A Farewell Conversation with Pano Kanelos

July 7, 2021 | By Les Poling

Outgoing Annapolis President Pano Kanelos

When outgoing Annapolis President Pano Kanelos arrived at St. John’s in 2017, he had a lofty goal: to read the works of the Program, in sequence, alongside the first-year Johnnies who were starting their fall semester at the same time. It was, he admits now, an incredibly ambitious task. “It’s hard to run a whole college and do all the readings the students are doing,” he chuckles. Nevertheless, Kanelos says, he still read 90 percent of the texts on the Program, deepening his connection with the works and his fellow students along the way.

Ahead of Kanelos’s final day as St. John’s Annapolis president on June 30, we sat down with him for one final interview to discuss St. John’s, liberal education, and much more; read the conversation, which has been edited for length, below.

When you first started in Annapolis, what were some of your expectations for the job of St. John’s president? Were those expectations met?

I’ve been working in higher education for my entire career, so I had a pretty detailed sense of what college administration is, what a president does, even though I hadn’t been one until that point. My expectation when I came in was that at a place like St. John’s, a more significant part of my role as a president would be to publicly represent the distinctive character of the Program. Other schools are relatively interchangeable when it comes to their academic programs. But the St. John’s Program is unique, and I think the president has an important role to play in being an ambassador for the Program. That really held up: I spent a significant amount of my time and energy public speaking, writing, going to conferences, doing media, being kind of evangelical about the Program—explaining its relevance and importance in the world today.

Given how much time and energy you spent advocating for the Program and the Great Books, which I know you were passionate about before St. John’s, did you find that your relationship with any of those texts changed at all during your time as president?

That’s a good question; I think I come at it from a slightly different angle. What became more evident to me over time was how absolutely foundational and central the first year is to the rest of the Program—the Greek texts. This particular Program is really built out of what’s called the “life of the mind” as construed by the ancient Greeks. The Program is not just a chronological sequence of “let’s start in the ancient world and work our way to the modern world.” The Greeks introduced notions of rationality and inquiry in human capability and limitation, and the Program in many ways is an unfolding of and challenge to those original premises. That was interesting to me: to think about all four years not only as sequential but as a kind of growth or unfolding of early experiences in the Program.

The Program is chronological in the sense that the texts we’re reading are in conversation with and expanding upon what’s come before, but it’s not linear. I would think of it more as a kind of organic organism, like a tree that sprouts up from a particular trunk and then starts branching out in many different directions—but everything still flows back to that core.

Looking back on the last four years, what do you think have been some of your most important accomplishments as president at St. John’s? And what are you most personally proud of from your time here?

I think making the case for St. John’s in the world that we live in today, which is increasingly focused on thinking of college as a preparation for professionalization—making the case for an institution that still can speak to that practicality, but also speaks to things that are higher and more transcendent in the human experience. Just holding on to that view of education has been increasingly hard in the world we’re in, and so one of the things I’m most proud of is being able to lead an institution that is still withstanding those counter pressures. To me, that has been the most important work. But also, sustaining an institution that has those values has been very rewarding: working to lower tuition and raise money through the capital campaign; working to increase the visibility of the college so that more students know about it and then take advantage of this education.

As I said earlier, I’ve felt evangelical about the college, so I’ve tried to find ways to extend the mission of the college as broadly as possible, oftentimes via partnerships with other organizations. I went to Australia, for example, to give a lecture at a place called the Ramsey Centre in Sydney, and that led to us forming a partnership with the Ramsey Centre—they’re now sending Australian Graduate Institute students, with full scholarships, to the college every year. We worked with the Newington-Cropsey Foundation: meeting with them and getting to know the people there and then starting a program where every summer, four Johnnies get to work with a world-famous sculptor, Greg Wyatt, in his studio in New York, and then travel to Paris to make their own bronze sculptures.

Extending outwards and connecting with other organizations, like the United World Colleges—those are the kind of lasting institutional relationships that will help the college. We’re a tiny little place, although we have a very grand sense of our mission. How do we maintain that intimate character of college, but also have a larger footprint in the world? We do that by finding like-minded allies, institutions, people, and then bringing them into the fold.

Having been president during an extremely eventful, transformative, and in many ways successful four years of the college, how do you envision the future of St. John’s? What are you hoping to see from afar?

When I first came on board we were still in the throes of what I would call an existential crisis—our ability to survive was in question. It wasn’t just St. John’s; higher education in general is going through a tumult, so the four years that I’ve been here have been focused on stabilizing St. John’s so that we can see the next 300 years of the college. I think St. John’s has achieved that kind of structural stability. It’s like when you have a beautiful old French chateau, and you discover that the foundation is crumbling: you have to bring in the engineers with some steel girders so that the foundation stops degenerating and disintegrating. I feel like that’s what we’ve been doing the last four years.

