By: Sandy Pfeiffer
Many people spent untold hours in preparing for the events associated with my Installation as president of the college last Saturday. My thanks to all of you who took part, especially the College Relations staff. Every event was handled professionally and appropriately, and Evelyn and I deeply appreciate it.
During the ceremony on Saturday, I gave an Installation Address that spoke to my experience at the college over the last ten months and also looked ahead to some challenges we face. I decided to include the address as the body of this month's report.
I wish you all the best as you close out the academic year. I'll see many of you at Commencement, where our speaker will be Ms. Majora Carter, director of Sustainable South Bronx.
ACTION FROM PRINCIPLE
Warren Wilson College
April 28, 2007
Thanks so much for being here on a day meant to celebrate this wonderful college. Welcome to all of you: students, staff, faculty, retirees, alumni, trustees, members of various advisory councils, President Emeritus Doug Orr and Darcy Orr, delegates from colleges, universities, the Work Consortium, and professional associations, and all other friends of the College. Guests include colleagues from Southern Polytechnic State University and Ramapo College of New Jersey, the two institutions where I served as a senior officer before joining Warren Wilson College.
A special welcome to members of my family who are here today: Evelyn, my wife of 31 years and partner on this adventure; our son Zach and daughter Katie, both down from New York City; my brother Dave, my sister Debbie (here with husband Jay), and my sister Stephanie (here with husband Hal). I have to be careful with siblings present because they know the family secrets. For example, they’ll remember I’m the one who ran away from kindergarten on my first day of school and had to be retrieved from the town square by my mother—not a good sign for a future academic. Though a reluctant student that day, I tried to redeem myself and grew to love almost every part of public school. One of my siblings recently noted she had not heard me speak in public since I was Student Council president in 1964. Well, it only took me 43 years to get another presidency so that she could hear me once again.
To all my family here today, I’m grateful for the love, support, and great experiences we’ve shared. As well, I’m lucky to have had the best of parents, Jean and Hal Pfeiffer. They showed us by example what is fair, good, and important in this world.
My remarks today are entitled “Action from Principle”—a phrase I’ll relate to the past, present, and future of Warren Wilson. For this title and my theme, I returned to the works of two of my favorite authors, the 19^th century Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. What they wrote has enriched my life, and so it seemed natural to reach for their works when I was searching for inspiration.
In his 1848 lecture and essay, /Civil Disobedience/, Thoreau wrote that we should not be satisfied to “entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it.” Instead, he emphasized that “Action from Principle—the perception and the /performance/ of right [my emphasis]—changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.” He borrows from his friend Emerson when he asserts later in the essay that such a credo means “you must live within yourself, and depend on yourself.” Though Thoreau’s motivation for writing /Civil Disobedience/ arose from spending just one night in the town jail for failing to pay a poll tax, his remarkable essay speaks to the importance of individual action in any organization and the need to balance individual liberty with responsibilities to society. Reading the work always brings me back to the importance of (1) living a self-reliant and purposeful life in the context of a community and (2) taking effective actions that flow from sound principles.
I cannot imagine an institution that more fully embodies the theme of “action from principle” than Warren Wilson. Every day I see examples that would bring a smile to Thoreau’s face. In the few minutes I have with you today, I’ll highlight an example from our past and one from our present, and then end with some challenges we’ll confront in connecting actions to principles in our future.
PAST ACTION FROM PRINCIPLE
Having recently read a history of the college, I found “action from principle” reflected in the value placed on work ever since our founding. Despite changes in the college and its students, the staying power of this ethic is unambiguous. In the early days of the Asheville Farm School, work was connected to the background of students, most of whom came from families of modest means. It was also connected to the needs of a fledgling campus that students helped build—roads, classroom buildings, dorms, and even a dam up the mountain about a mile or two from where you sit. The vocational purpose of our early years flowed
smoothly from our Presbyterian mission heritage.
Yet even as the college started attracting a more diverse group of students after World War II and expanded liberal arts offerings, our wise leaders stayed the course and kept work at the forefront–while adjusting to a changing culture in the 50’s and especially the 60’s. I saw proof of this commitment last October while talking to an alumnus returning for his 50^th reunion. Now a computer professional out West, this man had what can only be called a joyful look on his face while recollecting a summer project over 50 years ago, building bookshelves in the president’s home from wood harvested in the college forest. I’ve regarded those shelves differently ever since that conversation—as I will regard the native trees and bushes planted in the front yard of the president’s home three days ago by students and many members of the campus community, with a little help from Ev and me. Yes, our history shows that through purposeful work we have acted on our principles.
