Dr. Margee Ensign ’73 links colleges and communities
Margee Ensign’s advocacy for women’s education and empowerment dates to her first year in college at the newly co-ed Fairfield University, where she earned positions on both the college newspaper and the men’s tennis team. “Of course that didn’t make the guys very happy,” she gleefully recalls.
And that advocacy was tested during her time as president of American University of Nigeria, where she contended with the Boko Haram insurgency, known for the mass kidnapping of young women from another college.
Now, as the new president of Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, she will continue her advocacy for education and strong communities. Dr. Ensign says her perspective was shaped most by “the influence of New College, which is so profound in my life.”
Ensign transferred to New College after a year at Fairfield and quickly began developing those formative relationships. She graduated in 1976.
“I arrived at a time when this amazing woman, Dr. Peggy Bates, was there,” Ensign remembers. “I thought I was a pretty good writer when I got there, and I remember my first paper that Bates gave back to me … she said to me, in a kind but challenging way, ‘You don’t write very well, which makes me think you’re not thinking clearly.’” But instead of succumbing to devastation and dropping the course, she said “No! I think if I stay with her I’ll learn how to write.”
Her mental tenacity and drive to overcome challenges suited Ensign to the school’s academic rigor, and these traits would follow her throughout her career.
“There are so many threads from New College,” she said. “One is the ability to learn how to think clearly — and that’s hard — and to write well, and to realize the world’s problems do not fit into departments. So if you’re departmentally focused, whether it’s science without policy, or understanding the biology of food problems without looking at democracy, you miss the bigger picture.”
As president of AUN, where Ensign and her community stood up to a deadly terrorist group, the big picture was infinitely more valuable than departmentalized knowledge. Yola, the capital city of Nigeria’s Adamawa State and the home of AUN, faced devastating problems that needed to be ap- proached with great care. “The challenges of leadership were greater than I thought I could handle,” she says. “We had Boko Haram 50 miles from campus, [and] we had 400,000 refugees in the community,” more than doubling the city’s population.
It was only through connecting the Yola community leaders that they were able to develop a plan to move towards peace, safety and empowerment for the people displaced by the insurgency.
Called the Adamawa Peace Initiative, AUN brought together “all the Muslim leaders, the Christian leaders, the women’s groups, … and that’s what kept the area safe and people fed,” she says.
Ensign expects to bring the influence of her time at AUN to her presidency at Dickinson. “I’m going to take some of the lessons from Nigeria, the wonderful way my students were able to approach and solve huge problems … It made me realize we can’t underestimate what students can do.”
Dickinson’s connectedness to the surrounding community was attractive to Ensign, as someone who understands the potential for positive change that exists in engaged citizenship. “They’ve been a leader in global education and sustainability for a long time — things that are near and dear to my heart. … One of the reasons I chose to come home now is I think we are in the middle of a gigantic wake-up call in America.”
“When we look at institutions that are important in protecting and supporting the American ideal, we don’t often think of colleges and universities, right?” Ensign presses. “So I’m hoping, in my tiny little way, we can begin to forge more of a movement with other colleges and universities to say, ‘Let’s focus on solving community problems.’ If every college and university focused on their community challenges, we’d begin to see a lot of social and economic progress.”