Marianne Wanamaker says leading Baker Center is the right opportunity at the right time in her career

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

One of Marianne Wanamaker’s mentors when she arrived at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) in 2009 as an Assistant Professor of Economics was Matt Murray. On July 1, she succeeded her long-time colleague and mentor as Executive Director of UTK’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

For Wanamaker, it’s the right opportunity at the right time in her career. She’ll retain her faculty role but have the opportunity to be more engaged on the public policy front, something she enjoyed during an appointment as a Senior Economist and subsequently Chief Domestic Economist for The White House’s Council of Economic Advisors in 2017-18.

“It was hard to go to DC, be involved in the policy apparatus, and then return to my faculty box in 2018,” Wanamaker explains. So, when Murray informed her of his plans to retire and inquired about her interest in being his successor, she quickly threw her hat in the ring.

“Matt did a wonderful job of building a sustainable business model,” Wanamaker says, noting observations that she made when she arrived on campus in 2009. “It was a beautiful building and a wonderful museum, but it lacked a mandate. Today, they are running four meaningful programs which is a credit to Matt.”

Marianne Wanamaker

Those verticals, which Wanamaker called pillars, are energy and environment, global security, leadership and governance, and the Baker student programs. Each has a designated lead who is a joint appointee with a UTK academic department.

She says Charles Sims, who leads energy and environment, is a “pro at the federal funding game.” Of Krista Wiegand, Director of Global Security, Wanamaker says, “She’s also been extremely successful with grants and edits the major journal in her field.” Katie Cahill, the Center’s Associate Director, is responsible for the leadership and governance area which Wanamaker describes as “particularly symbiotic with Senator Baker’s legacy.” Jon Ring leads the Baker programs that engage undergraduate students.

So, where does the Baker Center’s new Executive Director plan to focus, building on Murray’s nine-year legacy?

“I’m thinking of this as a communications and engagement phase for the Baker Center,” Wanamaker says. “It’s about the substance of what we do and the importance of more public visibility for the programs.”

To achieve her vision, Wanamaker believes the Baker Center must build a communications apparatus that will make people want to be associated with the entity. For the most part, she says that outsiders perceive the Center as a producer of events and reports.

“I want to add new pieces to the platform,” Wanamaker says. “We’re trying to predict what the outside world has an appetite for,” quickly citing two somewhat complementary possibilities in the short-term. Both would in one way or another embrace the persona for which the late Senator Baker was most known – civil discourse.

“We need to model what it looks like for politics to not be broken,” she explains. “We need to live it out . . . exhibit it.”

Another is to be what Wanamaker describes as “a convening place,” particularly for the Knoxville community. It could take many forms, but the common element would be greater two-way engagement between UTK faculty and students and those off campus to discuss and address pervasive issues facing the community.

As she described that vision, we shared with Wanamaker the philosophy of Bob Hutchison, my late mentor, who described the role of university-based outreach organizations like the Baker Center as “stimulating people to recognize the need to change.”

Wanamaker believes the existing program pillars and her vision for the future align well with the emphasis that UT President Randy Boyd and UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman have placed on the institution’s land grant mission.

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