Presidential Candidates Bacchus, Baenninger, and Bruno Visit Campus

MaryAnn Baenninger is currently the president of the College of St. Benedict, a private, all-female liberal arts school. (Photo by Brendan O'Hara)
MaryAnn Baenninger is currently the president of the College of St. Benedict, a private, all-female liberal arts school. (Photo by Brendan O'Hara)

Over the past two weeks, the last three of the four presidential candidates visited the College. Jim Bacchus, MaryAnn Baenninger and Joe Bruno each visited for three days, during which they were given a tour of the campus and met with students, faculty and staff and the administration.

Jim Bacchus, the second candidate to visit, spent Sept. 21-23 on campus. Bacchus was a founding judge of the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO). He served on the Court for eight years and was unanimously elected Chief Justice twice. He was a two-term Member of Congress from Florida, worked for the Governor’s office as an aide and speechwriter and has taught undergraduate and law classes. He is currently the Chairman of the Global Trade and Investment Practice Group and co-Chair of the global Practice Group of Greenberg Traurig in Washington, D.C.

Though Bacchus admitted he is not a traditional candidate, he told the campus community in an open forum that he is seeking the presidency because of his passion for liberal arts. “St. Mary’s is a model of what the nation and world needs. Anyone can learn how to use a machine– but a liberal arts education teaches you how to think for yourself and allows us to compete globally.”

As a first generation student, Bacchus was also attracted to St. Mary’s because its accessibility. He attended Vanderbilt University as an undergraduate on a full scholarship. “My mission to give young people the same opportunity to receive a wonderful education,” he said.

Bacchus has never served on a college administration, but he described how his skills are transferable, particularly in fundraising. “No congressman has a problem asking for money,” he said at a forum.

He also discussed how he would extend the reach of the college internationally and bring in new resources, which resonated with many faculty members and students. “He seems to have important contacts in the political and business world that could mean a lot of support, financial or otherwise, for the institution,” said Professor of History Adriana Brodsky.

Michael Cain, Chair of the Political Science Department, agreed. “He brings a lot of external connections.”

If selected, Bacchus would begin working in January.  “I would move down here. I’ll have a meal plan and will be eating in the Great Room so I would hope students would sit down and chat with me. I’d have regular office hours and try to be as accessible as possible.”

In response to student criticism of the WTO, Bacchus said, “I would defend to the death your right to disagree with me.” He discussed how he would be able to contribute to the exploration of international and trade topics on campus.

Student opinion on Bacchus was mixed. While several students wrote in support of Bacchus, 157 students signed a petition asking that he not be named president of the College.

“Ultimately, I think our position can be summed up in that we think Bacchus would be a successful candidate for a different type of school than SMCM,” wrote Tess Wier, one of the students passing around the petition. “His background and lack of experience in academic administration make him less appealing than the other candidates. Despite his impressive resume we think he would be unsuitable for a small, diverse, many voiced liberal arts college. As a community, we find his experience in managing voter constituencies to be laudable but just not right for the culture of SMCM. Liberal arts in the world means engaging with the small but crucial issues of our campus critically, creatively and compassionately. We aren’t always focused on or motivated by the power politics so often found in larger policy arenas.  Maggie left us a legacy of funding, but now we have the opportunity to do something great with that. We felt that the most unified and clear way of expressing this student voice was through a petition given directly to the Board of Trustees.”

This is the fourth time Bacchus has been a finalist for the position of a college president. “It’s my dream,” he said.

MaryAnn Baenninger visited campus Sept. 23-25. She is the president of the College of St. Benedict, a private, all-female liberal arts school in Minnesota. Prior to serving as president of St. Benedict’s, she was on the CIC Board of Directors, the Executive Board of the Annapolis Group, the American Council on Education Commission on International Education, and the Council on Undergraduate Research.  Currently, she serves on the Board of Trustees of the American University of Sharjah.

She was attracted to St. Mary’s because “the association of liberal arts education and public accessibility isn’t the typical association and it blends two things [she] loves—liberal arts and public education.”  She told campus community members in her forum that she applied because she felt her skills could be of service to the institution and she was interested in moving back to the East Coast to be closer to her family.

