on us. It shows us that we don’t have to aspire to be an athlete or a rapper to be successful in this world.”  Her answer stopped me in my tracks, Stephanie said, and eliminated any doubt in my mind as to why I did this program, why I chose to be in an inner city school. These kids defy odds and rise above the stereotypes.”

In an era where the costs of a college education are being questioned constantly and in which a liberal arts education in particular is viewed as frivolous, a university can do one of two things. It can shrug its shoulders and snub its nose at the concerns or criticisms, or it can take a good hard look at exactly how it is preparing students for life after college or graduate school.

I have taken that look at Drew University. I understand its essence—it’s DNA.

With deeply engaged faculty mentors, with a culture of experiential learning, and the world at our door, Drew University prepares students for the real world in the real world.

Thank you very much.