Dr. Karen Petersen: Preserving the Private, Liberal Arts Experience at Hendrix College

Higher education transformed Dr. Karen Petersen’s life, and that is why she is committed to preserving the private, liberal arts experience for generations of students to come at Hendrix College. 

Petersen, who became Hendrix College’s thirteenth president on June 1, 2023, was a junior at Middle Tennessee State University when her international affairs professor, Jack Turner, asked her what she was going to do with her life. 

“I had no idea you could work in higher education, it didn’t occur to me,” Petersen said. “Obviously, I knew other people had pursued that path, but it never occurred to me that I could do that, so I told him I assumed I would graduate and get a job.” 

Petersen’s professor pressed her on the opportunity of graduate school, but that didn’t seem feasible to Petersen, either. 

“I worked 40 hours a week to pay for my undergraduate, so I told him I didn’t think I could afford it,” she said. “He told me, ‘Oh, they’ll pay you.’” 

That was all Petersen needed to hear. 

“He changed my life with that question,” she said. 

From there, Petersen went to Vanderbilt University where she received a master’s and a doctorate in political science. She returned to her alma mater at Middle Tennessee State University in 2005 as an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts. 

She gradually progressed through the college, ultimately becoming dean of the college in 2018, where she served through 2021. That same year, Petersen became dean of Tulsa University’s Kendall College of Arts & Sciences, where she served until becoming president of Hendrix College in 2023.  

Her return to Arkansas is a homecoming of sorts. Petersen was born in Huntsville and lived there until she was 8 when her family returned to south Florida. Even as a child, Petersen was drawn to the classroom, remembering many days she and her two younger sisters spent playing school. She was always the teacher and they were always her students. 

“The fact there was an entrance point for me into higher education, changed everything for my family,” she said. “Everything about my life is different because of access to higher education and because of the liberal arts.” 

It’s not hard to see why Petersen is excited to lead Hendrix College into the future and bring the residential, liberal arts experience to a new generation. 

“This type of higher education is second to none in preparing students for life,” she said. “It teaches them to be broad, critical thinkers who are engaged community members.” 

When she considered moving to Hendrix College, Petersen was drawn in by the people she encountered during her interview. 

“There was a pride in the educational experience that students get and how everyone participates in that from faculty and staff to students,” she said. “I fell in love with this place quickly.” 

Petersen quips that her goal as president of Hendrix College isn’t that audacious. 

“When I leave here, I want Hendrix College to be in a strong place for the next 150 years as the leading residential liberal arts college in Arkansas, and possibly the region,” she said. “So not too lofty of a goal.” 

GET TO KNOW DR. PETERSEN

What do you enjoy most about working in higher education? 

Changing lives and seeing students transformed. 

What have you enjoyed most about Conway since moving here? 

It’s easy to live here. It seems to me, it was built intentionally for human occupation as opposed to other communities that aren’t. I can get anywhere in 10 minutes, there are trails to walk and bike. Pedestrian safety and infrastructure are incredible. I also love our downtown and see people everywhere going through the area on any given night of the week. 

What do you think of roundabouts? 

I love them. Give me more. Every time I come up to a stoplight or stop sign, I wonder, “Why isn’t this a roundabout?” 

If you’re not in your office, where could someone find you around town? 

Tucker Creek Trail. It runs through our neighborhood and we walk our dogs there often. 

If you had an obligation-free weekend, how would you spend it? 

I would probably be reading a book, doing laundry, and hanging out at the house. Or hiking if I can make it to a state park. 

What’s on your playlist? 

If you saw my playlist, you would think I was crazy. It’s so strange. You could have Beethoven, Black Sabbath. I have every decade covered besides the last two, except for the occasional country song from that period. 


Read more in the 2024 CONWAY+ Community Profile & Resource Guide

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