11/12/2018 Chris Karlesky

Meet Barbara K. Altmann: Liberal Arts Champion

This magazine article is part of Fall 2018 / Issue 92

Barbara K. Altmann, Ph.D., believes Franklin & Marshall can ‘do’ education in a way that’s different from any other kind of institution. As the College’s 16th president, she’s excited to build on a liberal arts tradition.


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On a breezy summer afternoon in front of Old Main, Dr. Barbara K. Altmann laughs as she recalls a conversation a few years ago with Bucknell President John Bravman. Then Bucknell’s newly minted provost, Altmann was excited to take on a new challenge at a top liberal arts institution—but Bravman was already thinking about her potential as a leader in higher education.

“John said early on, ‘Barbara, we’ll make sure you know everything you need to know, so that should you ever think about moving into a presidency, you’ll be ready,’” Altmann says. “And I just laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re very funny, John. Sure.’”

Altmann, a scholar of French medieval language and literature, was a longtime professor—and later, senior vice provost for academic affairs—at the University of Oregon prior to joining Bucknell in 2015. She says she would have chuckled if someone had asked her at any time during her career if she aspired to a presidency, just as she did when Bravman brought up the notion. But as she became more invested in liberal arts education at Bucknell, she wanted to sink her energy and accumulated experience into maximizing and optimizing what she could do for students.

Then came a call from Franklin & Marshall Board Chair Sue Washburn ’73. F&M was looking for a new president. Was the provost interested in applying? “I never thought of myself in connection with this plum of an opportunity until I spoke with Sue,” Altmann says.

Altmann says many factors attracted her to Franklin & Marshall, including the College’s academic excellence, the strength of its faculty, and the diversity of its student body. She was especially drawn to the school’s long and historic tradition in the liberal arts—a story she will champion as the 16th president of Franklin & Marshall and the first woman to hold the position in the College’s 231-year history.

“The more I got to know people and the more I spoke with the members of the search committee, the more I trusted my instincts that F&M is the place I want to be,” Altmann says. “This is an extremely strong school with a venerable tradition that has figured out how to make a liberal arts education the vehicle through which we send graduates out to be really successful in the 21st century.”

Altmann began her official duties in mid-August, succeeding Dan Porterfield, who now serves as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and Eric Noll ’83, P’09, who served as interim president over the summer.

“Barbara Altmann is an exceptional teacher and scholar, a skilled and passionate advocate for the liberal arts and a leader of great depth who inspires the best in others,” Washburn said. “At both a research university and a liberal arts college, she has demonstrated her gifts for nimble and creative thinking, strengthening connections across disciplines and building partnerships that work. Her deep understanding of the difference that an F&M education makes in the lives of students and the world they will shape captured our imaginations, and we are thrilled to welcome her to our very special community.”


How We ‘Do’ Education

Altmann’s passion for higher education took shape in her hometown of Edmonton, where she grew up as the daughter of German immigrants to Canada. Though her parents did not hold university degrees, they prized education and were both very learned. Altmann and her four siblings each earned college degrees, and three of them became university professors.

“I have a brother with a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, and a sister who has a doctorate in library science. So, I’m the black sheep of the family as a French medievalist,” Altmann says with her characteristic sense of humor.

Altmann graduated with a degree in Romance languages from the University of Alberta and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in French language and literature at the University of Toronto. She speaks English, French and German, and has reading knowledge of Italian. Being multilingual and having a broad knowledge of cultures “was just part of how our parents taught us to think and be,” she says.

But despite her wide-ranging education and linguistic background, Altmann says she did not experience liberal arts education in the way Franklin & Marshall students do. Similarly, she does not feel the kind of allegiance to her institutions that many alumni of F&M feel toward the College.

“That’s because they were very large public institutions, and I didn’t know enough to find a way to connect with them beyond my school work,” she says. “I didn’t have the kind of mentoring that really makes those four years a learning experience outside the classroom as well as inside the classroom. I got a great education, but mine was limited; it didn’t include the life experience, the professionalization, the integration into the community, and that’s what I began to see as an educator as the value added for a great liberal arts education.”

Altmann believes students at F&M—and all top liberal arts colleges—have opportunities unlike what they would find at other institutions of higher education. “We have our students on campus 24/7, for four years, and that comes with an incredibly rich learning experience. And I think we can do education at this kind of school in a way that’s different from any other kind of college or university.”

Another quality that makes F&M distinctive, Altmann believes, is its talent strategy—an array of programs to boost enrollment and success among stellar students from every background. The College has dramatically expanded its admissions outreach to high schools often overlooked in college recruiting, and established a signature College House system that integrates residential and academic life. F&M has also developed a new model to support students’ personal and professional development during and beyond college.

