Warren Wilson College News

2007 Convocation Address

By: Sandy pfeiffer

August 14, 2007
William Sanborn Pfeiffer, President
Warren Wilson College

If you live long enough, life repeats itself in fascinating ways—sometimes with delight, as in moments when you enjoy comfortable conversation with long-time friends; and sometimes with frustration, as in moments when predictable bad habits return for yet another visitation. For example, despite being otherwise disposed toward a regimen of timeliness and good organization, I tend to delay writing articles, speeches, and even books until a point so late in the process that it sometimes even frightens my ever-calm wife, Evelyn.

A case in point, I’ll confess, is this address. Although a few ideas arose during my daily jogs through the Farm the last couple weeks, I didn’t start writing until Sunday night. Getting started is my problem. Indeed, one further mea culpa is that although I’ve included suggestions about overcoming “writer’s block” in my own textbooks on technical writing, I admit it’s difficult for me to follow my own advice. I’ll look for any excuse to keep doing more “research.” For example, I decided I wanted my address to include a famous passage from The Art of Fiction by Henry James: “Try to be one of those people upon whom nothing is lost.” Of course, that decision only “enabled” my procrastination because I proceeded to read all of The Art of Fiction rather than write this speech! But my sojourn into the essay was useful, for it’s worth remembering that all of us should strive to be “people upon whom nothing is lost,” as we weave our daily experience into the fabric of our lives.

I’ll push the reference to James a bit further by saying I’d like to think every experience I had during my first year at Warren Wilson helped prepare me for the coming year. James notes that writers not only draw on direct and personal experience but also make inferences from fragments. As he says, they must have “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern.” This skill applies to all of us in that we seek to live a life of purpose, while possessing, alas, only incomplete knowledge. Indeed, your good work in the classroom, on work crews, at service projects, and in committee meetings testifies to the importance of this skill. Acting myself on incomplete information, today I’ll use my conversations with the President’s Advisory Council (PAC) to provide a brief outline about our year ahead at the College.

My Convocation address last year put forth five topics for action—Assessment, Planning, Enrollment, Culture, and Communication—and we made good progress on all five. Concerning planning, for example, we developed a three-year Action Plan to cover fall 2006 through spring 2009. When I circulated our Action Plan draft last year, some of you rightly observed that it stressed division objectives at the expense of common goals that cross individual units overseen by the deans and vice presidents. We heard your request for common goals and had a different discussion this year.

After sharing individual division goals, the PAC identified the following college-wide goals upon which we would all collaborate this year: Triad Integration, Diversity, Sustainability, Accountability, Program Evaluation, the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), and Planning. They are abstract words, so I’ll give some simple definitions of each along with a few corresponding actions. Note that (a) the seven goals and their supporting actions are presented in random order and (b) the actions are only a selected list of those planned to support each goal.

#1 Be Sustainable

In the context of our 2007-2008 goals, the word “sustainable” mainly comprises actions we will take to be good stewards of the people, the finances, and the natural resources of the College. Although it also may include actions and partnerships we pursue outside our campus in the coming year, the local campus context will take precedence. Here are a few actions we have in mind for the year ahead:

*Give added support to the local foods initiative brought forth by our students.

*Complete several work sheds and a number of permanent smoking structures.

*Maintain a balanced budget with a clean financial audit.

*Strengthen student governance to involve more students in decision-making process.

*Complete the transition from a College Relations to an Advancement office and focus more attention on donors and gifts.

*Improve the financial footing of the College by increasing the total annual giving.

*Hire a firm to lead the feasibility study for the upcoming Campaign for Warren Wilson.

*Increase the size and quality of the student applicant pool.

*Act on various initiatives of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, including our new partnership with the City of Asheville.

*Strengthen athletics to help students achieve a better balance in their life on campus.

*Continue the new emphasis on career services provided to our students.

These actions, among others, will strengthen our economic, social, and environmental sustainability, keeping us on track to fulfill our mission.

#2 Enhance the Triad

The PAC has spent considerable time discussing the state of the Triad and just what is meant by enhancing or integrating it. Our most important points of agreement were (a) that the Triad represents the strongest symbol and most powerful reality of this college, (b) that it should remain our core feature for the future, and (c) that we should do all we can to connect its three elements rather than view them as discrete features within our culture. Supporting this belief are the following actions for the year ahead:

*Locate and exploit more opportunities for integrating service learning into all levels of the curriculum, where appropriate.

*Incorporate co-curricular initiatives into the Triad, especially in the area of student leadership.

*Discuss strategies for infusing the topic of Sustainability into the curriculum, where appropriate.

*Continue to build a first-year program for students, resulting in strong communities that enhance the experience of our students and increase our retention rates.

*Use the success of the MFA Program for Writers to strengthen the undergraduate writing program.

The PAC and I are committed to these and other initiatives that build on our distinctive Triad mission at Warren Wilson. While many colleges around the nation struggle to find language to distinguish themselves in the marketplace, we at Warren Wilson are fortunate to have a purposeful and unique mission.

#3 Be Accountable

Accountability requires that (a) we must be clear in conversation and in writing about expectations of our community members and (b) we must be consistent in holding everyone to the same standard. Here are some related initiatives for the year ahead:

*Give residential students clear expectations about their role in campus life and then reinforce that message throughout the year.

*Complete a revision and expansion of our policies and procedures, with emphasis on clarity and simplicity.

*Continue progress to develop a safety ethic across campus, holding individuals responsible for acting safely and providing appropriate training.

