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Leading Our Future: St. John's College President

Sep 06, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Bob Allen

When first-generation Greek-American Panayiotis (Peter) Kanelos worked as a boy in the delis and diners his parents owned and operated in Arizona, he just figured he’d follow them into the restaurant business.

After all, no one in his family had gone to college, and he assumed he wouldn’t either.

But then, almost by accident, during breaks between washing dishes and waiting tables, Kanelos, 48, discovered the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the classic literature of Ancient Greece.

“I discovered them on my own,” recalls Kanelos, who is fluent in Greek. “There were books around, but my parents weren’t educated people. My father was growing up in Greece after the war, so he only got a third-grade education. My mother graduated high school, but didn’t go any further than that.”

Those early literary discoveries blossomed into a life of letters. Kanelos, who in July 2017 became the 24th president of St. John’s College, eventually earned an M.A. in literature and political philosophy from Boston University and his PhD in literature and philosophy from the University of Chicago.

Before arriving in Annapolis, Kanelos served as dean of Christ College, the honors College of Valparaiso University in Indiana. Before that, he held professorships at Stanford University and the University of San Diego. He has also written and edited a number of books on Shakespeare, including a series called Shakespeare and the Stage. Along the way, he spent a summer studying at the Globe Theatre in London under a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.

“Students have really warmed up to him and they can tell he really cares about the college and their well-being,” says Joe McFarland, dean of St. John’s. “And he’s really improved staff morale by including them and listening to them and thinking about the ideas that they have on how the college can be made stronger moving forward.”

We recently spoke with Kanelos, who is married with two children, about the challenges he faces and the sense of mission he feels for the job he describes as “just one opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

There’s been much discussion in recent years about a national decline in liberal arts education. Has that impacted St. John’s?

It started with the financial collapse and its aftermath. 2008–2009 is when we saw the bottom drop out. But our enrollment has been climbing for a few years, and for the past couple years we’ve had either record or near-record numbers of students on our campuses, both in Santa Fe and here in Annapolis.

To what do you attribute that?

One piece of it is now that things are rebounding employers are telling everybody, “No, no, no, we don’t want students who have a narrow focus in college. We want students with a broad liberal arts education.” Companies like Google and others have come out and said their preference is to hire liberal arts graduates. As that thinking starts to make its way through the public, we have started to see a rebound here at St. John’s.

Is part of your job to get this message out to the public?

Yes. A big part of it is. I have been out on the road a lot, doing public speaking engagements and media appearances in order to raise St. John’s profile. I was in Phoenix, where I led a two-day seminar for a group of teachers. I’ve been invited by the South Korean Ministry of Education to give a talk this fall to their National Conference on Education. I’ll also be going to Australia, and I’m working on some projects in Germany. 

Right now, over 20 percent of our students are international students. In this year’s incoming class, we have students from Mongolia, Uganda, Norway, Japan. From all over the world they’re coming to tiny little St. John’s in Annapolis.

You’ve made it clear that there will be no changes to St. John’s unique undergraduate program, which, in a nutshell, is based on the most important books and ideas of Western Civilization, from Homer and Archimedes, to Shakespeare and Baudelaire. What makes the program so vital and unique?

The goal of the St. John’s undergraduate program is to develop a human being as fully as possible, intellectually and soulfully. While many schools have had to strategize, refocus, and create new programs (in order to cater to specific career paths), here at St. John’s, we just doubled down on who we are.

On the other hand, you are looking to change and provide room for growth in the graduate program, right?

Our graduate program is our most outward facing program. In many ways, it’s more mobile, because it’s less about a residential life component. We’re attracting more graduate students from all over the country, and we’re also taking our graduate program to them. For instance, we are now looking at a program that would have a location in New York City. And we’re looking at other mobile programs where we would go to other cities where there’s a concentration  of interest in our graduate program.

In addition to your impressive credentials as a professor and college administrator, you are also a leading authority on Shakespeare, with a number of books to your credit and affiliations with some of the world’s leading Shakespeare theaters. Did you discover Shakespeare as a boy, along with the Greek classics?

Oh no. I didn’t really know much about Shakespeare until my freshman year at Northwestern University in Chicago. One evening, this friend of mine, who lived down the hall, told me she had an extra ticket for a Shakespeare play in the city. At first, I was intimidated: I mean, what did I know about Shakespeare? But we went to this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, Troilus and Cressida, in a small theater, and I was just electrified. After that, I started attending theater all the time.

Tell us about your time at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in London.

I was there in the early 2000s with a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship doing work on what’s called Shakespeare Original Practices, which is studying how Shakespeare’s plays were put on in Shakespeare’s day. I’ve also taught actors how to do Shakespeare and I’ve done a lot of public speaking about Shakespeare, as well. I did some acting in college.

Going back to your mission, you’ve emphasized the importance of community outreach -- expanding and strengthening ties between St. John’s and the surrounding Annapolis community. Why is that so crucial?

A college like St. John’s has a lot to offer the community, and conversely the community has a lot to offer St. John’s. And if we here at the college believe strongly in the life of the mind, in human expression, then we have an ethical obligation to share that with the community as much as we can. We can do that through our community seminars, our public lectures, the theater and music we produce, and the Mitchell Art Gallery. At the same time, I think Annapolis is such an amazing and culturally rich place. I want our academic community here, especially our students, to be exploring that and taking advantage of all the wonderful things the community has to offer. I’ve been here a year now, and I feel like I’m still just scratching the surface. I’ve had so many opportunities to meet people and attend events. It’s been wonderful.