College Reporter interviews F&M’s new president, Barbara Altmann

By Ruby Van Dyk || Layout Assistant

Photo courtesy of Peter Durantine

This past week Ruby Van Dyk had the chance to interview F&M’s new president, Dr. Barbara Altmann. A former French Medieval Literature Professor at University of Oregon and, more recently, Provost at Bucknell University, Altmann has spent her career working at Colleges and Universities. Altmann is not only F&M’s first female president but is the first Canadian president as well. During the interview she discussed her goals and strategies, Greek Life, F&M’s former president, Dr. Dan Porterfield, and what she hopes to do to help F&M grow. This past week, U.S. News reported that F&M has ranked 36th among national liberal arts colleges, tying with Bucknell and Lafayette. This puts it up from 39th last year and 47th two years ago. This is the highest F&M has ranked since 2002.

Ruby Van Dyk: Many of us haven’t had a chance to meet you yet, or weren’t able to attend your common hour interview, can you talk a bit about your background? How did you end up in academia? What brought you to Franklin & Marshall?

Barbara Altmann: This is my third institution I’ve been at during my academic career. My first job out of graduate school was at the University of Oregon for 25 years, and then I was most recently at Bucknell University as Provost. I’ve now been on the job for four weeks here, today. I was really excited to come to F&M; it was an unmatched opportunity, one that I couldn’t resist. I have spent my whole life in academia and am very passionate about my own research field which is medieval french literature. I do a lot of work with 600 year old books and figuring out how the Middle Ages is still relevant to the 21st century, which is a endless and fascinating puzzle. The environment here at F&M is one in which I thrive. I love being around curious, interesting, motivated people like the people here, so it was just a real privilege to have the chance to join it.

RVD:  What did you learn from your time at both Bucknell University and University of Oregon?

BA: I was a full-time faculty member for 23 years and I loved that role. But as I got further into my career I developed a strong interest in how universities and colleges work, and it was really when my older son attended a small liberal arts college that I saw first hand as a parent and educator what kind of an education that can provide. Here at F&M, and other liberal arts colleges, we are providing a type of education that is uniquely designed to produce students who can be flexible and capable in any career they embrace. In a way, I’m an example of that. My training was highly interdisciplinary and taught me a way of thinking and approaching things from an analytical standpoint. That’s what we’re doing here at F&M.

RVD: Did you have a chance to speak to our last President, President Dan Porterfield before or after accepting the position? If so, did he give you any advice?

BA: Dr. Porterfield has been enormously helpful to me and very generous. I spoke to him when I was still a candidate for the position and had a really important hour with him that gave me a much understanding of the enormous amount he’s done for F&M. He continues to be extremely generous, and he and I stay in pretty close touch. My job now is to figure out how to continue all the fantastic initiatives that Dr. Porterfield launched, and then continue to the next stage.

RVD: What primary goals/strategies do you have as you come into a new position here at F&M?

BA: The goal is to build on everything that is going really well right now. We have an opportunity to continue to build on how we model the best students but also the best faculty and staff. Making sure we continue to demonstrate that the advantages of a diverse student body are important, and I believe that diversity of every kind is a precondition to excellence . What we’re doing now is redefining the importance of bringing in the best and brightest from everywhere. That means students from across the country and around the world, but also here from Lancaster County as well. We want to draw students locally as well as nationally and globally.

RVD: What do you see as F&M’s biggest strengths? Weaknesses?

BA: I think our challenges are the same challenges that are shared by similar schools around the country. For F&M specifically, we are not yet blessed with an enormous endowment in order to run our many wonderful programs. But that being said, we are really outperforming many of our various metrics and doing a lot with very little. My job as President, along with the rest of the senior staff, is not only to keep at the cunning edge of the academic front and provide students with the best education, but also to work on building our endowment. In terms of strengths, we are strong across the board, from sports, performing arts, studio arts, humanities, businesses, sciences, etc. We don’t have any weaknesses in our broad selection of programs and just need to continue to make room for new disciplines.

RVD: You are F&M’s first female president. As a woman, what different or new perspective do you hope to bring to F&M?

BA: I don’t ever want the fact that I’m the first woman President at F&M to be a distraction. It isn’t newsworthy within itself except in the fact that it is high time in an institution that is more than 230 years old to break out of the mold of what may be seen as a typical college president. I’m honored to be F&M’s first female president, but I also don’t think it is surprising that F&M was willing to go there. I think there is probably going to be a little extra scrutiny during these first few months, but I think it’s important for female students and alumnae of the college to see themselves reflected at the head of our leadership as well.

RVD: Throughout the country, many colleges that are similar to F&M have been limiting and/or  changing the presence of Greek organizations on their campuses. What is your stance on Greek organizations? Do you have any plans to make changes or improvements to Greek organizations on campus?  

BA: I think the greek presence at F&M is important. The principles on which Greek houses were founded are really some of the most sterling principals. I think what we need to do always is help our Greek organizations find the best possible way to work with the college and be true citizens of the college, not just of their own houses. I think we have every indication that they are interested. I also think the way in which we try to work with our greek organizations here is very open, transparent, and collaborative, and that’s the way it should be.

RVD: What has been your favorite thing about being at F&M so far? Is there something that stands out?

BA: It’s the fact that F&M is a place where open dialogue can happen. It happens everyday in every corner of the campus, from things that might seem the most trivial to what might seem the most critical, important, and difficult. One of the things that F&M does very well, is provide forums for open dialogue. It’s things like the Day of Dialogue that we have coming up or our institutionalized Common Hour that allow platforms for the campus to talk about many of the issues that we face as a nation and as a globe. I haven’t had anybody be shy about raising any of the hard questions with me in my first four weeks, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. These can be hard conversations, but the very fact that we do it, is a great sign of health.

RVD: What do you hope to be your primary legacy at F&M?

BA: When you follow a couple of really great Presidents, your first hope is to not screw it up. But beyond that I think that as an institution we’re at a great place to make F&M shine for all the things it does well. I’d like to help get the light out from under the bushel for F&M and make sure we’re known across the country as one of the real powerhouse colleges in terms of the education we can provide. I’ve also been thinking about how we tell our story both nationally and locally,  it’s important that we talk not only about the rigor that F&M is known for but also the reward that it provides. There is a lot of satisfaction that comes along with the rigor here and I think getting out the joyous nature of discovery that one can receive at F&M is something we should continue to push. We are high flying and will continue to do so.

Sophomore Ruby Van Dyk is a Layout Assistant. Her email is rvandyk@fandm.edu

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