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From a D in high school biology to graduate degrees in science and now a college presidency: Meet Ursinus’ new leader.

Robyn E. Hannigan, provost of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., will become Ursinus College's new president. She is among a long string of new presidents in the region in the last year.

Robyn E. Hannigan, the new president of Ursinus College.
Robyn E. Hannigan, the new president of Ursinus College.Read moreCourtesy of Ursinus College

Robyn E. Hannigan says she wasn’t a great student in high school. She got a D in biology.

But that didn’t stop her from majoring in the subject at the College of New Jersey, and as she began research and learned she “could be the one leading discovery,” things got a lot better. She went on for a master’s and doctorate in the sciences, now holds four patents for medical application technologies, and has been involved in starting two companies with inventions she developed with some of her students.

And on Friday, she hit another educational milestone: She will become a college president. Ursinus College announced Hannigan, 56, provost of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., as the first permanent female leader of the 1,500-student liberal arts college in Collegeville. She starts July 1. Jill Leauber Marsteller, Ursinus’ former senior vice president for advancement, has been serving as interim president.

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She’s also the first leader of Native American descent. Hannigan was a first-generation college student whose parents scraped to save enough to pay for her first year of college and whose older brother chose to forgo college so that she could go, she said, tearing up as she talked.

“Higher education is all about transformation,” she said. “I’m a living reminder that it truly is transformative and it changes everything, the future and the potential of an individual.”

Her hire is among a slew of presidential appointments and departures at area colleges over the last year, one marked by continued financial, enrollment, and health challenges posed by the pandemic. Earlier this week, Chestnut Hill College hired its first lay and male president. On Friday, the University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees voted to formally approve the hiring of University of Virginia provost M. Elizabeth Magill, whose selection was announced in January. Penn recently said goodbye to its longest-serving president, Amy Gutmann, now the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

On Monday, Neeli Bendapudi, Pennsylvania State University’s next president, will be on campus to get to know her staff and community. She will officially take over for Eric J. Barron in May.

Last week, Moore College of Art & Design hired a new president. Earlier last month, it was Widener and La Salle Universities. Others that saw a change in the last year include Delaware Valley, Temple, Lafayette, Lehigh, Dickinson, Rutgers-Camden, and Holy Family.

Hannigan said COVID-19 magnified the cracks that higher education already had in its foundation, and that colleges, particularly liberal arts institutions, must show the benefit of cross disciplinary training and educating “the next generation of problem solvers.”

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“If we don’t take care of business now,” she said, “there won’t be a business to take care of.”

Hannigan follows Brock Blomberg, who left Ursinus in September for another presidency.

Hannigan, who was born in Springfield, Mass., and her family moved to Rhode Island, then to New Jersey when she was in high school. That struggle in biology in part was due to dyslexia, she said, and her aversion to live dissection. She started college as a music major, switched to psychology, then settled on biology after watching the television show Quincy, M.E., about a medical examiner.

“I thought, that’s for me,” she said.

Research and one-on-one attention from a faculty member who nurtured her interest gave her confidence, she said.

“It was really that research experience and that liberal arts education that empowered me to move from a less-than-successful high school student into someone who was going to be the first one to finish undergrad in the family,” she said.

She got her master’s in geology from SUNY Buffalo and a doctoral degree in earth and environmental science from the University of Rochester.

Hannigan has worked at both urban and small-town colleges — Clarkson is in the poorest county in New York. Before Clarkson, she was a dean at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She also taught at Arkansas State University and was a program officer at the National Science Foundation. It was while she was teaching that she and her students developed technologies related to faster and more accessible diagnosis of disease that led to start-ups, she said.

She’s been recognized by the American Chemical Society for encouraging disadvantaged students to go into careers in the chemical sciences.

Hannigan’s husband, a biologist and associate director of honors at Clarkson, will join her, along with their 11-year-old daughter. Hannigan said she enjoys coloring, attending student performances, and reading — she goes through three or four books a week, mostly fantasy.

“If it’s got magic or a dragon, I’m in,” she said.