A Conversation with President-Elect Robyn Hannigan

Marie Sykes (masykes@ursinus.edu

Chase Portaro (chportaro@ursinus.edu)

Dr. Robyn Hannigan will assume her new role as Ursinus’s 19th president on July 1, 2022, and she is, as she puts it, “wicked excited” to start her journey in Collegeville. Dr. Hannigan is an environmental academic, inventor, and college administrator who has served on administrative teams at three colleges and two research institutions across the country. Most recently, she served as Provost for Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, and before that, she was the Founding Dean of the School for the Environment at University of Massachusetts, Boston. Nina Stryker, the chair of Ursinus’s Board of Trustees, wrote in a school-wide email that Hannigan differentiated herself from other extremely qualified candidates “by articulating a vision for the liberal arts that is grounded in the public good.” 

As someone who is knowledgeable about higher education with a background in environmental sustainability, Hannigan has expressed a commitment to Ursinus’s vision of providing students with an interdisciplinary program that takes place in a close-knit, residential community. She brings with her a passion for bettering the lives of students, drawing on her own experience as a first-generation college student and descendant of the Narragansett Indian tribe.

In addition to her background as an environmental science specialist in the field of academic administration, Hannigan holds four patents and has founded two separate start-up companies that specialize in technological optimization. She also has served as a Program Officer for the National Science Foundation, an independent government agency supporting research and education.

Dr. Hannigan will join the Ursinus community with her husband, Alan Christian, and their eleven year-old daughter, Cami, as well as their three dogs, Skippy, Freyja, and Astro. Alan is an aquatic ecologist and associate director of the Honors Program at Clarkson, where Hannigan is the current Provost. Their daughter Cami rides horses, is interested in math, and loves cooking and creating art.

MS & CP: You spent this last week visiting Ursinus. What stood out to you from being on campus?

RH: You know what I really like? Just the vibe of campus. You know how you can go some places and feel [that] either it’s really stiff or it’s really fun? But I felt the latter. I felt a lot of really positive energy, but I felt a lot of sincere teamwork here that we’re all on the same team… We’re all working together [and] doing the same thing.

MS & CP: Yeah, community is a really big thing, that’s why people come to Ursinus.

RH: You can feel it… it’s to the credit of students in particular. I watched the student exchange we had over at Wismer and saw how students were interacting with other students so that even if they weren’t necessarily on the same team or in the same class, just the way that the community expressed itself and the interactions of its students – you guys are the real deal.

MS & CP: You have four patents to your name, and you were a founding Dean at UMass Boston’s school of Environmental science. You clearly have a passion for ingenuity in education. How do you see yourself applying that inventive mindset to academic administration at Ursinus? 

RH: So I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I mean entrepreneur in the true meaning of the word. A lot of people think “entrepreneur” means that I’m out to make a lot of money. I’m not. What I like to do is innovate for the common good. And in my research that turned into stuff…but in my academic leadership positions it’s, “let’s look at the way we’re doing stuff and see if it’s the most efficient, if it’s the most creative, if it’s the most inclusive” — because I’m really big into diversity and inclusion. How can we bring all the creativity to bear and think outside the box? I’m also of the opinion, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. Almost everything can be improved but it’s how we innovate our way into achieving the mission is what I’m into.

MS & CP: Do you have any plans for sustainability on campus when you come to Ursinus?

RH: I certainly see ways for us to optimize what we’re doing, and there is no question Ursinus has a firm grounding in sustainability. With the Environmental Studies program, the food forest, the work being done with the Delaware tribe, the Lenape– there’s a lot of really great things happening at Ursinus, but does that translate to everything we could be doing? If we look at the seventeen United Nations goals of sustainability– everything I do is through those lenses. Are our facilities operations equally invested in those things, and equally supported to be successful? For instance, the United States Library Association just launched sustainable libraries as a certification your library can earn, so is our library positioned to become a certified sustainable library? So, that’s the kind of stuff I think we can do at Ursinus. Because it is a community, you can actually work across different parts of campus much more effectively than you can at larger institutions. So definitely, my passion for the planet and people is what drives me. That is what I have dedicated my career to, my research, so I am definitely passionate about that.

A lot of students feel helpless in terms of sustainability on their campus, but I want to put it straight to you guys, you have all the power. To change an institution and the way it handles sustainability, the students have an enormous amount of say in that conversation.

MS & CP: Ursinus just recently issued a land acknowledgement expressing recognition and gratitude for the land used to build this campus, which was formerly inhabited by indigenous peoples. Considering your mother was a member of the Narangassett nation, do you feel any personal pride in Ursinus’s relationship with the local indigenous communities?

RH: I have to say it means everything to me, in particular with the history of the Lenape people in Pennsylvania. PA is the only state that does not formally recognize any tribes, or any tribal lands. So for Ursinus to do this, it’s a big deal. I think that Ursinus is doing yeoman’s work in being the academic institution that’s taking the lead. And for me, the way Ursinus’s land acknowledgment was developed is very important. A lot of institutions’ land acknowledgement efforts are very performative. They look at other institution’s land acknowledgments, copy it up, and call it a day. That is not what Ursinus did in their land acknowledgement. They did it in partnership with the community they were welcoming home. That resonates through all of us and it tells us that story of community and the importance of true justice on Ursinus’s campus.

So, what I have seen nationally, where students are trained in really strong sciences, they also have that really strong foundation in transdisciplinary studies like the humanities and arts that make them substantially more successful.

MS & CP: What is the most important thing the student body should know about you?

RH: I am who it appears I am. I am very approachable, and I am here 100% on your side to help in any way. I know how difficult this college journey is. The students should know that I can be unpresidential sometimes, in the traditional sense that a president is stuffy and unapproachable, that is definitely not me. (Chase: “We like that.”)  As a president though, I want them to know that I am here to champion all that Ursinus is, and when you are with us, you are with us for life. This is a family, and I firmly believe that. And sometimes I’ll act like your mother, you know I will ask you, “Where’s your coat? What’re you doing?” But most importantly, I want them to know that I definitely am who I say I am.

As the interview concluded, Dr. Hannigan’s Great Dane, Astro, came to her office door, wondering if his mom’s first interview as president of Ursinus College had concluded. In a not at all “presidential” way, she scooped up her jumbo-sized canine and gave it a big mom-hug. Hannigan introduced us to Astro and told us that the entire campus can look forward to seeing him and his siblings, Skippy and Freyja, soon.