You can listen to David Hurand’s interview with Steve Solnick on the WCQS website.
Hurand: Warren Wilson College is a long way from New Delhi, and it’s a long way from Harvard or Columbia. What attracted you to this campus at this time in your life?
Solnick: I reached a point in my career where I had been teaching at university for ten years or so, and then I was doing work in international development and social justice management nonprofits overseas for ten years. I was interested in coming back the U.S. and coming back to higher education. And I knew that if I did that, given what I had been working on overseas, it would have to be at an institution that had a real sense of mission, that had strong values linked with social justice, that was using education in the broader context of creating people who wanted to go change the world. And so what was really attractive about this place is that the college fits that bill. It’s a college that has a very strong sense of mission and sense of place.
Hurand: Before we talk about the college, tell us a bit about your work with the Ford Foundation.
Solnick: Ford Foundation is the second largest philanthropy in the world. The foundation operates in ten countries outside of the U.S. and spends about half of its money in the U.S. and half abroad. Ford is a social justice foundation. I spent six years in Moscow; we were supporting many of the major Russian human rights organizations, which made us not particularly popular with the government. We were also supporting many of the contemporary arts, modern dance, higher education, video art and HIV/AIDS. That was an area I was doing some focused grant making myself. In both places I was the country director. In India, the foundation had a much longer presence. We’d been there for about sixty years, and the work was more related to poverty alleviation and empowerment of groups in areas like women’s rights, minority rights and things like that.
Hurand: How familiar are you with Western North Carolina?
Solnick: I’ve been here once with my wife to the Biltmore House, probably about fifteen years ago. My sister-in-law was living in Greenville, S.C., and we were visiting her and came to Biltmore for the day. Other than that I haven’t been back or known much about it until I started to talk to folks at the college last year.
Hurand: And how does your wife feel about moving to Western N.C. and the three young children?
Solnick: I think the whole family’s really excited about it. We love the college, we love the community of the college, and we love Asheville. You have to understand that we’ve been in a place where the air and food isn’t all that fresh, so coming to Asheville is just paradise from that perspective. Asheville is also a really artsy, happening community and we’re excited about that. One of my daughters is into dance, so this is a bit of a Mecca for her. I am a big fan of theater myself, so it’s great to be back in a community that has a very strong theater, a number of stages and followers of theater.
Hurand: WWC is known for its Triad program, academics in the liberal arts tradition, campus wide work program and service learning. Is a liberal arts education threatened by our changing economy?
Solnick: The current situation with the economy puts a lot of pressure on the whole sector of higher education and on colleges in the sector to demonstrate that what they’re doing is preparing students to be active and productive citizens in the 21st century. The great opportunity for liberal arts education and for liberal arts colleges is that we don’t just teach students a particular skill for a particular job; we teach students to be life-long learners, how to be critical about taking new information, about how to learn new skills. That’s what liberal arts does at its best and what’s really exciting about a college like Warren Wilson is that our students do it not only in classrooms but they do it in the work and service programs, and they all interconnect. At a time when the liberal arts, in general, is sometimes criticized as being out of touch with the real world, we put it together for students in ways that force them to make connections between what’s going on in their heads, what they’re doing with their hands—working on our farm, working in the forest, and their obligations to the community that they fulfill through the service learning programs, many of which are in Asheville and greater Buncombe county.
Hurand: Has the commitment, though, or the recognition of the value of a liberal arts education been lost? And, let me add this second part to that question, can representative democracy thrive without attracting the best and brightest to a liberal arts education?
Solnick: I think that we live in a culture in which there are particular challenges for democracy. We live in a society in which it becomes very easy for citizens to surround themselves only by voices they agree with. So they go on the Internet, they follow blogs of people they agree with. They confine themselves to the exact cable channel that shows programming that reinforces their beliefs or that caters to their particular tastes. They choose their friends based on shared beliefs and interests; we sort of segregate our lives out in that way. College is really the last opportunity that we get for citizens to force them to talk to, respect and engage those other people who come from different backgrounds, who have different beliefs, who have different opinions, and to learn to converse and to respect those other opinions and try to persuade them but to appreciate the value of difference. Colleges should be doing that and that’s what liberal arts colleges excel in. We don’t just bring students together and teach them a set of skills; we force them to challenge their beliefs, to defend their opinions, to respect others who feel differently. Those are the ideal skills for any democracy.
