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An aerial view over Marshall University’s campus is seen on July 9, 2020.

HUNTINGTON — Massachusetts native Robyn Hannigan traveled cross-country frequently for her father’s jobs and resided in a mobile home during her childhood. Now, she’s a finalist to lead an iconic West Virginia institution.

The provost at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, Hannigan is visiting Marshall University’s Huntington and South Charleston campuses Monday and Tuesday. Among five finalists for the job of Marshall president, Hannigan is the first to make an official visit. Finalists are expected to conclude their visits Oct. 19.

The remaining contenders are Bernard Arulanandam, vice president for research, economic development and knowledge enterprise at the University of Texas at San Antonio; Bret Danilowicz, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Florida Atlantic University; Kathy Johnson, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; and Brad Smith, co-founder, Wing 2 Wing Foundation and former CEO of Intuit.

Marshall President Jerome Gilbert announced in the spring that he would not seek an extension of his contract, which expires in July.

Nineteen men have led the university since 1868. Hannigan would be the first woman to land the job.

She said she wanted to apply as soon as she saw the opening. She called Marshall the most prestigious of rural institutions.

“I’m very kind of picky about the mission of the institutions and whether or not they align with what I care about,” Hannigan said. “And when I saw the Marshall opportunity, I was like, well, yeah, that’s my job. That’s where I belong.”

A first-generation college student, Hannigan obtained a biology degree from the College of New Jersey. She initially sought to become a medical doctor but found her grades did not agree. She soon found her new passion in dinosaurs and went to school for paleontology.

Then, she said, she “fell in love with a field called geochemistry.”

She obtained a master’s in paleontology and a doctorate in geochemistry, she said.

“And I’ve never looked back, because that’s the stuff for me,” she said.

She became the provost at Clarkson in 2019 following work as the founding dean of the School for the Environment at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Known as a skilled fundraiser and economic development partner, she has garnered philanthropic support for facilities, scholarships and research.

“I think Robyn is a first-rate person and ideally suited for a presidency,” said Clarkson Chief Financial Officer Bill McGarry.

She grew up with a brother Tod in a family of Irish and Narragansett Indian heritage before landing at Clarkson, set amid the Adirondack Mountains in one of New York’s poorest counties. She recognizes the struggles of students like her.

“The things that have really driven my academic career have really been about making sure that students like myself, you know, first-generation, low income, mixed race, have opportunity,” she said. “And so, I wanted to make sure that I was there to hold the door open.”

She said her skills and experience can help Marshall thrive. She said she would seek to grow Marshall’s vast intellectual capital and capacity as an economic engine, citing the programs and degrees the school offers.

“I think we really need to focus on that return on investment and really get serious about it,” she said.

Her bubbly, infectious personality showed through a 20-minute phone interview. She said she enjoys sports and was excited about attending Saturday when the Marshall football team was scheduled to host Old Dominion.

Hannigan was expected to arrive in town over the weekend. She said she was looking forward to exploring downtown Huntington’s restaurants and stores and Ritter Park.

Her family includes her husband, an 11-year-old daughter, an elderly father and three dogs, including a Great Dane puppy. She said she enjoys mountain hiking and reads five or six books a week.

But her hobby is her job.

“I really love what I do,” she said. “And so a lot of my free time is spent either doing work or up at the university, doing things with students or stuff like that.”

Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering police and courts. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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