*Apply additional rigor and transparency to an already successful budgeting process so that operating funds are well spent.

*Make sure that any additional funds related to unexpected growth are used to satisfy major needs, such as instruction and fund-raising.

*Ask members of the community to help implement our new
smoking restriction policy, which was developed with the support of faculty, staff, and students.

We must be clear and realistic about expectations, develop ways to measure success, and be consistent in holding all members of the same group to the same standard.

#4 Achieve More Diversity

With the leadership of our newly appointed Multicultural Affairs director, we are starting a long-term effort to create a more culturally, racially, ethnically, and economically diverse community—one that is a better reflection of the world in which our graduates will live and work. Some initiatives for the year are as follows:

*Build the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

*Engage in meaningful campus discussions about defining and achieving diversity.

*Have the new Multicultural Affairs director develop an action plan based on meetings with students, staff, faculty, and others.

*Attract a more diverse student applicant pool, such as by reaching out to new groups in the area and region.

*Assist the Human Resources director and search committee chairs in attracting a more diverse pool of job candidates.

*Write/revise policies and procedures related to diversity.

*Have the Multicultural Affairs director and officials in the Office of Student Life collaborate to develop new multicultural programming.

Faculty and staff on this campus are genuinely interested in diversity. Yet full success in achieving it has eluded us. With the leadership of our new Office of Multicultural Affairs, we’ll overcome obstacles and make progress this coming year.

#5 Evaluate Programs

Last year we accelerated a campus-wide effort to evaluate all academic and nonacademic programs. One goal was to make services more responsive to students and other users. A second was to determine the appropriate funding and staffing. And a third was to create more collaborations with other departments at the college. This coming year will include partial or complete evaluations of the following campus units or degree programs:

*Service-Learning

*The Campus Farm

*Work Program

*Forestry Program

*Sustainable Agriculture Component of Environmental Studies

*Sustainable Forestry Component of Environmental Studies

*Global Studies

*Environmental Studies

*Volunteer program, its structure and positions

In addition, Academic Affairs will set a timetable for program evaluations that will occur from now until the next major accreditation visit in 2014. In all these reviews, special attention will be devoted to making connections between the academics, service, and work components of the Triad.

#6 Advance the Quality Enhancement Plan

The Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) related to our next accreditation visit has as its focus the students’ First-Year Experience. We chose this theme in part because we need to improve student retention, and fortunately we’re seeing progress in this regard. This year we’ll continue our work on the QEP and first-year activities, with the following actions:

*Complete our fine-tuning of the assessment process.

*Enhance the Service-Learning component of first-year experience programming.

*Develop a more comprehensive system of following up on students who are flagged in early alert and who don’t preregister or return to campus.

*Build strong first-year residential communities through related programming.

*Initiate a review of the general education program by the Faculty Body Programs Committee.

*Solidify changes in the First-Year Seminars, as recommended by the First-Year Experience Committee.

*Develop a trial version of a summer online registration system.

*Begin preparations for the QEP Impact Report due in 2009, with the leadership of the First-Year Experience Committee.

The College selected an ambitious topic for its Quality Enhancement Plan, for all colleges are challenged to set a tone in a student’s first year that lasts to graduation. As well, an additional challenge for us is that we know some of our students leave for short or long periods—sometimes forever—because they’re “seekers.” While such educational interruptions may be appropriate for some students, we must make sure we have the best possible first-year academic, work, service, and co-curricular programs so that students never leave because of deficiencies on our part.


#7 Continue and Improve Planning Process

This last goal emphasizes the fact that the College—especially its leadership—needs to devote more energy to establishing sound planning processes and then doing smart planning. In the academic landscape of the next few decades, no small liberal arts college can afford to become complacent. Here are a few related actions we’ll take this year:

*Develop a Long-Range Land Use Plan that reflects the needs of our community and that responds to outside pressures on our campus.

*Develop an admission strategy that accommodates the changing demographics of high school graduation rates in 2010 and beyond.

*Add college-wide planning to the job description for the director of Educational Assessment and Institutional Research.

*Determine the faculty and staff size needed for the current enrollment and establish criteria for discussing any future changes in enrollment.

*Begin thinking about the revision of the current Strategic Plan, to take place in several years.

I should add that the top planning item on my own agenda this year is preparing for a comprehensive capital campaign, tentatively called the Campaign for Warren Wilson. This campaign will increase our endowment, make us less dependent on tuition, improve the educational experience for our students, and solidify the future of the College. Toward that end, the PAC and I have developed a new draft of campaign priorities that we’ll be discussing with the Board of Trustees in October. They are as follows:

1. Scholarships
2. Endowed faculty and staff positions
3. Faculty development
4. A building devoted to student activities and wellness
5. An academic building to provide more quality space
6. Funds to promote sustainability
7. General endowment

My planning also includes developing language for a vision statement for the campaign ahead, a one-sentence “elevator statement” that will evolve into a longer case statement for the entire campaign. Thanks to the suggestions I received from many of you, I’ve developed a revised draft of our vision that I’ll circulate soon. If that draft doesn’t suit you, just wait another week or two and you’ll probably see another one. (A writer’s work is never done.) Then I’ll submit another version to the Board of Trustees to consider at its October meeting. As I mentioned in the new faculty and staff meeting this morning, our greatest strength as a college is our commitment to the collaborative process we use in this and other important actions.

So, again, I’m looking forward to working with all of you in the year ahead and thank you for your many contributions to this fine college. Enjoy the 2007-2008 year!

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