Hurand: How difficult, though, is it for a small private college to create a diverse campus, not only of students and faculty but when it comes to that “arena” around ideas and thinking?
Solnick: I think it doesn’t happen by accident. I think you have to dedicate yourself to it as an institution; you have to approach it as a value in the classroom. You have to be sure that teachers are challenging students to defend their opinions. If there isn’t enough diversity in the class, you reach outside of class, you reach outside the community, and you bring in speakers. One of the things some people see as a threat now, I see as a great opportunity. In the online space for higher education, we have access now to very well articulated opinions, arguments, lessons, and beliefs from the whole spectrum in areas that a small liberal arts college couldn’t really represent before. We can bring that into the classroom and if you can’t have people representing four different places on a belief spectrum, you can have those viewpoints represented virtually and then a good teacher—and we really look for good teachers at Warren Wilson—a good teacher can take those view points and construct a learning environment out of that.
Hurand: So you’re convinced that it is possible to achieve some sense of diversity with aid and assistance and access to the Internet at a small, private school?
Solnick: I don’t think it’s just through the Internet, I think you have to work at it in making the students who represent all different dimensions, so diversity, feel at home on the campus so that they’ll come to the college and stay there, the same thing with faculty and staff. You have to have visitors and speakers on campus to represent diverse opinions. I think a lot of it is about creating a culture of respect for difference. If you don’t have that, then diversity isn’t going to be there; if you do have that, then you have fertile ground to have a diverse community.
Hurand: When you’re talking about diversity, though, are you talking about race, age, sex, geography, and economic status, all those things?
Solnick: I’m talking about all of those things—backgrounds, beliefs, life experiences, demographic, socio-economic status, and race—all of them. I think that you’re right. I think that in a small campus, it’s difficult to get everything represented, so that’s why we have to get creative about how we present some of those elements of it. It starts by making it a value. I worked for four years in India, which treats diversity as a source of national strength. Now it’s not always true to that core founding values for the country but nevertheless, across the caste system, across religion, and across racial lines; it’s an absolute mosaic and that makes the country a creative dynamo. Before that, I worked in Russia. In Russia, diversity is viewed as a source of potential weakness. There’s a real push, throughout the pedagogical system, throughout schools, faith-based institutions, towards making people homogenous. Our kids were in a Russian preschool and they were taught that there is a right way to draw a tree and if you didn’t draw the tree that way, you had to come back and do it again until you drew the tree in the proper, accepted way. A lot of what we’ve been doing, as a family for the last six or seven years, has been to kind of retreat from that sense of conformity in how we teach our kids to view the world.
Hurand: Does Warren Wilson, because it is a private institution, does that allow it to consider race, class and region of the country during the admissions process?
Solnick: In every institution admissions is a highly subjective process. We look at a broad range of factors in understanding whether a student is right for Warren Wilson. I think the main approach that we take to diversity, as with a lot of institutions, is the way we market. Who we appeal to, who we try and get to apply to the school, that’s really where a lot of our effort goes into diversifying is convincing students that might not have heard about WWC, know about WWC, or thought that WWC might be right for the them, to take a closer look or maybe even a second look at the institution. That’s where most of our effort goes.
Hurand: What kind of student does WWC try to attract?
Solnick: We attract students who are self-motivated; we love to have students who understand that college is a place you go to work hard and that working hard has rewards because our students are working not just in the classrooms, but they’re working on the farm, they run the college, they work in the libraries, they work in the dining hall, and not as financial aid but as a part of the whole deal of being there. It’s part of the Triad; they work in service roles. They need to be prepared to really work, and we want students who really feel that they want to go to college as the start of their path that’s going to lead them to change the world. We like idealists, we like dreamers. If you’re not idealistic when you start college, when else can you be? We like to create an environment in which kids can explore how to turn those dreams into reality and how to connect what they want to have happen in the real world to what they need to learn at college and how to put those pieces together. That’s what we are looking for in our students.
