Robyn Hannigan, President of Ursinus College, spoke with MONTCO Today about frequently moving as a child and making new friends through sports and music. She also told how, although she struggled academically, she worked night shifts at a hospital to put herself through college at the College of New Jersey, where she met professors who saw her potential.
Hannigan went on to earn her Ph.D., become a professor, and rise through the academic ranks thanks to her curiosity about organizations and people. She discussed her goals as the new president of Ursinus and the unique “feel” that makes Ursinus perfect for a specific kind of student.
Where were you born, Robyn, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, but we moved around a lot, so it’s hard to say where I grew up. The place I spent the longest was Rhode Island.
What did your parents do? Why did you move around so much?
We used to joke that it was because my dad couldn’t hold a job, but that’s not it.
My mom had a lot more ambition for my father than my father had for himself. He would get a job, and as soon as he started the job, she would be looking for the next better thing. She was always moving us around.
He started as a smokestack engineer and eventually became the director of construction for BASF. My dad always said that if it hadn’t been for my mom, he would have still been climbing smokestacks when he retired.
Did your mom have a career?
She wanted to be an opera singer. She could sing incredibly well, but she never got the opportunity to pursue a career.
Were you part of a big family? Where were you in the pecking order?
I’m the baby. I have a big brother who’s nine years older. I was a surprise – you always save the best for last.
What memories from your childhood stay with you today?
I was lucky that when we moved around, we always went someplace where there was an ocean or water. I have lots of memories of being outside with my brother, rock hunting, getting covered with dirt, and playing with our dogs. Mostly outdoor memories – hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood and running rampant.
Was it hard to move so often?
I’m lucky I have the kind of personality where it’s all good – I’m just happy to be here.
My brother has a very different personality; it takes him longer to warm up and be comfortable in his own skin, so it was difficult for him. But for me, it was like, oh, whatever, we’re moving.
I used athletics and music to meet new people. I was in the orchestra and the band – I played the oboe – and then I played field hockey. So, wherever I landed, I could jump into something familiar.
Were you good at field hockey?
No. I was fortunate enough that when I played in college, I played halfback; at the time, we still had offside rules. I didn’t have to be very good.
But you played in college – you must have had something going for you.
I was raised in an ice hockey family. I’m the kind of player who will happily muscle somebody out of the way.
Where does that come from?
That’s my dad. He’s an ice hockey player.
Did you have any jobs while you were growing up?
My first job was as a hostess and cashier at a local restaurant. I did that all through high school, and after that, I worked at a hospital.
I didn’t come from money, so I had to pay my way through school. I worked at the hospital on the night shift, and I was the vampire who came to your room at 2:00 in the morning to take your blood. But it was a great job – it paid well and allowed me to go to school full-time during the day because my shift didn’t start until 7:00 at night.
What lessons did you take from those jobs that still influence how you work today?
It’s all about people. Any job can be a blast if you’re surrounded by the right people.
What about music?
In high school, I was really into punk. I was a skateboarder. When I went to college, I got into the doom and gloom and alternative – The Cure, Depeche Mode. And I was into metal and German industrial music.
Did you have a favorite artist when you were growing up?
Well, I always thought Robert Smith from The Cure should have married me, so The Cure was one of my favorites. When I was little, my brother was into The Moody Blues and bands like that. I love The Moody Blues to this day.
I’m going to assume you were a pretty good student.
I’m dyslexic, so I was lucky to get through high school. My dad always joked that I got through on my charm. But I was told I was going to college. My brother sacrificed his chance to go to college so my parents could afford to send me.
My high school grades were not great, so I had to go someplace with open enrollment that didn’t care about my high school GPA. I went to the College of New Jersey, which then was Trenton State College. They were the only ones willing to take a risk on me, and I am forever in their debt for doing so.
How did you do at the College of New Jersey?
My first year was a big old mess. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was lucky there were faculty who were watching and scooped me up, showed me the ropes, and would not allow me to make excuses. They were like, “You’re going to put in the time. If you need extra time to study, you’re going to sit in my office, and you’re going to study.”
Looking back, was the College of New Jersey a good choice for you?
It was the best thing I ever did in my life. I wouldn’t be here without it.
Who were the people who saw promise in you?
My professors. There’s one professor, Dr. Fangboner, who has passed away, who really saw that I could do something in research. He felt I was fantastic in the lab and urged me to get my Ph.D. He was the one who pushed me to consider graduate school.
After that, hundreds of people along the way opened a door or window and gave me an opportunity when they didn’t have to.
You were pretty raw back then. What do you think Dr. Fangboner saw in you?
Yeah, he called me flighty! I think he saw that when I got excited about something and when I was challenged intellectually with something, I was like a dog with a bone. I could work through problems at a level that other students probably could not.
He was the first one who recognized I had dyslexia. I knew something was going on, but in the late 80s, it wasn’t very commonly diagnosed. He was the one who noticed that I could recognize patterns very quickly and assimilate information very quickly, but he noticed that I couldn’t read anything. My reading comprehension wasn’t very good, but anything you told me would stick.
He suggested I go to the learning center and get a test to see if I had a learning disability – or, as I like to call it, a superpower – and he was right. He felt I should go on for further study because he saw what I could do with it. He saw that I was more capable than I thought I was.
When did the education bug bite?
