St. John’s College in Annapolis inaugurates first woman as president

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America’s third oldest college officially has its first female president.

St. John’s College Annapolis inaugurated Nora Demlietner on Saturday afternoon, installing her as the 25th person and first woman to lead the school since it was founded in 1696. A German-born law professor, Demleitner hopes her gender is not the only difference attendees noticed at the festive Saturday afternoon affair.


“It’s about welcoming the community to campus,” Demleitner said. The college may have a long history of progressive policies, including enrolling Black students in the 1940s, but she acknowledged that St. John’s has, in the fairly recent past, upheld some “exclusionary structures” when it came to welcoming neighbors. Her inauguration was designed to send a message that those barriers have been dismantled, and signify the college’s place “in the cultural and intellectual life of Annapolis, the county and the state.”

VIPs at the event included Capt. James Bates, chief of staff at the U.S. Naval Academy; Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley; Annapolis state Sen. Sarah Elfreth and dozens of other leaders from other area colleges and Mark Roosevelt, president of St. John’s sister campus in Santa Fe.


Demleitner had plenty of time to develop the guest list. Her appointment was announced in September 2021, and her tenure began in January of 2022, but her inauguration was delayed for two reasons: concerns about large gatherings during the pandemic and construction at Mellon Hall, which houses the largest auditorium on campus, and made the most sense for a venue.

“The weather around here is just not reliable enough to do a serious outdoor event,” Demleitner said. “We’ve been holding off to schedule this until Mellon is sufficiently completed, which it is now. That’s very exciting for our entire community.”

The inauguration doubles as an open house celebrating Mellon’s major rehabilitation, as well as the post-COVID restart of public programs like the Friday night lecture series and re-opening the Mitchell Art Museum, formerly known as the Mitchell Gallery, after renovations.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke when the modernist Mellon Hall was dedicated in 1959, so it’s appropriate that the building’s glow-up — including an overhaul of the theater’s backstage, music rooms and study spaces — conclude with a presidential inauguration.

The year in office also gave Demleitner time to plan a ceremony that celebrated everything she loves so far about St. John’s. The run of show included student speakers, the St. John’s College Chorus, a performance by concert pianist and alumnus James Siranovich, introductions by local emcee Gary Jobson and the presentation of the colors by the United States Naval Academy Color Guard, a nod to Annapolis pageantry that Demleitner has quickly grown to love.

“I’m really looking forward to that. They elevate every ceremony,” she said, during an interview Friday before the pomp and circumstance got underway.

Demleitner comes to St. John’s after spending more than a decade as dean of the law schools at Hofstra and Washington & Lee universities. She knows that going from a school named for confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, where women could not earn undergraduate degrees until 1985, to the famously contrarian St. John’s, with its focus on critical free-thinking, may seem like a stretch. But she points out that “law deans are the most independent of all deans,” and that Washington & Lee’s law school is one of few attached to a small liberal arts university. Thus going from fostering diacritical thinking on that Lexington, Virginia campus to running St. John’s, with an undergraduate student body of less than 500 at its Annapolis campus, all focused on reading and discussion, was a logical transition.

“It wasn’t that far of a stretch,” she said.


Raised in Germany, Demleitner came to the United States in search of a small, liberal arts education rather than a course of study at a German research university. She landed at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She earned law degrees from both Yale and Georgetown universities, and clerked for now-Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. while he served on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. She described her own legal education as one focused on “interdisciplinary critical thinking,” which “fits perfectly with St. John’s. Reading texts is what a lawyer is supposed to be doing,” she said. “I really got enamored with the pedagogy of St. John’s.”

Although the school’s graduates pursue careers in a variety of fields, Demleitner feels especially posed to help the school provide a foundation education for future lawyers.

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“Liberal arts education is not just about verbal communication, but also about written communication, which is crucial for lawyers,” she said. “It’s about logical reasoning and logical analysis. It’s also increasingly thinking about connections between disciplines. Litigation lawyers, in particular, are really well known for having to learn a lot about a specific area to prepare for a trial, and then change entirely for the next set of circumstances.”

Both the ideal lawyer and the ideal St. John’s graduate, she says, have thought seriously about what it means to be a “democratic citizen” and upholding those values in “a purposeful life and a purposeful career.”

Whenever possible, Demleitner wants the broader Annapolis community engaging in those purposeful discussions, including concerts, theatrical performances and the revived weekly lecture series, held most Fridays at 7 p.m. in Mellon Hall’s Francis Scott Key Auditorium or in the McDowell Great Hall. Upcoming topics range from Plato’s famous theoretical cave to Baltimore artist Amy Sherald’s paintings.

There’s one much anticipated St. John’s event where Demleitner is not rolling out the welcome mat, however, and she knows that decision has offended a few neighbors: The annual croquet match pitting the St. John’s Johnnies and the U.S. Naval Academy will not be open to the public.


“This was a student request,” she said of the wicket-whacking tradition scheduled for April 9. “My understanding is it had gotten a little bit out of hand, and no longer fulfills our purpose of getting the two colleges together. So we’re trying to shrink it down to scale.”

She encourages any disappointed croquet fans to instead visit campus another spring day.

“We want to give them the opportunity to come to the museum, a lecture or a music performance,” Demleitner said. Her campus is a place where the community can come “do a whole host of different things.”