Hurand: Current enrollment at WWC fluctuates from anywhere in the neighborhood of 800 to 1000 students. Is growth on your personal agenda for WWC?
Solnick: I think that’s something that a college will be exploring. We’ve had some growth in the last decade and it’s important for us to look at the overall economics and business picture for the college. This is a tough time for families. We’re a private college; we ask not as much tuition as many other colleges, but we ask families to make a significant sacrifice when they send their kids to WWC. Some of that is offset by the money students get through work. Of course we have scholarships like other colleges, but still we’re a tuition-dependent institution. Now, I think really hard when I go to buy a pair of pants: Is it worth the amount of money that I’m spending? Is the coffee I’m buying worth what I’m paying for it? Can I find it cheaper somewhere else? We are talking about the largest single investment that many families will make, period. So they’re asking a lot of questions about what the value from college is in general and the particular college they want to send their kids to and that forces us to be very explicit about understanding how we measure how we’re doing as a college. So for me, it’s more important, first, to be sure that every student who comes to WWC is having a great experience and is taking away something that’s intellectually, emotionally and spiritually exciting from college and second, to figure out whether we can do that for more or fewer students.
Hurand: What are your thoughts right now as it relates to the costs of higher education? Whether it be a small, private college, Warren Wilson, or for that matter, a public institution, there’s a lot of talk and emphasis on escalating cost of people going to college. Just how concerned are you about that and is Warren Wilson at the risk of becoming more expensive?
Solnick: We’re less expensive than many private colleges for reasons that I talked about, because students work on the college campus, we employ fewer professional workers in grounds crew and in dining and all of those areas. So part of the critique in certain quarters in higher education is that a lot of money is going to pay for expensive facilities and for extremely lavish dining and housing and all that. That really doesn’t apply to us because we’re a college that’s maintained by the student body. Nevertheless, it’s an expensive sector; there’s no getting around that. I think it’s important that everyone remembers that a lot of the cost of higher education is teachers and that you really can’t skimp on. You want students to be with teachers who are really good at their field, teach well and who understand how to work with young people. That comes from many years of higher education. So there are certain structural factors driving up the cost of education that we need to think about as a sector. Let me say one other thing about the cost of higher education because it’s a common frustration. If you are on a flight to Detroit and the person sitting on your left paid half of what you did and the person on your right paid twice as much, you would get a little upset about how things get priced. I think higher education needs to think carefully about how we are marketing costs and prices so that people understand what the real value of a scholarship and of the degree is.
Hurand: How difficult, though, is it for WWC to keep pace with other small, private colleges when it comes to faculty salaries and for that matter, providing the amenities that many students expect when they go off to college?
Solnick: It’s a challenge. There’s no way to get around that. But the faculty, staff and students at WWC, they are there because they love being there. We have an incredibly passionate faculty and incredibly motivated students. So they are coming because they like everything about the experience. And for the students, the dorms are fine but they’re not lavish. For the faculty, we may not pay what some competitors do but we have other compensations for them like the sort of learning, shared values, and communities that they find themselves involved in, and that’s really important. I do think that for a small college like Warren Wilson, we need to be creative about how we respond to challenges in areas like salaries, costs, amenities and so forth. To find partners, to use technology carefully and wisely, to be sure that we’re focused on students.
Hurand: You’ve been here a very short time, what initially has surprised you about campus life of this community.
Solnick: Well it’s a tough question, particularly because students haven’t been here since I’ve been here; our students arrive in another few weeks. We have had our MFA for Writers program on campus this summer, and it’s a terrific program in poetry and fiction. We also have the Swannanoa Gathering going on right now, such a terrific music festival. Everyone said to me before I took this job that you’re not going to believe how busy you get; the funny thing is, they’re right. I don’t really believe how busy I’ve gotten this quickly, but it’s a good kind of busy because there are so many different things that go on, even on a small campus like Warren Wilson. Different departments, different things that people are passionate about, ways that they can connect with people on and off campus in the community, whether it’s in greater Asheville or China or India or Africa for our international programs. The phenomenon of drinking out of the same fire hose to really understand everything even on WWC’s small campus has been more exhausting than I could’ve imagined.