Warren Wilson College News

2010 Convocation Address

My thanks to all of you who worked so hard this summer on conferences, deferred maintenance, renovation, green walk-abouts, campus tours for students and parents, our fiscal audit, and many more activities that kept the College running. It was another successful summer, and I appreciate all you and your crews contributed to our success. I should add that we all know we’re reaching a tipping point with summer activity, and that fact won’t be ignored during planning for next summer—which, by the way, will include increased work on the project to install sprinklers in our residence halls

This afternoon, I’ll highlight a few issues ahead this year, mainly in the context of our new Strategic Plan—with its pyramid of 8 strategic priorities, 25 goals, and 116 actions. In particular, I’ll mention how some actions for the next year or two respond to questions I posed in my Installation Address back in 2007, given after I had been on the job less than a year. Although, like last year, I’m speaking from a prepared text, there will be time at the end for questions or comments from you, if the spirit moves you.

Before launching into tasks, issues, and concerns for the year ahead, I’ll stay at higher altitudes for a couple minutes to give a personal opinion about why our college—with its particular mission, people, and programs—will continue to have influence far beyond the Swannanoa Valley and indeed must. During the summer I found myself thinking a lot about how Warren Wilson has served, now serves, and will continue to serve a role unlike that of any other college in the country. I suspect we all believe our lives are enriched by helping students who will go on to change the world by virtue of their experience here. The fact is, we really ARE a different college and have been so since our founding. When our students take full advantage of the experience you offer them (that is, when the inoculation takes), they go on to live lives of purpose, imagination, and consequence—with a work ethic rivaled by few if any of their peers from other schools.

Now, these lofty thoughts are balanced, unfortunately, by my growing concerns about the world our students are entering. Although a few summer readings added to my concern, they also strengthened my view that our work at this college responds to a national condition—what one of the writers I’ll reference calls “the long emergency”—unlike any other school in the nation. I’ll briefly mention three of my recent readings—an essay, a book, and an editorial opinion piece. They paint a landscape of a world in danger—giving equal opportunity to the perils of our economic, social, and environmental condition—and thus helped rivet my attention on the fact that it can’t be “business as usual” henceforth. Plus I realized, once again, that the students and graduates of this college, along with the rest of us living out its mission, can be an antidote to the problems described in much of what I read this summer.

My first excerpt is from Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill,” in his 2002 collection titled The Art of the Commonplace. In musing on his move back to the family farm and the values embodied in it, he writes:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us [‘us’ meaning humans] would be good for the world [meaning the natural world]. And this [view] has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainly what was good even for us. . . . We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the [natural] world will be good for us.”

The essay was written over three decades ago, and I wonder if Berry thinks we’ve made much progress.

From Wendell Berry’s serious yet hopeful tone, I’ll move to David Orr’s more apocalyptic vision in Down to the Wire, which he sent me last year after we talked at a conference. A mutual friend of David Orr and of mine, who also attended the conference, warned me that David believes we’re on the precipice, if not over the edge already. And it’s true that he doesn’t sugarcoat his view of the world our graduates are entering. Here are a few excerpts from Down to the Wire:

“Unless we are led to act rapidly and wisely, we are on a course leading to an earth of greatly reduced biological diversity populated by remnants and ruins. Had we acted sooner we would have had a far easier path and would have saved much more. But now problems are becoming a planetary crisis brought on by our own relentless growth  (p. 4) . . . [E]ducation has long been a part of the problem, turning out graduates who were clueless about the way the world works as a physical system or why that knowledge was important to their lives and careers (p. 176). . . . Were [colleges and universities] to use their leadership not only to educate generations of ecologically literate change makers but also to use their buying and investment power to build local and regional resilience, they could greatly speed the transition to a decent future (p. 177) . . . I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future.”

David works as special assistant to the president of Oberlin and—in his more optimistic moments—is spearheading a huge and immensely hopeful response to climate change called The Oberlin Project, which will have the college, city, and private sector collaborating to develop the first sustainable economic, educational, and greenbelt zone of its kind in the nation. (He sent me an updated project description last week, and I’d be glad to send it by email attachment if you ask.) So notwithstanding his deep concerns about our ability to respond in time to relentless climate change, he still does believe in what he calls “authentic” or “applied” hope. By this he means bold ideas that work—not incremental change and easy optimism.

My last example that gives context to the urgent work of our College is a guest commentary that appeared in last Thursday’s Asheville Citizen-Times (p. A7), in which a local retiree, Chuck Kelly, author of several books on ethics and business, described some economic and social byproducts of globalism. You may or may not agree with his views of globalism, but they’re worth pondering. Kelly writes:

“All pretenses are gone. It’s now out in the open. To enrich themselves, investors and top corporate executives are willing to outsource all jobs . . . to that part of the world that has the lowest wages and worst working conditions . . . . We’re losing our industries, our national debt is ruinous, wealth disparity between rich and poor is exploding, and China and India are becoming the world’s leading economic powers . . . . When the U.S. adopted the . . . standard that classifies workers as machines or raw materials, it forfeited its ability to control its own economy . . . Face it. Working Americans are increasingly powerless and under the control of the world’s investors. And we all, eventually, are going to suffer for it.”

