Nora Demleitner Begins Tenure as St. John’s Annapolis President
January 10, 2022 | By Les Poling
This month marks the arrival of St. John’s College’s new Annapolis president, Nora Demleitner, who will serve as the 25th president of the Annapolis campus, the ninth Annapolis president since the inception of the New Program, and the first female president in the college’s 325-year history. Demleitner, an expert in criminal justice issues who most recently served as the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University School of Law, was appointed by the Board of Visitors and Governors in September.
As President Demleitner begins her time at St. John’s, preparing for Johnnies to once again fill the hallways, the quad, and the coffee shop in late January, it seems a fitting time to share a recent conversation with her, conducted before her first day on the job. Read our dialogue, edited for length and clarity, below.
What did you know about St. John’s College before you applied for the presidential position—and what made you want to be the president of the Annapolis campus?
The first time St. John’s fully reached my consciousness was when my son was thinking about college. At some point I asked him, “Do you want to go and see Annapolis?” And he said, “Yes, but I want to stop by the St. John’s campus.” He had done all the research; he actually gave us the full story on the curriculum and what students learn, which was quite fascinating.
Later, a friend of mine told me the presidency was open. Her daughter is at St. John’s in Santa Fe, so my friend set up a Zoom call with me and her daughter to talk about the school. What captured me was that we spent about 90 minutes on a call that I had expected to last 30, 45 minutes. She loves the school, she loves the education, she loves the conversation, and that enthusiasm was really infectious and exciting. She made the curriculum come to life. I was also privileged because I had the mother on the call, who was explaining the college from a parent’s perspective. Her daughter had gone to another institution for a year and then decided it wasn’t for her. So I was hearing about how she saw her daughter change, which was fascinating, because I don’t think you usually get a parent gushing in that way about how their child has changed.
With St. John’s, maybe a bit more than other institutions, there’s a process of learning about the college as you become part of the community. How have you been preparing to start as president here?
A lot of reading—though I can’t say that means all the Great Books. I’ve been thinking about higher ed in general, as well as what distinguishes St. John’s and how to think about positioning the school in a very different climate than we were in when the Program started. I’ve met regularly with collegewide administrators and a fair number of the campus-wide administrators; I came to the board meeting here in Annapolis in November. I am very much looking forward to spending a lot more time with the faculty and going to classes, and I’m hoping to catch some of the summer programs in Santa Fe.
What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned about St. John’s—and what are you hoping to learn more of as you settle into the college?
The pedagogy side is intriguing to me because of my law background. In law, we always claim we do Socratic questioning and dialogue. The truth is, how could you do that with 80 people? Let’s be real. I have never called it that in my classes—I call it a discussion or questioning. So I want to watch how it is done at St. John’s. I got a little bit of a teaser of that, actually, in one of the board committee meetings; I thought the conversation was brilliantly done.
I think the other thing that intrigues me—I’m really curious about this—is, how do you just focus on the text when we know that there’s so much context surrounding some of the books? Of course, I’m particularly thinking about texts I’m intimately familiar with, like the Supreme Court decisions that are on curriculum—they have such a rich history. Now, having said that, I remember having a constitutional law professor who I was fairly certain I was not going to survive, because we spent four weeks on Marbury v. Madison, and he did not want to discuss the history and the context. He would ask exactly the type of questions that you should engage with: What does it mean to not have a government of men? How can that work? I remember silence from that class more than conversation. But he clearly was of a generation where these questions were still asked in the classroom. I’ve always been fascinated by that, and I want to watch how that works at St. John’s.
You mentioned your background—most of your career has been in law and academia. Is there anything in your pre-St. John’s career or life that you’re particularly proud of?
I often start thinking and writing about issues before the rest of the legal academy does—which isn’t necessarily good for your career, but over the long run I think it turns out to be more intellectually stimulating.
For example, there’s this whole area called collateral sanctions, which essentially refers to things that befall you because you have a criminal record. So not being able to have a gun, not being able to vote, not getting into public housing, if it’s a drug conviction—there are so many examples that have mushroomed over the last 25 years. I started writing about this because of a case my husband took pro bono in the late ‘90s, when nobody was writing about it. I remember writing for one of Stanford’s specialty journals; it was part of a symposium, so they had to take [the article], but they didn’t want to and they put it last in line. Five years later, collateral sanctions had become a major issue.
I wrote another very small piece on what’s called “good time” in prisons. Prisons give you credit for good behavior, theoretically. But some states give you credit for sitting there, while other states essentially require you to rescue a guard during a riot in order to give you credit. It runs the whole gamut, and nobody had written about [the concept of “good time”] since the ‘80s. I mean, nobody had written about collateral sanctions since the ‘60s. This is the other thing that I found, and find, fascinating: Nobody had looked at the past. Sometimes, with these conversations that people now have about collateral sanctions, I’m like, “If you look at literature from the ‘60s, you would get better ideas about this than what you’re coming up with now.”
Generally speaking, how do you think your background has prepared you to be president of St. John’s?
