How a Long-Time Emergency-Room Physician Became President of Lake Forest College
By David A. F. Sweet Each day Dr. Jill Baren arrived at her job as an emergency-room physician during a 30-year career, she had no idea what awaited her. She never knew who she’d be working with, how many patients she’d encounter or what type of injuries she’d be treating. Though it may seem surprising at first glance, that background has helped her transition into her new role as president of Lake Forest College.
"It’s a beautiful setting. And you have life sciences, Chicago finance and more in a reasonable radius," says Lake Forest College President Dr. Jill Baren, discussing some of the reasons she moved from the East Coast for the LFC role. “Emergency medicine is a good teacher in that you have to do immediate prioritization,” said Dr. Baren, sitting in her office at the liberal-arts campus, a bucolic space crisscrossed by ravines and featuring 19th-century buildings. “I don’t think there’s a single day here that I don’t detour to a disruption.” So how did a medical doctor end up running Lake Forest College starting in 2022? Dr. Baren has been engaged in education for decades. Her faculty career began at UCLA School of Medicine. She continued as an educator and researcher at Yale University, University of Pennsylvania and University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A real impetus came when she was proposed and was accepted for the American Council in Education Fellows Program. She spent the 2018-2019 school year on the Villanova University campus following the school president, Father Peter Donohue. She saw how he made decisions on capital projects, what issues he chose to focus on and what he discussed in Board of Trustees’ meetings. Though she had a good idea beforehand she wanted to be a college president, her time at Villanova confirmed her desire. “I observed firsthand the impact of great leadership in moving the organization forward,” Dr. Baren said. “President Donohue was a great convener of ideas. Everyone did their work in the name of creating the very best experience for students. It inspired me to want to do the same thing.” Yet when she first heard about the Lake Forest College job, she almost didn’t apply.
“These job searches can be very consuming,” said Dr. Baren, the first woman president in the school’s 166-year history. “The consultant said, ‘Do you want to read this profile?’ I didn’t really want to. But I did, and then I called her the next day and said, ‘I’m in.’”
What appealed to her?
“I like that the fundamental disciplines we teach are put into an applied context. All the sciences are integrated into a health-profession area. A Lake Forest College student has a thought process around careers.
“I was also attracted to the location. It’s a beautiful setting. And you have life sciences, Chicago finance and more in a reasonable radius. That creates a lot of opportunities.”
Dr. Baren has introduced some new ideas, and she’s been excited by their embrace. For example, she’s discussed interdisciplinary professorships, even across as many as three disciplines.
“Usually there are borders – professors think they have to be in the department they’re in because of their PhD,” she explained. “People here have been open to the interdisciplinary idea.”
She is highly focused on making sure the college’s faculty and staff look more like the student body, which is represented by more than 100 countries.
“The world is global – you have different religions, different languages,” she explained. “You have to know how to move in that world.”
Accelerated by the pandemic, there’s been a hefty decrease in college enrollment since 2010. Though Lake Forest College has enjoyed record enrollment the last two years, Dr. Baren knows keeping it at those levels will be a challenge.
“People refer to it as a demographic cliff,” she said. “We’re highly dependent on tuition (tuition and room and board is about $65,000 annually). If people go away, what do we do?”
If that happens, she may have to give extra attention to her chief priority: fundraising. Today, the college’s endowment exceeds $100 million. Dr. Baren pointed out that some alumni give because of memories of a favorite professor or because they met their best friends during college, while others have lofty goals behind their donations – investing in future students and the like.
Lake Forest College has a rare fundraising advantage over other colleges – local citizens give money, often lavishly. The Donnelley & Lee Library and the Lillard Science Center are examples of citizens who bestowed multi-million-dollar gifts on the college even though they never attended the school.
As unusual as it is to see a long-time emergency physician in charge of a college, it may be even more surprising to know that same person is a big fan of the Grateful Dead. Dr. Baren continues to go to Dead & Co. concerts, the latest version of the iconic group known for its long jams and fans who follow them across the country.
“I was born in the 1960s and wished I was part of its culture and values,” she said. “The music is about improvisation, and my life is about improvisation. They did capture my heart.”
But perhaps not as much as two female students who showed up at her office one day bearing a package. Just as Dr. Baren would have loved to have met Jerry Garcia back in the day, these students wanted to see what a college president looked like.
“They wanted to deliver a package to see that I was real!” Dr. Baren shared. “It never occurred to me that that could be so important to someone.”
This article first appeared in Classic Chicago magazine.