Though Baenninger admitted in a forum that she had a lot to learn in terms of lobbying the state legislature for a public institution, she described how the fundraising skills she acquired at St. Benedict’s would serve St. Mary’s. In the current uncertain economic situation, Baenninger said that it is important to increase annual gifts, private philanthropy and grants—funds that a private institution is adept at securing. “Those are funding sources that don’t have a limit,” she said.

She also said that one of her goals would be to capitalize on the growing alum population of the institution to build a resource base “to help it be true to its public mission but also recognize that its been of value to alums and that they can help sustain the institution.”  This was also a priority when she began her presidency at St. Benedict’s and she was successful in building a donor base that gave annually to the College that went incorporated into the institutional operating budget and annual scholarships.

Baenninger also described how she would interact with students. “If you’re going to be a college president, you do it because you want to be around the students. I love to get to know students in a personal way but I also maintain regular meetings with important student leaders, such as the student senate, activities board, and newspaper and participate directly in student organizations at their invitation.” She also said she makes it a priority when she travels nationally and internationally to visit her students who are studying in the same area. Additionally, she spoke about her tendency to hire students to help solve problems for her office, so that they can better understand the workings of the College.

Baenninger’s contract with St. Benedict’s expires in May 2010. “I love St. Ben’s but there’s sometimes in your life where we have to make a choice and decide when it’s the right time. Right now it’s the right time for the college and therefore it’s the right time for me,” she said.

“She has a great deal of experience in liberal arts institution already,” said Cain. “She’s done very well at St. Benedict’s.”

Dr. Joseph Bruno visited the College from Sept. 28 to Sept. 30. A professor of Chemistry and the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he previously served as a postdoctoral fellow in inorganic/organometallic chemistry at Indiana University.

As a current professor, Bruno said he would be able to do a lot in terms of engaging with students. “If you think of the density of talented people…it’s about as high on a college campus as it is anywhere. The real value of a college campus is all the intellectual firepower here. Anybody who comes to campus has a responsibility to commit to the academic mission. We all have a responsibility to bring our expertise to bear.”

Bruno also stressed that he would work hard to bring the College to the attention of more prospective students. “I think the biggest problem is getting the message out more efefectively,” he said. He said he recognized the importance of opening up higher education to a diverse student body, explaining that as a first generation college student himself, “What I would like to do is help future generations of students make a decision about college.”

“There’s a great story to tell and we have to figure out how to tell it. That’s the situation here,” he said.

To improve fundraising, Bruno suggested that the College help people realize that, “The College itself has a tremendous impact on the economy of the region. The money spent to support the College is the best way that money could be spent.”

“One of his strengths is that fact that he’s been in all of academic stages of a higher education institution. He was a professor, chair of a department, dean of sciences and then provost. It gives him a sense of the whole process and what the challenges are of each of the steps. He would bring a coherent approach,” said Professor Adriana Brodsky.

“I’m very pleased with the level of these three candidates. The Search Committee did a very good job. I could see the ways in which each of them could contribute to St. Mary’s. I could see myself liking any of these choices,” she said.

“All four candidates brought some interesting qualities to the college, all four had a lot of experience in different capacities,” said Cain. “Bruno’s strength stems from the fact that he came up all the way from an assistant professor, dept head, provost. He has a long set of experiences in academia that will serve him well in this position.”

I believe that the search committee narrowed the list to four strong candidates,” said Professor Bjorn Krondorfer, chair of the Philosophy and Religious Studies department “My sense of the faculty sentiment is that three of them are strong contenders. Some of us are worried that one of the candidates has no strong background in higher education and educational administration. Perhaps, none of them is perfect (if I could, I would distill the best features of each of them and clone them into the ideal presidential candidate), but I also can see myself working with three of them.”

While large numbers of faculty showed up to the presidential search meetings, the number of students was low, although it increased after Conway-Turner’s visit.

“I was a little surprised by the apparent nonchalance about our school culture that some students showed,” said Wier. “I  hope that the correct choice of president would help improve and bolster up student involvement. We want someone focused on the little issues that make St. Mary’s unique. St. Mary’s is nothing without its students. We want to make sure that voice is heard.”

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