Warren Wilson College News

2008 Convocation Address

By: Sandy Pfeiffer

2008 Convocation Address
Warren Wilson College
President Sandy Pfeiffer

John Bowers (JB) might be surprised to learn that yesterday morning—at around 4 a.m., in Amherst, Massachusetts at the beginning of a day that included a talk with a Warren Wilson alumnus, a brief visit with my Amherst College professors (who’s still active in teaching and publishing), and the usual mania involved with business travel today—I found myself reading the latest issue of the Owl & Spade in the relative comfort of a hotel between Smith College and Amherst College, on a road I hitchhiked, drove, or motorcycled countless times as an undergraduate four decades ago. JB is a fine writer and editor whose prose could keep any reader riveted to the page in the wee hours of the morning and who would have done serious surgery on the long sentence I just read. So I have him to thank for providing me with an avenue into this my third convocation address.

Indeed, I recommend the latest Owl & Spade to your leisure reading even if you don’t need a 4 a.m. eye opener. Reading it reminded me just how important it is to stop on occasion to celebrate and marvel at this college that has no rival. Following are some of the college news and events JB covered and that struck me as well worth mentioning. I’ll be quick to add, as would JB—and as did Evelyn, who reviewed this address for me this morning—that this list is necessarily a short one and thus leaves out many accomplishments of an astonishingly active college community:

1. On our April 9 Work Day, we built timber frame pavilions and removed invasive species, among many other worthy projects, and were regaled by poetry, prose, and song in some work areas (only at Warren Wilson!);

2. Mallory McDuff’s Community Organizing for Sustainable Living class focused on a program to find area partners to help train Asheville youth for jobs in a “green” economy;

3. Doug Bradley spearheaded the effort to purchase four self-stopping table saws for our woodshops, with the help of area donors;

4. Julie Lehman coordinated a new Church Relations program that invited clergy from around the country to enter a contest that evaluated sermons with an environmental and ecological message;

5. Senior Loren Cardelli received one of only two $10,000 Sustainable Agriculture Scholarships from Annie’s Homegrown, an organic food company;

6. Evan Wantland, David Abernathy, and senior Nora Purcell traveled to a nature preserve in Panama and collaborated on projects that use new technology to analyze environmental data;

7. Warren Wilson graduates wrote books, received an environmental engineering award, ran 50 and 150 mile ultra races, and worked as a photojournalist on an Afghan political campaign for a prestigious U.S. newspaper;

8. The College prepared to celebrate over 30 years of sustainability and environmental stewardship as reflected in majors, in the practices of work crews, and in service; and

9. We grieved the loss of several individuals who were so much a part of building and sustaining this college, while also welcoming new members who will be shaping the future of Warren Wilson.

In addition, this issue of the Owl & Spade—and our campus web site—noted the fine national publicity the College has received in the last year from organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation, periodicals like Blue Ridge Country magazine, and books like the Fiske Guide to Colleges.

So my early-morning reading of the Owl & Spade yesterday at Amherst offered a snapshot of a College with a distinctive vitality. By the way, the previous night I had attended a reception at beautiful Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vermont for about 50 or 60 current and prospective students and their families, alumni, and friends of the College—including Warren Wilson’s grandson, quite an interesting fellow. If ever an event conveyed the magic embedded in the past, present, and future of the College, that was it. As has happened to me many times over the last two years, everyone I talked with at the reception had a story either of how this college has changed lives or, in the case of incoming students, how it will shape lives. I suspect all of you have had similar experiences that provide perspective—even tranquility—during inevitable moments of frustration that are a part of working at a college that, while full of magic, expects a good deal of all of us to make that magic happen. Such narratives are sustaining.

In the rest of the time I have this afternoon, I’ll take a brief look backward at the two years I’ve been president of the College and then a brief look forward to the year ahead. By any measure, the last two years have been, as it were, “fast times” at Warren Wilson: three new vice presidents hired; a renamed and reconstituted Advancement Office; a diversity director who works with all units of the College; a sustainability officer who reports to me and is guiding our campus-wide and external commitment to sustainability; partnerships at the local, regional, and national level with respect to environmental action; a performance appraisal system for all employees; strengthened Farm and Forestry programs; a new policies and procedure manual format, along with new and revised policies (some of which were not without robust discussion); new faculty and staff; a strengthened infrastructure in Academic Affairs; more attention given to the use of our land and resources by people and groups outside our college; and changes in the membership of our board of trustees.

While these changes and challenges—and many more I don’t have time to mention here—were needed to strengthen the College, the speed of change will slow during and after the current year—giving us time make adjustments and providing a solid foundation for a period of what I believe will be more modest change ahead. So speaking of the year ahead, my third year at Warren Wilson, here’s a shortlist of some work ahead. There are seven tasks mentioned here:

Task 1. The new infrastructure Paula Garrett has created in Academic Affairs will help us conduct a global review of all academic programs. This review is needed so that we can make informed decisions about courses to keep, revise, or delete, about new faculty to hire, and about collaborative opportunities to seek, both inside and outside the College. Several programs, such as business and undergraduate writing, have already attracted—or may soon attract—outside funding and increased student interest. Thus we need to respond by giving such programs a special Warren Wilson identity. As just one example, business could have as one focus the preparation of students for entrepreneurial opportunities in environmental fields such as alternative energy systems.

