New president celebrated at St. John's College

St. John’s College in Annapolis welcomed its new president, Panayiotis Kanelos, on Saturday afternoon in a celebration on campus that was in keeping with the small liberal arts school’s style.

Students waltzed at the reception and the new leader was given a medal — but instead of a regular chain, the links were a pattern of open books.

Though Kanelos’ inauguration was held Saturday, he stepped in to fill the shoes of past President Christopher Nelson on July 1. Nelson retired at the end of the school year after serving as president for 25 years.

Kanelos said he thinks Nelson kept community organizations, particularly arts and cultural groups, close to St. John’s. Nelson has laid the groundwork for him to follow-up on those relationships, he said.

“One of the wonderful things about being the president of a small college in a relatively small town is you get to know everybody face to face,” Kanelos said. “I could walk from here and, within six blocks, get to know people who are involved with practically everything going on in town.”

Those face-to-face actions are how the college and the rest of the community connect, Kanelos said. Though he hasn’t joined any boards or organizations in the broader community yet, he said he is open to doing so.

“Chris Nelson was such a fabulous member of the community — I don’t want to leave a vacuum there,” he said.

Kanelos is also a Shakespearean scholar. In the past he has served as resident Shakespearean scholar in the Old Globe MFA Program, and as founding director of the Interdisciplinary Shakespeare Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago.

“I’ve been involved in the arts world and the cultural world for a very long time,” he said. “That’s my natural habitat, so I can’t imagine not getting involved with that.”

Kanelos has moved to Annapolis with his wife and two children. He said he is delighted to be president of St. John’s, but also to be in the city of Annapolis.

“We’ve been welcomed on campus, but also off-campus by so many people,” Kanelos said.

He went to his first Navy football game last weekend, he said.

Before coming to St. John’s, he was dean of Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University.

A presidential search committee reviewed more than 100 candidates over a six-month period, said Pamela Saunders-Albin, vice chairwoman of the school’s Board of Visitors and Governors. They felt like they struck lighting when they found Nelson, she said — and lightning struck again with Kanelos.

“He is a first-generation Greek-American who grew up with cousins and siblings named Odysseus and Electra; he speaks and writes fluent Greek; and he had become intrigued by the great book at a very young age all on his own,” Saunders-Albin said.

And Kanelos faced the same challenges at his last job that St. John’s is now facing, she said, including declining admissions, fiscal deficits and a capital campaign.

“He was filled with energy and ideas for how to tackle them here,” she said.

When asked generally about what he would like to change or grow at the school, Kanelos said the undergraduate program at St. John’s is “perfect and untouchable and wonderful.” But there is room for growth in the graduate program, he said. Right now there are roughly 450 students in the college’s undergraduate program and between 60 and 75 students in the graduate program, according to college spokesman Greg Shook.

“We’ve had great success in the past with bringing people from outside in, or offering courses in other locations. I think that’s an endlessly expandable program, and that’s one of the ways we reach out from St. John’s,” Kanelos said.

St. John’s College is a liberal arts college known for its unique curriculum, with seminar-style discussions and a focus on great books and other texts, such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

Mark Roosevelt, the president of the college’s Santa Fe, New Mexico, campus, gave remarks at the ceremony Saturday.

“This is not the time or the place to review the many changes that have hit small liberal arts colleges that place a far greater burden on administrative leaders, except to say this — getting to know Pano as a candidate for president and in this first few months of our collaboration, I have seen a man who has the skills and the attitude and the convictions to make this work,” Roosevelt said.

St. John’s College was founded in 1696 and has two campuses, one in Annapolis and one in Santa Fe. Each president is the leader of their campus, and the two work together to lead the college as a whole, Shook said.

To reduce costs and redundancies, the college’s board put Roosevelt in charge of administrative functions on both campuses in 2016 — but both campuses still have their own president.

At the inauguration, college board Chairman Ronald Fielding presented Kanelos with the official medallion of the oath of office, which has been passed down through many generations at St. John’s, Fielding said. The iteration of the medal Kanelos received is 80 years old.

In addition to the medal’s unique chain, it bears a seal with a scale, seven books to represent the seven liberal arts and an inscription of the school’s Latin motto, Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque — which roughly translates to: “I make free adults out of children through books and a balance.”

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