It seems to me that Kelly’s critique is not of globalism writ large, but rather of the economic and social abuses that have been permitted to develop as a result of it.

Wendell Berry, David Orr, and Chuck Kelly describe a world in distress—right now. And it’s clear we need a posse to be on the way. This particular college where you’ve chosen to work and where our students have chosen to be educated is, I believe, a big part of the answer. Last year we developed a Strategic Plan for the five-year period that started last month, and it includes the following Vision Statement: “Warren Wilson College will lead the nation toward a new model for liberal arts education through the innovation of its Triad educational program, the quality of its academic engagement, the fulfillment of its sustainability principles, the depth of its commitment to diversity, the vitality of its community, and its nurturing of individual well being.” That’s one hefty sentence, but it has a short phrase that’s central to what I’ve said so far this afternoon: we will “lead the nation toward a new model of liberal arts education.”

I remember there being some understandable skepticism among a couple trustees who raised their collective eyebrows at that phrase.  After all, the College is not at the top of the US News ratings and certainly doesn’t have the multi-billion dollar endowment of schools perceived to be first-rate liberal-arts colleges. What justifies placing ourselves in the position of leading anyone, some might wonder? Yet that phrase occupies a central spot in our vision statement for good reason. Three factors—the Triad education that is unique to this college, the faculty and staff that provide it, and the students who are its beneficiaries—compose a model that is needed throughout this country. It is part of what David Orr calls the “applied hope” needed during these times. If you’ve been here long enough to see students graduate and hear their stories, you know we are sending ambassadors into the world like no others. This “applied hope,” manifested in our mission and our alumni, helps sustains us through the every-day challenge of running a college that, as many of you know, requires an investment of yourselves beyond that of other schools and certainly beyond most other jobs.

I’ll spend the time remaining being more concrete about what needs to happen in the year ahead to realize our vision and launch our five-year plan. In my April 2007 Installation Address—titled “Action from Principle,” a phrase Thoreau used in his 1848 essay Civil Disobedience—I put forth seven principles central to the success of the College. For each of the seven I listed several questions I thought we needed to answer in the years ahead. So here, over three years later, I’ll repeat the principles and the questions—and follow them with a few of the actions in Strategic Plan for the next year or two.

Again, our Strategic Plan comprises eight strategic priorities, 25 goals, and 116 actions. Of those 116, we’ve committed to start and in some cases finish 68 this year. All 68 have a PAC member or me as the person with key responsibility for completing the action, with the essential help of many groups around campus. The College has never attempted any plan this ambitious, and it will take vision and just plain dogged persistence by all of us to see it through. So, here are the seven principles and related questions I included in my April 2007 Installation Address, followed by some of the actions included in our Strategic Plan, most to be started this year.

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?

To answer the first question, our plan calls for the formation of a Governance Task Force that will be working with the campus all year long to develop a proposal for the Board to consider spring semester. To answer the second about enrollment size, the plan requires that we determine specific enrollment goals that support our sense of community at the College, while meeting budget requirements. At this point, I suspect we’ll try to keep enrollment relatively stable during the period of this plan, assuming we can meet budgetary needs. That’s an assumption with many variables, by the way, so firm decisions about enrollment have not been made. Right now—with the numbers still changing as I speak—our fall semester enrollment is about at goal. Residence halls are jammed, with some extra spaces filled, mainly because we have fewer students than expected who chose to live off campus. Richard will be reporting on enrollment soon.

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?

To answer these questions, we’ll examine various tuition models, work to maintain our federal Work College funding, attempt to meet the matching requirements of the new Bonner scholarship program, increase unrestricted and scholarship gifts, and conduct a campaign readiness study to determine whether we should start a comprehensive campaign and what dollar goal it should have. By the way, choosing a tuition model is not a simple matter. Up to this point, we’ve tried to keep overall tuition as low as possible, which of course affects our tuition-bound operating budget. Another approach taken by some colleges is to increase tuition considerably, using the new revenue to fund much more scholarship aid for needy students. In a sense, the well-off families pay more and the needy families receive more aid. Although we are by no means ready to say what model we’ll adopt, we do know it’s a complicated calculus that needs careful scrutiny.

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?

To answer these questions, we’ve committed to what I believe are some exciting actions for the year or two ahead: developing Triad education outcomes, creating a Triad learning portfolio, starting a Triad Teaching and Learning Center for faculty/staff professional development, completing our review of the Work Program, expanding leadership opportunities for our students, integrating service learning into more courses and work crews, and creating a database that connects the campus with service opportunities in the community.

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?