Probably when I was in kindergarten. I’ve been a voracious consumer of information for a long time, and I love science of any kind. I was that kid doing experiments in her bedroom and out with a telescope late at night, trying to answer questions. I always wanted that – I didn’t know it was something you could make a career out of.
I became a professor – I was training to be in the oil industry, but I was fortunate enough to land in the professorate. Then I moved through the academic ranks and leadership positions, but that was always because I loved learning and trying to learn more about organizations and my discipline.
I let my curiosity lead me; and it brought me to Ursinus. For somebody who gets excited about working with talented people and solving complex problems, there’s nothing more intellectually engaging for me than the job I have right now.
What brought you to Ursinus College?
During the pandemic and the racial unrest in the summer of 2020, I felt like if I’m ever going to be a president of a college, making sure that kids like me get the best possible experience they can, I’m going to put myself out there now. But I’m only going to put myself out there to colleges that really understand students like me and the issues that I care about and have problems that I can help solve.
I knew Ursinus College because I’m lucky enough to have a couple of Ursinus grads as my graduate students. I knew that they were exceptionally bright and that what they learned at the college was different than your average cat when they came into my lab.
Interviewing for a presidency is like a courtship. Going through the courtship with Ursinus and seeing if we were a good match, I fell in love with what is a truly unique organization. Many organizations will say, “We’re a team. We’re a community,” but as soon as you pull that first layer back, you see they’re not. Every layer I peel back with Ursinus, it’s more of the same – genuine commitment to student success. They’re committed to one another in a way that is astounding and powerful. I fell in love, and luckily, the selection committee chose me.
But there are 50 other colleges and universities within 50 miles of you, all with great reputations. What separates Ursinus from those other universities? Why would a high school Senior decide to come to Ursinus College?
When students look for colleges, they often overlook the fit and the feel. They’ll focus on the football team or U.S. News & World Report ranking. They don’t take the time to come on campus and see how it feels. For me, Ursinus feels different than other college campuses do. It may not feel like a good kind of different to some students, but those students for whom the college is best suited will feel it instantaneously.
If you are a student who is bright and ambitious and you want to have a college experience that will empower you to lead change for a better future; if you’re like me and maybe your talents don’t show best on paper; if you want a community where you will find your people and build a life-long network to support your success, then Ursinus is for you.
As you look toward the end of this year and into 2023, what challenges and opportunities are you focused on?
Every challenge is an opportunity. I’m looking at how we elevate the visibility of Ursinus in this market. It is an incredibly crowded market, but what we offer is distinct. So how do we take the distinctive pieces and make them visible to the students that we need to be able to reach?
Another thing I am focusing on is the business model and communicating it to prospective families and students. One of the difficult things with independent education, which you hear a lot about, is that the tuition’s too high. The reality is that the net cost of attending an independent, nonprofit college is often substantially less than attending a state institution. I want to help people understand net cost and how much aid and support colleges like Ursinus provide.
We want to make it clear that in the case of Ursinus and other liberal arts schools, we are founded on the premise of education for the common good. We are about access and opportunity and as such our business model is built on the fact that the total cost of attendance is underwritten, in large part, by the generosity of alumni.
So, when students and parents look at that price tag, which is an artificial construct of economics, we want them to get to know that net price, the actual cost to the student is significantly less. We want parents and students to understand we are within reach for you – in fact, we were purpose-built for you.
Another thing we’re doing this fall is working closely with some high schools we haven’t engaged with in the past, getting to know them, and thinking about different ways of engaging with students. Although it is about Ursinus, my job is really getting students to think about higher education as an option – not that everyone has to go to college, that’s a personal choice. My job is to open up the option of going to college and with that open, the financial, health, and emotional benefits that are gained as a result of being a college degree recipient.
So, what do you do with all your free time, Robyn?
I play VR video games. I’m on my Meta Quest stuff a lot. And I read a lot of books a week, so a lot of my downtime is spent reading. I read fantasy books, so if it’s got a dragon in it, I’m there. I’d say Joe Abercrombie is probably my favorite author right now, but it depends. The author I am reading at the moment is always my favorite.
And you found a way to deal with your dyslexia and find joy in books and reading?
I have because I learned some of the tricks of pattern recognition and filling in the gaps. Maybe the story I’m reading isn’t exactly how the author intended it to be told, but I’m getting the gist of it.
Do you travel a lot?
I used to travel a lot before COVID, but we’re getting back at it. I’m going to be doing some traveling around the country to visit with alumni over the next year. And my husband promised me that for one of our wedding anniversaries, I was going to Paris, so by God, I’m going to Paris.
What keeps you hopeful and optimistic, Robyn?
Students. I just had lunch with several of them. We were talking about voting and politics today, and it was lovely to hear their hope, joy, and passion for the issues. I felt like, okay, it’s all going to be good. They are so full of life and so hungry to engage with things that I feel it will be okay.
Finally, Robyn, what’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
Probably the best advice was something my mom told me. She said, “Be grateful for what you don’t have,” because as a little kid, you’re always like, “I want this, I want that.” But she told me to be grateful for what I didn’t have. I don’t have a disease that’s going to kill me. I don’t have a father that died in the war.
Today, when that pops into my head, with her voice saying it, it reminds me that maybe I’m looking at the coin from the wrong side. It’s not as bad as I think it is – I’m very lucky.