Margee Ensign is looking forward to fall.
It’s not just the anticipation of welcoming Dickinson College students to campus in the first academic year of her presidency. Nor is it the anticipation of building on the relationship between the campus and the community as strategic plans emerge from vision statements.
For Ensign, there’s an element of anticipation that is a bit more basic.
Having spent the last seven years in Yola, Nigeria, where there’s the rainy season and the dry season, Ensign is looking forward to cooler air and the changing colors of a Pennsylvania autumn.
Dickinson College announced in February that its board of trustees had selected Ensign as its next president, filling the vacancy left by Nancy Roseman, who resigned as the college’s 28th president last year after three years in the position. Provost and Dean of the College Neil Weissman had served as interim president.
Ensign comes to Dickinson after serving as the president of the American University of Nigeria, a private university based on the U.S. model of higher education, and the first development university in Africa.
She also co-founded and led the Adamawa Peace Initiative, a response to the escalating violence brought on by the Boko Haram insurgency. API promoted peace in the area through education, empowerment and community development while feeding 300,000 refugees fleeing the fighting to the north.
Quick to work
As may be expected from a woman who helped guide her community’s response to Boko Haram, Ensign hit the ground running when she officially started work at Dickinson College on July 1.
A draft vision statement has already been prepared that will provide the foundation for a strategic plan in which the relationship between the borough and the college will play a key role. Ensign said this does not mean Dickinson will do projects for the community; rather, the focus is always on working with the community as partners.
“There is an incredible foundation here of important and substantial work as well as resource commitment. What I’m looking forward to is now meeting with community leaders, with some of these partners to learn more about their views on the relationship and where we can work together to have an even greater impact,” she said.
Ensign said she has met with Carlisle Mayor Tim Scott and looks forward to additional meetings not only with leaders of the community, but also with other members of the community to talk about the relationship between the town and the college and the ways in which those relationships can be strengthened.
“I can’t wait just to have a walk downtown and visit the shops. Hopefully, that will happen soon,” she said.
The role of colleges in the communities in which they are located has been a focus throughout Ensign’s career, and lately has been a frequent writing topic.
In a recent article posted on the website for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ensign called on her fellow college presidents to create nationwide engagement opportunities for students and faculty to help tackle the challenges the world faces, including climate change, terrorism, poverty, inequality, diseases and changes to the economy and society driven by technology.
Dickinson College plays a role in the development of such programs as a newly selected member of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, which promotes research on community-campus partnerships and advocates for effective programming for community change. It’s the first liberal arts college to be part of the consortium, a collective of 40 private and public colleges and universities that had typically been comprised of larger schools like Penn State.
Ensign hopes the vision for community engagement between Carlisle and Dickinson College can be a national model for other communities and colleges to solve problems and deal with differences in an increasingly divided population.
To that end, Ensign has launched an all-campus intercultural initiative for students, faculty and staff that begins next week and includes targets for competencies that the campus would be able to exhibit by the end of the year. The task force will work to better equip students before and after study abroad experiences, as well as help integrate all students into the campus community.
“As we become narrow — because of the time we live in — in our open-mindedness to other people and places and cultures, we’ve got to get back to the point where we can listen to people who are different from us and engage more effectively,” Ensign said.
Some of the concepts in the initiative developed out of programs created when Ensign served as dean of the School of International Studies and associate provost for international initiatives at the University of the Pacific in California, a school that required every student to study abroad.
The school had developed a curriculum to help students prepare for their term abroad, but found that a “reentry” curriculum was also needed to help students to process the changes that happen during study abroad. Students who have been overseas see things differently and understand the importance of culture, Ensign said.
“As I looked out at the landscape of the U.S. now, you don’t need to leave. We’re so complex,” she said.
Change of pace
Of course, Ensign’s previous post was far more complex than what is likely to materialize in Carlisle during her tenure at Dickinson. Nigeria is home to 450 languages, religious divisions and gender issues that must be faced in a society that is going through enormous transitions.
In that venue, Ensign developed programs like Peace Through Sports, a peace curriculum that brought together Muslim and Christian children on integrated sports teams, and Technology Enhanced Learning for All, a digital approach to teaching reading that increased literacy rates among some 22,000 children.
Ensign is confident the lessons learned there can be translated successfully.
“When people work together to solve problems, if they have the foundation of intercultural competency, those divides are bridged pretty quickly and the learning is extremely deep because you are working together on big societal problems,” she said.
Ensign also said she was “excited” about deepening the relationship between Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College. An example of the current collaboration between the two can be seen at the college’s writing center where center faculty, staff and students assist the international fellows with major papers they have to write as part of their program. The fellows’ writing improves, and the relationships that result become lifelong relationships on both sides.
“I hope we can do more work also with the community that includes the War College, maybe look at some new programs together,” Ensign said.
Alongside the development of the town and gown relationship, Ensign will be facing challenges inherent to higher education. For example, rapid demographic changes means changes to the number of young people going to college.
“What worries me even more is that two-thirds of Americans don’t get a college education, and I think that’s a big part of all the challenges that we look at,” she said.
Dickinson is preparing to welcome its most diverse class ever, and the school is committed to making sure the most prepared candidates would be able to take advantage of a Dickinson education.
“Every young person has tremendous promise, and I saw that out in one of the poorest places in the world. Everybody hungers for a better education and a better life. We all have to work together to make sure we can extend education as much as possible, especially right now,” Ensign said.
Extending education is vital at a time of increasing global change.
“We honestly are facing an economy where so much is unknown. The names of new jobs are unknown,” Ensign said.
As an example, Ensign drew on her background in the field of artificial intelligence. Back then, she said, no one thought it had much potential. Now, it’s clear that technology is changing how we think and work as well as changing the nature of the work itself. Society must confront those issues to make sure all Americans are ready for a new economy.
That brings the conversation back around to where it started with Ensign’s love for education extended into the community.
“We can never underestimate our values and our leadership position, and we’ve got to regain all of those things. We have to be an educated nation. We’ve got to be prepared for a new economy. And we’ve got to make sure we are living our values which are critically important around the world,” she said.