A presidential path

Two alumnae take their seats as college presidents

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September 17, 2013

By Glenda Isaacs Burgeson

Barbara Edwards Farley '81
Beth Dinndorf '73

From College of Saint Benedict Magazine

On Barbara Edwards Farley's first day as the 14th president of Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill., the vice president of institutional advancement resigned. She took it in stride.

"I didn't blink," says the 1981 CSB alumna, who thought to herself, "OK. Here we go."

That was July 1. She has been on the go ever since.

Beth Dinndorf '73 never considered a college presidency as a career option, until Saint Ben's President MaryAnn Baenninger planted the idea.

"MaryAnn Baenninger is the reason I am here," Beth says flatly and tells how a businesswoman and native of St. Cloud, Minn., wound up as president of a liberal arts college for women in Columbia, S.C.

In February 2012, during dinner with MaryAnn, Beth mused aloud about her career path. She had 37 years' experience in banking. Working as a consultant, she had just completed a major project. "What next?" she wondered.

"You could be a college president," MaryAnn replied, "and I have the perfect opportunity for you."

Within days Beth updated her credentials and submitted her application just in time for consideration by the search committee. In July 2012, she became the 18th president of Columbia College, one of the oldest women's colleges in the U.S., also providing coeducational evening and graduate programs.

Farley followed a traditional academic career path to a college presidency while Dinndorf followed a nontraditional path. Both are anchored by a liberal arts education at College of Saint Benedict.

Despite their different career paths, Barbara and Beth share common traits that will help them navigate the often unpredictable challenges of a college presidency.

"They are somewhat similar in personality," MaryAnn says. "They both are go-getters. They are vivacious. They like to meet people, and they like to form relationships.

"Both are exemplars of Bennies of their era."

By that MaryAnn means the two women fully embrace Benedictine values and especially practice the values of listening, welcoming and being responsible stewards.

As a new member in the exclusive club of female college presidents, Barbara also is the first woman to lead Illinois College, a private residential liberal arts college serving 1,000 students.

"I'm having a blast," she says of her nonstop schedule meeting with students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college. Her appointment as the first woman to lead the college since its founding in 1829 has generated interest.

"It's been a topic of conversation," she says. Numerous students and alumni have approached her and commented, "It's about time," she says.

It's easy to see why she was hired. Barbara is both a strategic thinker and a people person. "I bring a genuine interest in hearing people's stories about what Illinois College has meant to them." Those stories motivate her to make sure similar stories are realized by future alumni.

"I enjoy being with people and getting to know them," she says. At the first-year orientation dinners, Barbara introduced herself to each of the more than 400 guests.

In addition to her interpersonal skills, Barbara's intellectual interests are in strategic management. She earned her doctorate in strategic management and organizational behavior, as well as a master of business administration degree from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

As a Saint Ben's student, she majored in management, and she began her academic career at CSB/SJU, serving as associate professor of management from 1985-94. She has held academic administrative posts at The College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn., and most recently at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where she served as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college.

Barbara credits two mentors who had a deep and abiding influence on her.

"My late husband Jack was a very important mentor throughout my life," she says. Jack Farley was professor of management at CSB/SJU from 1978-94. He and Barbara were married for 21 years, until his death in 2007.

"One of his greatest gifts was inspiring people to achieve what they never thought possible. That is a part of him I bring to Illinois College," Barbara says.

Another mentor was Vera Theisen, CSB/SJU professor emerita of French. Barbara minored in French at Saint Ben's, and Vera was her faculty adviser in 1980 when she studied abroad in France.

"She inspired me to take full advantage of the experience," says Barbara, who lived with the Salen family in Aix-en-Provence for six months. She has kept in touch with them through the years.

"It was the single most important experience I had in college," she says.

Beth believes everything she has learned throughout her life has prepared her for her responsibility as president.

A math major at Saint Ben's, she earned a juris doctorate in 1982 from the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. She also has business savvy from her executive experience with U.S. Bank in St. Paul and Wells Fargo in Sioux Falls, S.D.

With no direct experience working in higher education, she describes the learning curve of her first year in office as "incredibly steep." Yet, in her years of service on the College of Saint Benedict Board of Trustees, she says she benefited from a front row seat from which to observe the "capable and strong" leadership of four women who led the college.

In two separate terms of service on the board, 1988-97 and as board chair from 2005 until her appointment at Columbia, she has seen first-hand the leadership qualities of S. Emmanuel Renner, S. Colman O'Connell, Mary Lyons and MaryAnn, with whom she worked most closely.

"They were great women presidents and great role models," she says.

Beth's business acumen is apparent in the accomplishment of one of her top priorities at Columbia College, the establishment of the Institute for Leadership and Professional Excellence. The institute provides each student with a professional team of advisers focusing on coaching, professional development, leadership training and internships.

MaryAnn is thrilled to welcome Barbara and Beth as colleagues, and she is delighted to include them among accomplished alumnae who will inspire Saint Ben's students. She notes it is fitting that they both are leading liberal arts colleges.

Barbara and Beth both bring to their campuses enthusiastic appreciation for their liberal arts experiences at Saint Ben's. They believe in and practice lifelong learning.

Barbara's love for learning has renewed her interest in the French language. Two years ago she resumed her study of French, and, last year, she reconnected with her host family in France, meeting their nine grandchildren.

Beth sums up her Saint Ben's experience as "attitude." Saint Ben's instilled in her a sense of confidence. "Never did I think there was something I couldn't do." At Saint Ben's, that was the attitude, and she was surrounded by it.

"It's a given. If you are determined, you never know what piece of your experience will open the door," she says. "What's so great about the liberal arts is that we are lifelong learners. We seek opportunities, and we seize opportunities."