Answering these questions posed in early 2007 presents what might be our most important challenge to becoming a national leader in liberal learning. At a college that prides itself in a Triad with components of equal value to our mission, sometimes it’s challenging to give academics the attention it needs. But we must. The fact is that investing in academics strengthens the entire Triad. During the year or two ahead, we will be (a) measuring programs and majors against benchmark data, (b) increasing our stature among small liberal arts colleges, (c) becoming more academically selective, (d) making scholarly accomplishments a more visible part of campus life, (e) revising the General Education program, (f) strengthening discipline-specific offerings, (g) using a space utilization study to support the need for a new academic building, (h) giving assessment the full attention it deserves so that our accreditation process is secure, and (i) creating a new Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees—which is being done this semester, by the way. These and many other academically focused actions in the plan, when placed in the context of other Triad education goals and our leadership in sustainability, will move us toward the goal of leading the nation toward a new model for liberal-arts education.

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.

To answer these questions, our Strategic Plan has us establishing diversity goals, expanding partnerships in the region (as with HBCUs) to generate racial and economic diversity, and training search committees and hiring officers how to expand our employee pools. During the planning process last year, I saw the campus conversation explore a broad definition of diversity that I believe is healthy for the College. In particular, I heard groups discuss the importance of welcoming campus discussions that covered varieties of religious, political, and philosophical thought. Diversity has been a constant theme here, before I arrived and since, and I’m hoping that the specific steps in our plan will yield results.

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?

To answer these questions, we’ve committed to establish a new work crew related to substance use and similar health issues, add more professional staff to residence halls, respond to recommendations in the recent Public Safety review, and examine the feasibility of creating a tobacco-free campus by 2015. Although the Triad deserves every bit of attention it receives, sometimes we don’t give enough attention to the co-curricular features of campus culture that inform the life of every student here. Religious and spiritual life, athletics, study areas in dorms, better access to Asheville, and planning for a possible Student Center/Wellness Center are just a few topics embedded within actions to be taken as part of our Plan.

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?

To answer these questions, our action plans will implement an environmental management system, use the ELC to assess the work of all offices in meeting our sustainability goals, educate the entire campus about pledges we’ve made, and assist with fundraising in that many donors relate best to our environmental mission. Our efforts to create a culture wherein sustainability has informed all three parts of the Triad and all co-curricular programs has brought considerable national recognition of late. These honors bring us fine students, committed faculty and staff, new donors, and engaged trustees.

So those are the seven principles and questions I posed in 2007, followed by some related actions that flow from our action plans for the year or two ahead. All will require careful planning, especially at the fiscal end. Speaking of the budget, in the process of reviewing enrollment for this year, along with other details of our budget, I’ll consult with the PAC and Board of Trustees and get back to you about a final decision concerning compensation increases for the year.

Final thoughts, mostly related to my schedule and activities.

First, you are always invited to come by my office to chat or to make an appointment. I find this approach best for both of us, rather than setting specific hours.

Second, when I’m not meeting off campus or traveling, I’ll be having meals at Gladfelter or the Cow Pie a couple times a week, so feel free to arrange a meeting over there if you’d like. You need not have any special agenda.

Third, I’ll continue working on crews this year—probably about one shift a month, given my schedule, so I’ll let Ian determine whom I work with. I really enjoyed that part of my job last year.

Fourth, I’ll continue my busy travel schedule from last year with visits to donors, parents, alumni, and other friends of the College all over the country. Although fund-raising (and friend-raising) is a big part of my job and that of Richard Blomgren and his colleagues, it’s also part of yours—in more subtle ways. More of you than ever before are helping, in your own way, to bring resources to the College, and I thank you for that. Last year we experienced increased giving from faculty/staff, from parents, and from trustees—this despite an economic meltdown. Many—though certainly not all—of our dreams for this college rely on money, and thus a higher percentage of campus givers (much more than the dollar amount, I might add) helps us make the strongest case to donors.

At times like this, it’s good to inject some historical perspective. Certainly we’re in challenging times, as my excerpts from the work of three authors made clear. In fact, experts—including some in this room—might believe we’re at a tipping point. Although that fact ups the ante considerably, the fact is that the College has sent graduates into difficult times before—and prepared them well for the resilience needed. In Toward Frontiers Yet Unknown, the 90th anniversary history of the College written by Mark Banker, there’s a section about life and times at the College in the 1930s, when a remarkable man named Henry Randolph was superintendent of our institution, then called the Asheville Farm School. Banker writes:

“Like the broader society, [the] Farm School suffered from the protracted economic crisis . . . Yet, for all [the] discomforts, [the] Farm School gained much from the Depression . . . . Adversity produced camaraderie and commitment.”

That’s a good line with which to end a talk about a college that lived through tough economic times in the nation, a period when meeting payroll was a challenge, when scarcity brought out the very best in the fascinating mix of Calvinists, mountain people, and northern volunteers who formed the backbone of the College. Like our predecessors, we have an amazing opportunity to shape the lives of students who will find a lifetime of challenges, service, and—I hope—joy when they leave here. And that cycle of opportunity starts again right now, with our action plans for 2010-2011.

Have a fulfilling year ahead.

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