Of course, we’re continually challenged to adapt our work program to changing times—for example, by making it the driving force behind a college commitment to environmentalism and sustainability. And we talk regularly about better ways to make useful connections among the three components of our Triad: work, service, and academics. In all this current activity, we’re sustained by the actions of those who came before us and who reinforced the principle of learning by doing, both inside and outside the classroom, and the integrity of hard work.
PRESENT ACTION FROM PRINCIPLE
Another principle at the heart of our campus culture, and one that I’ve witnessed this year, is that of community involvement. Actions that flow from this principle can be complicated, lengthy, and occasionally frustrating to the participants. But such actions usually generate results that receive respect and support, if not total agreement. My first Warren Wilson experience with community involvement occurred during my on-campus interview for the presidency. I was astonished to discover that literally hundreds of students, faculty, and staff wanted their chance to ask what seemed like every imaginable question of me. For hours they asked on, and for hours I responded. As the veteran of other campus interviews for senior positions, I had never seen anything like the throngs of students waiting for me in Canon Lounge last spring. It was a little daunting. But it showed me that this college acts on the principle of offering a voice to all.
In my ten months here, I’ve witnessed community involvement in actions as diverse as selecting faculty and staff, making recommendations about stewardship of our
land, and revising policies on alcohol and pets. For example, we’re now assembling a committee—half students and half faculty/staff—that will send me a recommendation about smoking regulations on campus. Because the faculty and staff supported a recent resolution on the topic and the Student Caucus did not, we’re putting representatives of both groups together in a room—hopefully not a smoke-filled one—to hammer out a compromise. To be sure, our shared governance process isn’t perfect—what one is?—but the college shows by its actions that the best decisions flow from the principle that we’re a community. All of us work, all of us have a stake in the future of the institution, and all of us deserve the chance to weigh in before decisions are made.
FUTURE ACTION FROM PRINCIPLE
The future—indeed, the very near future—will require that we act on principles in new and challenging ways. While nurturing our special regional history, we’ll continue to fulfill a growing national role as an excellent liberal arts college with sustainability infused into our culture—that is, into our work, our service, and our academic life. I’ll highlight what I consider to be a few of our bedrock principles, along with questions we’ll need to answer in the process of crafting future actions:
Principle #1: We believe in community. Questions to answer: Does our governance system provide a true reflection of the community? How does the size of our student enrollment affect our ability to retain what we most love about this college?
Principle #2: We believe in an affordable education. Questions to answer: How can we reduce tuition increases, while meeting a growing need for support services? How can we find new resources for need-based financial aid?
Principle #3: We believe in the Triad of study, work, and service. Questions to answer: How can these three discrete items become more connected? Are adjustments needed in the time requirements for service or work or both?
Principle #4: We believe in a first-rate liberal arts curriculum. Questions to answer: What departments most need more people, technology, or other resources? How can we continue our progress in teaching and learning and in collaborative research between students and faculty?
Principle #5: We believe in the importance of diversity within our community. Questions to answer: How should we define diversity at this college? How can we best support and attract minority constituencies, while still emphasizing the ties that bind all of us in this community and this world?
Principle #6: We believe in a healthy, joyful, and balanced work life. Questions to answer: How do we achieve balance on a campus where mission and commitment can consume an inordinate amount of time? How can our college—so obviously committed to a healthier planet—achieve a healthier climate here on campus?
Principle #7: We believe we must be a national model for sustainability. Questions to answer: How can sustainability—the belief that our lifestyle should not impair the ability of future generations to live their lives—complement our goal of being an excellent liberal arts college? How can we further the cause of sustainability by developing partnerships in this region, around the country, and throughout the world?
These noble principles, and many others, belong to this special college. Our past and present success shows we have achieved them, and our ability to attract unusually gifted students, faculty, and staff shows we can continue to do so. I’m glad to be part of this effort, seeking common cause with all friends of the college.
In the latest issue of Heartstone, a journal published by Warren Wilson’s Environmental Leadership Center, Margo Flood writes that “Warren Wilson College is a landscape of hope.” To me that sentence means our college and its noble mission can accommodate many different hopeful landscapes. Indeed, it’s my hope that each of us can find here the opportunity to live with personal purpose, with a respect for our community, and with confidence to reach our dreams. In a now famous passage near the end of /Walden/, Henry David Thoreau writes that “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I’d like to think that he may have been thinking about a place like Warren Wilson College and of a group of people like you. My thanks to this community for inviting me to join it.