Task 2
. Plans should be made to give faculty enhanced resources for professional development in teaching and learning and in their fields of scholarship, while keeping solid classroom teaching as our main enterprise. As part of this effort, we’ll strive for more clarity about the appropriate balance of teaching, scholarship and service—so that it’s clear how different balancing options can fit the background of a diverse faculty (versus a “one-size-fits-all” model). One of many useful byproducts of this faculty discussion will be a better understanding of how service activities, such as chairing a department or program, should be compensated.

Task 3
. Our Work and Service Learning programs will be reviewed, as well, so that we can enhance their ability to meet the needs of our students. Service Learning has made significant progress this past year in linking service opportunities to academics, course by course, and that
progress will continue. And the review of our Work Program—the backbone of so much of what this College is and does—will help enhance the program and make certain that the work experience of a campus at full enrollment is not compromised. We’ll continue to strive for purposeful work, not just student employment.

Task 4. The now reorganized, expanded, and renamed Advancement Office (formerly the Office of College Relations) surpassed its Annual Fund goal this past year and, furthermore, about doubled total fundraising from just two years ago. As new systems are put in place and new Advancement employees get oriented to the College, I’m confident we’ll meet even higher goals this year and beyond. As well, I hope this year we’ll complete the hiring plan by bringing on a grant writer/researcher, assistant director of the Annual Fund, and assistant director of development. I cannot overestimate how essential the transformation in our fundraising operation will be to the future of the College. I should add that our Board of Trustees is revising its bylaws, adding new members, and planning to assist the Advancement Office even more than it does now with fundraising.

Task 5
. We will continue the progress we’ve made toward creating a safer campus that gives students healthy and interesting options for using time not spent in academics, work, and service. For example, we aim to find more convenient options for our students to take advantage of cultural opportunities in Asheville, while also adding appropriate activities on campus. And Jon Ehrlich will be leading a scheduled review of the Public Safety office so that it has the tools and protocols needed to protect the campus community to the best extent possible.

Task 6. Our effort to become the most sustainable small liberal-arts college in the country will continue—using the well-known three-part definition of sustainability (economy, environmentalism, and equity). Personally, I think we’re well on the way toward achieving that goal through the authenticity of our Triad and our commitment to a mission unlike that of any other college in the world. But I know there’s always more work to do.

Task 7. Finally, this year you will witness additional efforts to create a more transparent decision-making process at the College. First, there will be additional faculty/staff representation on the board of trustees starting at the end of the year. Second, the President’s Advisory Committee (PAC)—and in time, I hope, all major committees—will use a sustainable decision-making model that weighs environmental, economic, and social criteria in all major recommendations and decisions. As well, leaders of the Student Caucus and Staff Forum will be invited to meet with the PAC on a regular basis. And third, you will have the opportunity to participate in a community discussion of the “big picture” of our 2009-2010 proposed operating budget. Jonathan Ehrlich will guide us through the process in this first year of his work as chief fiscal officer. It will be an adventure for all of us—a very good one, I believe. Sharing general fiscal information with the community allows us to gain ideas that will inform our work on the budget, gives you an opportunity to see the main fiscal challenges that the PAC and Board face each year, and helps slow down the rumor mill that exists on every campus about where the money comes from and how it is used.

That’s enough for one Convocation Address—and certainly enough for one sitting. If we can accomplish all or part of each of these seven goals in the coming year, it’s safe to assume a three-year period of what I consider to have been transformational change will have ended. The College will be better prepared for changes ahead, especially those that it cannot control—such as the economy, shifting demographics in the student population, and the huge need around this country and world for just the kind of independent-minded, hard-working, and articulate individuals we will continue to graduate from this campus.

At our PAC Retreat several weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked how I wanted my presidency to be remembered. I’ll confess that the response, “Living through it” first came to mind, but I didn’t make that comment because I know that person was seeking something a bit more substantive—a comment that might guide the work of all PAC members. Although I’m still pondering a response because “legacy” talk by administrators always made me feel a tad uncomfortable when I was a faculty, the seven annual goals I’ve put forth in this address are one window into how I view my purpose here at Warren Wilson. As a friend of mine said a few weeks ago in a discussion that included many lofty goals, “Execution is everything.” Another version of this sentiment appeared this morning on a well-known daily faculty list-serv, which read, “It’s not what you know that counts, but whether you can put it in play.” So I’ll describe my own view of the year’s work ahead by referring to the “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” passage usually attributed to Thomas Paine. That is, I’ll strive to lead us toward our goals when appropriate, follow others when I think the best idea has arisen from our governing system, and get out of the way to work side-by-side with the rest of you when the muscular college that is Warren Wilson puts its shoulder to the task at hand. Our strength will always be in community.

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