The college has been fortunate to have existed mostly outside the culture wars that are challenging our society. I think we’ve been able to do that largely because we’re small and we’ve kept to ourselves, and the people who come to St. John’s invariably understand what we represent and why we should stay outside of those things. I think it’s going to be harder to do that as we go forward. In the world we live in today, everything is becoming massively politicized; the centrifugal force of politics is pulling everything into it. I think how St. John’s responds to that is going to be one of the coming challenges.

Were there any particular challenges that you encountered during the last four years that you weren’t expecting? No one could have predicted the last year and a half, for one.

That’s the 400-pound gorilla. What I would say is that, as a kind of subcategory of COVID, a different challenge emerged. For the first time since the launching of the New Program in the 1930s, we had to significantly alter our mode of instruction. Putting aside the massive health issues of the pandemic, this was a stress test on the college in terms of what the Program is; how it can survive in a radically altered environment. What is the Program if it’s not a bunch of people gathering together, sitting around the table? Does it have a kind of soul that can subsist in a different environment? There was really an existential threat to the Program itself. That was the most significant challenge that we faced during my time.

The tutors and students stepped up admirably and maintained the Program. My role was to be one of the voices articulating how we could push through this, communicating to the community that we could do it—trying to keep my hand on the wheel as we were navigating the iceberg of how to keep the Program going. So again, health and safety issues aside—which were tremendously difficult to deal with, running a campus with students and people in the middle of a pandemic—our particular concern was that COVID really reframed the way we conducted the Program, challenged us to find ways to continue to conduct the Program. I was not expecting that.

As you’re leaving St. John’s, what do you think of the state of liberal education, having observed firsthand how current and future generations are engaging with the Program and the St. John’s pedagogy in a new way?

To speak generally: liberal education is grounded in a particular kind of notion of human freedom and agency. The idea that if human beings free themselves from certain constraints in the pursuit of truth, then they will have the opportunity to move closer to something called truth. Not necessarily get there, but we’re working on it. It also has as a precondition the idea that human beings are, to a large extent, free. We’re free, we have an agency. And with that agency comes moral responsibility. The choices we make are our choices, and the choices we make, for better or worse, we bear moral responsibility for. The liberal education is predicated on a world that has a certain metaphysical understanding of human beings: the idea that the best way for human beings to seek flourishing is to do so in an environment that provides freedom of thought and freedom of speech. I think we are seeing, in higher education itself, challenges to that very notion.

An environment that is rooted in freedom, one in which intellectual exploration is the centerpiece, depends upon the ability of a community to allow one another to make mistakes, to explore ideas that maybe aren’t fruitful, to sometimes say things that are challenging or might offend the sensibilities of others—and then to forgive each other when we do make mistakes and to continue to move on. I think the conditions for liberal education in general are becoming harder to maintain in our culture. And so, how does St. John’s fit within that? Thankfully, I think St. John’s has proven to be a community that is still resistant to the general forces that are impeding the fundamental freedoms behind liberal education. But I think one of the questions that the polity has is, how do we self-consciously maintain that space of liberty over time?

Are there any particularly fun moments from St. John’s that you’ll remember or cherish when you’re looking back at this time in your life?

A few months ago, when we were back on campus and struggling to emerge from the COVID cocoon, I remember walking out and seeing a group of students, masks on, playing soccer. They had an intramural match; one of the teams was the Guardians, my team. And seeing them joyfully out there in the middle of campus after this dark night of COVID, purposefully pulling themselves back into community and doing it in a way that exemplifies the St. John’s spirit—we do things together, we do things joyfully, and we believe in the body, the mind, the soul—for me, that was a moment where the lights started to come back on. During the time of COVID, there were many times when, literally, I was the only office light on campus. I was there all by myself—people were working hard, but they weren’t on campus. And so to see that, that was just a moment of absolute joy for me, and gave me a sense that we were going to make it.

There are so many other memories. I absolutely loved the moments that I had in the classroom; I was able to teach every year that I was at St. John’s. Sitting around a table or even being on a Zoom call with our students and letting everything else melt away—the administrative duties, the everyday running of the campus—and focusing on text and conversation was really a highlight: living the Program with the students was very important to me.

Being at St. John’s was the greatest privilege that has ever been extended to me, and everything about the college has been a joy to be a part of. In some ways I feel more like a student than an administrator, in that our students spend four years at St. John’s, they absorb the lessons that are to be learned, they’re formed by the experience and by the Program, and then they convert that into something that follows. I feel like I’m doing something similar; that I’m taking everything that I’ve learned from St. John’s, and I’ve been thinking very carefully about how to parlay that into something that can respond to our cultural moment. I get to walk away with that gift.