If Jennifer Baker is being honest, becoming the athletic director of a distinguished college program such as the one at Johns Hopkins was Plan B. It’s the one rare subject on which she and her promoted predecessor, Vice Provost Alanna W. Shanahan, disagree.
Growing up in Lutherville and later Monkton, Baker had envisioned becoming a fighter pilot for the Navy. After graduating from Hereford High and the Naval Academy, she flew planes for the military branch for three years before getting medically disqualified. Devastated, she began to coach high school lacrosse in Virginia Beach for 10 years, rediscovering her passion for athletics.
“It is that thing that is as meaningful as the pursuit of flying was, and it feels very similar in terms of there’s a kind of fun camaraderie and a lot of competitive spirit,” she said Tuesday afternoon after getting promoted from senior associate athletic director. “You’re serving something more than yourself. So I never imagined it because I didn’t even know it could exist, but once I found out that it did exist, it really was instantaneous for me that it was the path I had been seeking.”
But Shanahan said Baker is primed to be an athletic director.
“I think while she has tested other pieces and other interests, she was always likely to do this kind of work, but just wasn’t maybe prepared to accept it,” she said. “Her ability to be successful in the higher ed context and her ability to relate to students and understand what they need to succeed and what they need to develop as leaders, she’s just unbelievably capable.”
Baker, 43, succeeds Shanahan, 44, who had been hired June 6, 2016 to replace Tom Calder. Shanahan, a native of Wallingford, Pa., and a former sports administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, has been promoted to vice provost for student affairs. Both Baker and Shanahan will move to their new positions on Monday.
Baker, who will become the school’s fifth athletic director since 1950, joined the Blue Jays in September 2017 after serving as a senior manager of corporate real estate, facilities and operations at Under Armour. She has helped coordinate day-to-day operation of the department with a specialization in the planning and management of all fiscal and administrative operations.
Baker also was the sports administrator for five teams — football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s lacrosse and women’s soccer. She recently led the search that promoted offensive coordinator Greg Chimera to head football coach on Feb. 22 after the sudden death of Jim Margraff on Jan. 2.
Baker, who called Shanahan “an exceptional personal mentor and role model,” will continue reporting to Shanahan and said she wants to build on Shanahan’s goals of competitive excellence and the student-athlete experience.
Shanahan acknowledged that she is stepping out of her comfort zone by agreeing to become the vice provost for student affairs.
“It is challenging because it’s taking me a little bit further away from what I have loved my entire career,” she said. “That will be interesting, but I think the opportunity to impact Hopkins and Hopkins students more broadly is really exciting. The fact that I get to stay close to athletics and that Jen will report to me as we move forward makes me feel good that hopefully I can still do great things for athletics, but now hopefully I can do great things for some additional students as well.”
Baker insisted that she was caught off-guard by the promotion.
“You still never really quite know what the opportunity is going to be and when it’s coming,” she said. “So in this case, this was a surprise, but I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to be at a place like Hopkins. I’ve been here for two years now. So I’m intimately familiar with the exceptional caliber of student-athletes we have here. The people within our department are second-to-none, and our record of success both in the classroom and on the field is truly remarkable. So to get to take over a program that is already headed in such a positive direction and that has such a track record of tradition, legacy, and recent successes, it’s still not real to me.”
Baker, who had risen to associate athletic director in charge of facilities at Cornell before working at Under Armour, said she does not feel pressure as the new face of Johns Hopkins athletics.
“I want to do right by my people, and that means the staff that we have here, but also the students that we serve,” she said. “To the extent that there are expectations on the outside, as long as I feel like I have taken care of the people in the inside and I have helped achieve what is truly possible for them to achieve, then I feel like we’re doing all right, and I’m not so concerned with what others on the outside might think.”