“The values of this place, the kinds of decisions this College has made, are things that are very close to my heart,” Altmann says. “As a student who got through my undergraduate degree because of a scholarship—and the same thing is true of my four siblings—I hold dear to the notion of access, and I deeply embrace the notion of the talent initiative. F&M is already in the vanguard on this and has really taken national leadership.”


On Spielberg, Star Wars and Valentine’s Day

Before moving into higher education administration, Altmann spent 23 years as a faculty member making the case to students that there’s still a great deal of relevance in pre-modern and early modern fields in the Western world and far beyond. Her students often believed the Middle Ages were a time of barbarism, that it was backward. But soon they learned fascinating connections between the Middle Ages and modern culture, including entertainment such as “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars.”

“The way we tell stories, for example, is often still organized on structural principles that were common in the Middle Ages, and that’s where Steven Spielberg and ‘Star Wars’ come in,” Altmann says. “It’s medieval epic that really has the habit of telling things in groups of threes, and with prequels and sequels. So if you take ‘Star Wars,’ which presents a certain set of characters, and then you build around it their ancestors and their descendants, that’s actually straight out of the 13th century.”

Ideas hatched during the Middle Ages are all around us, Altmann says. They’re even clearly visible in every Hallmark store around Valentine’s Day. “I guarantee that six out of 10 Valentine’s Day cards are based on very old notions that were developed during the heyday of the Middle Ages, on what we expect of courtly love, the knight in shining armor, the lady on a pedestal. We’re still recycling those. We have a deep fascination with medieval material.”​

The president’s enthusiasm for teaching is on full display. “You should hear me on the topic of engineering as a humanistic discipline,” she quips.

Altmann loves being in the classroom, meeting students where they are, hearing and learning from them. For her, that’s the heart of it all. However, she says it would be unrealistic to lead a class while performing her duties as president. “But I always invite people to invite me as a guest lecturer. I love doing that.”


Hitting the Ground Running

Altmann begins her presidency as the College embarks on an exciting and extraordinarily busy semester. In addition to the typical beginning-of-the-year events such as Orientation, Convocation and welcoming events, she will oversee the launch of the largest comprehensive campaign in F&M history. The capital campaign kicks off at TRUE BLUE Weekend, Oct. 26-28; the celebratory weekend also will include her inauguration ceremony.

There are challenges and advantages to launching a campaign with a new president, Altmann says. On one hand, she is still doing her listening tour, still getting to know Franklin & Marshall and its many constituencies. But on the other, she brings the initial high energy of a newcomer.

“I have all of my first enthusiasm. I’m dazzled by this place,” she says. “I really wanted to be here. So I bring a fresh perspective, a fresh set of eyes.”

Altmann, who played a significant role in Bucknell’s recent $500 million campaign, believes authenticity is among the most important keys to a successful project. “We need to be really clear about who Franklin & Marshall is, what our priorities are, what we do that is so valuable to our current students and alumni,” she says. “We lead the pack in terms of faculty-student relationships, faculty mentoring of students, student research, our preparation of students for the working world when they graduate, and also the first decade of their working lives. We are one of the leading colleges doing this kind of superlative education for a very broad-based student body that can come from anywhere—any corner of this county and this country, and any corner of the world.”

The president believes that she has an unparalleled opportunity to hear other people talk about why Franklin & Marshall is meaningful to them. She’ll be doing a lot of listening in the coming months and beyond. “It’s very fresh for me to sit down with someone and say, ‘Tell me what your devotion to this place is. How did it help you? How did it launch you? What did you get here that was invaluable to you?’ There’s a lot of really exciting stuff going on here. I’m grateful to be part of this vibrant learning community.”


“This is an extremely strong school with a venerable tradition that has figured out how to make a liberal arts education the vehicle through which we send graduates out to be really successful in the 21st century.”
Barbara K. Altmann, Ph.D.
Barbara K. Altmann
President, Franklin & Marshall College

The Altmann File

  • Family: Married to Dr. John T. Stacey, practicing psychologist; Two grown sons, Leo (engineer) and Amos (musician)
  • My first visit to F&M: It was in a really wild snowstorm, but it was a very romantic way to see the campus. My husband and I walked around until we were soaked to the skin, and every minute of it was a pleasure because the people were so welcoming.
  • People might be surprised to know: I was a basketball player as an undergraduate.
  • Research field: Late-medieval French philology, literature, and manuscript culture; text editing and criticism; 19th- and 20th-century medievalism
  • Languages: English (native); French (near-native); German (heritage speaker); Italian (reading knowledge) 
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