I understand academic administration, to a large extent, because law deans—in contrast to most undergraduate deans of non-professional schools—run all parts of the school. They oversee their own admissions, their own fundraising, their own budget, they are in charge of their school’s curriculum, the registrar’s office; all of these things, administratively, I had some exposure to. I still have a lot to learn. But I think I’ll be able to learn because I have a good foundation.
Curriculum-wise, I have to admit I was a little bit nervous at first, because the St. John’s curriculum is very different than what I’m used to. There are some similarities: Most law schools’ first-year curriculum is lockstep, so students don’t have a choice [in what they read]. Here, it’s four years where that’s the case. And coming here, I was not prepared for the similarities in conversation and discourse. I think this is because of the Socratic dialogue connection—even though I’d say we don’t do it in law school, we do think similarly. That struck me: You see a lot of commonality in the mindset [between St. John’s and law school], how to really parse and question. That was truly eye opening to see when I visited in the summer. And I think there’ll be more similarities between me and the faculty, in how we’re thinking about a problem, than at some other institutions.
This college is very different from most—what do you think will be challenging or unique aspects of being president of St. John’s?
I think a lot of the facile answers, or the things that everyone else does, are not going to work at St. John’s. So the important thing will be to keep an eye on the broader world and higher ed, the rest of academia, and think seriously about what makes sense for St. John’s—and what doesn’t make sense for St. John’s. There are some important questions that will arise, such as: Do we have to worry about being more job-centered? How do you do that without giving up the St. John’s mission and focus? What is it that students may need to have thought about before graduating, and what big questions may be out there that we’re currently not asking our students—and that we should be—before they’re stepping out into the world?
In addition, some students have said that it’s sometimes hard to talk about what we do at St. John’s. I think it’s important for them to learn how to converse with their friends, their parents, and their family about the St. John’s education, and also explain it to an employer in less than 60 minutes—and then, find people in the outside world who are like-minded. That might mean more alumni programming by St. John’s, or just creating a place for alumni and students to see St. John’s as their intellectual home, even as they’re venturing out into the world.
So, alumni functions and career building are very important—but here, that will be different from what other schools do. We’re not going to throw out a quick certificate in whatever the job market seems to demand. What I love about St. John’s is that we don’t do that. We don’t say, “Employers want X, therefore, we will do X,” because there’s great danger in doing that. As a society, we’re not educating people to be citizens. We’re doing too much in terms of educating them to be workers for today, not 10 years down the line. This is what I want St. John’s to keep an eye on: educating people to be happy, thoughtful, and thinking deeply about their responsibility as citizens, of the country but also of the world. And, of course, giving them the ability to function in a world of commerce and employment.
I’m sure it’s hard to answer this question with specifics, but what hopes or aspirations do you have for the future of St. John’s College?
I would like for the students to be happy while they’re here—not in a superficial way, but really to be fulfilled academically and also with their heart and their body. I think that will require the college to think about physical facilities and physical comfort, in addition to the intellectual comfort of the community. The other component is to reinforce a community that is welcoming to all; a community that allows us to come here, with all of our differences, and talk about the hard issues—freely and relatively unconstrained. That’s a much-needed space that needs to be preserved and shored up nationally. It’s important to have communities that can model that, and I’d like to see St. John’s on the forefront. What that also means is being in the public eye. St. John’s has made great headlines in many respects; we should continue to show off the model we’ve put out there for higher education. It’s unheard of for a school of our caliber to say we’re going to be philanthropically run. It takes a lot of alumni support—but that can be a real national model. Obviously, we dropped our tuition, and other institutions are too scared to follow. But we can show that that type of thing can work.
I would like St. John’s to challenge, implicitly, the assumptions that higher ed has for itself. Not in a lecturing way, but just saying: “Here is a different kind of model. It’s not for everyone, but give some thought to what we in higher ed need to do and what our role is in society.”
On a slightly different note, what are you personally looking forward to about being at St. John’s?
Being immersed in the community and becoming a part of it. I want to really get to know the community, from finding new restaurants to going to classes and lectures and meeting more people in the community and within the college. That’s what I’m looking forward to; I’m excited to be a full member of this exceptional institution.
And lastly, what is your favorite book?
I have to tell you, this is an unanswerable question. My family always accuses me of this: the last book that I read is the one I will tell everyone else to read. I will constantly talk about it, and for a while it will be my favorite—until I get to the next one.
At different points in your life, different things speak to you because your own life changes. Last year, I was thinking a lot about professional formation, how the discipline you’re in shapes your life, so I happened to be reading a number of books that reinforced that. Next year, it may be something else. I just read the book about the Sacklers, The Empire of Pain. I wouldn’t call that my favorite, but it was a fascinating book. I was really curious to learn about the subject, and it actually played into this question of the responsibility of the lawyer, which wasn’t what I expected.
You asked me earlier about interesting things I have found about the college. Stringfellow Barr, the president who cofounded the Program, actually wrote a novel [Purely Academic] about academia in the 1950s. I’m about one third through it. I would call it—tongue in cheek—the predecessor to The Chair, and it is hysterical.