Steven L. Solnick, Ph.D., formerly of the Ford Foundation, was inaugurated April 27 as the seventh president in the history of Warren Wilson College. You can watch Solnick’s inaugural address here. And here’s the complete text of his inaugural address, “Not the Old, Not the New, But the Necessary”:
Thank you, Alice (Buhl) and Joel (Adams), for entrusting me with these symbols of office. And thank you to Anne (Graham Masters ’71) for that stirring introduction. Your words reminded me of a story told by former Senator Sam Ervin of a principal who was asked by the chair of the School Board to fire a young science teacher. The principal expressed surprise and pointed out that this particular teacher had many advanced degrees. To which the School Board Chair replied, “That’s the trouble with him. He has been educated way past his intelligence.” I worry that I have been educated way past my intelligence.
I am grateful to the Board of Trustees for placing their faith in me to lead this great College, and to each of our Speakers today for their words of encouragement and support. Thank you to Ellen and to Rayna and to Brian for each, in their own way, summoning reminders of the many faces of the divine that surround us when we open our minds to it. Thank you to all the delegates, alumni, faculty, staff, students and guests who have come here to share this day with us.
Thank you to the Inaugural Committee that worked for months to make this day possible, and to the army of workers and volunteers – students and staff – who are taking care of all the details today. The committee members are listed in the program, and they deserve a big round of applause.
I am happy that my wife Maeve, and my children Elinor, Naomi and Reuben are all here with me today. We are all grateful to the entire college community – faculty, staff and students – for being so welcoming and thoughtful from the first day we set foot on this campus. My parents did not live to see this day, but they would have loved this place. I am equally grateful to all the alumni who have delivered messages of support – by mail, by email and in person at events around the country.
And, finally, I am grateful to be called to this place, this community in this beautiful valley with a proud history and an extremely bright future. That history and that future are both on my mind this morning, and I’d like to speak about both of them.
Those of you who know me will understand how rare it is for me to say that I have struggled to find the right words for this important moment. Pity the inaugural speechwriter – the metaphor is not his friend. The Inauguration is a crossroad, a watershed, an inflection point, a fork in the road…
In fact, it’s rarely all that. While I am just the Seventh President of Warren Wilson College, I take my place in a line of dedicated and brilliant men and women that stretches back over the last 120 years, to the founding of the Asheville Farm School by the Women’s Board of the Presbyterian Missions in 1894. Even so, transitions are fraught.
When I was living in Leningrad in the summer of 1987 – in the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika – I decided to build up my library and acquire for just a few dollars the collected writings of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. I went into the main bookstore on Nevsky Prospect and asked a young woman behind the counter where I could find Brezhnev’s collected works.
Brezhnev? She asked.
Yes Brezhnev, I repeated.
Brezhnev? She asked again.
Yes, I said. Leonid Brezhnev. The man who ruled the country for 16 long years.
She shook her head at me slowly, as if I were the village idiot. Then she finally pointed to the shelves around her and said, “We don’t have Brezhnev. Now we have G o r b a c h e v. Gor-bah-chev!”
While transitions are moments of great hope and expectation, they can also be moments of collective amnesia. So it is important to begin by looking backward, or perhaps sideways.
Jensen Hall, to my left, is named after Henry Jensen – Doc Jensen – a Bostonian who came to the Asheville Farm School from Harvard after getting his Ph.D. in 1933. He planned to stay a year. He remained for the rest of his life, becoming Director of the Work Program and later Dean of the College.
Bryson Gym, to my right is named after Holmes Bryson, a 1920 graduate of the Asheville Farm School and one-time mayor of Asheville
Sunderland Hall, behind you, named after Laura Sunderland, a benefactor of the Baltimore Synod of the Presbyterian Church. It is one of the many reminders on campus of the debt we owe to the Presbyterians who founded and supported the school for many decades.
Our Presbyterian roots live on not just through names of buildings, but through the College’s core values – the primacy of learning, the dignity of work, the value of service to the community, respect for different cultures and our obligations to preserve the environment. We honor that heritage by providing a first-class liberal arts education infused with these values, and by welcoming people of all faiths into this community of shared values and mutual respect.
The College’s history also lives in the memory of our namesake, Warren H. Wilson, a Presbyterian educator and a perceptive scholar of rural life in early 20th century America. Wilson was a cold-eyed realist about agrarian life. He lamented what he called the “loose and sentimental idealization of the country home.” He saw one room schools as neglected and insufficient, and country churches as divisive. He was a passionate advocate for greater integration of urban and rural social and economic networks – a viewpoint we sometimes forget in our own embrace of self-sufficiency. This College is at its best when we, too, find ways to connect local and global, rural and urban, self-sufficiency and inter-connectedness.
The most obvious reminder of our history is our Triad of academics, work and service. We are the only liberal arts college in the United States with a national student body and integrated work and service programs required for all students. The Triad is the most distinctive part of our DNA – yet like most modern DNA it is more the result of continuous evolution than deliberate design.
What we now know as the work component of the Triad was born of necessity – as a way for poor mountain boys to gain an education by working to support the school. Yet by the 1930s, the “Cooperative Work Program” — as it was then called — was already being viewed as a new and experimental model in education, a template for “learning by doing.”
As early as 1938, Doc Jensen was careful to portray the work program not as an alternative to a strong academic core, or even as a complement to it, but as a part of an integrated educational experience. He wrote: “ In later years, some graduates have expressed the opinion that the instruction and qualities developed by the student work program contributed far more to their present success than did their studies. Flattering as this may be for a work supervisor, all we really hope for is an equal appreciation of the work and academic programs. Some may look forward to the day when even that distinction will fail and students will have but one program impossible of division into two categories.”
That “one program impossible of division” is indeed the goal across the Triad – that work and service combine with academics to create a holistic learning environment. In the process, our work program has become very different than it was in the days of the Asheville Farm School — our students now defray just a small portion of their tuition through work on campus crews.
Our service program has also grown far beyond its initial contours as an outgrowth of Church service — most recently through a re-invention that measures service-learning much more through learning goals than by hours logged. This evolution, too, leads us to focus on the student learning that is reinforced at work and in the classroom.
And, clearly, our classrooms have evolved. As we grew from a high school to a four-year liberal arts college, our academic ambitions have grown as well. We are now home to cutting edge research in the natural and social sciences, a world class MFA in writing, vibrant music and arts programs, pioneering undergraduate programs in outdoor leadership, geographic information systems, Appalachian studies — I could go on and on. We continue to evolve.
By conceiving of the College as a 24/7 learning environment, a laboratory for service-learning and work-learning, an intentional community in which all members must give if they are to receive, we keep alive a long tradition by the very act of continuously reinventing it.
If the lesson of our history is that change is continuous, what changes lie ahead for the College? Albert Einstein said, “I never think about the future; it comes soon enough.”
In higher education, I’m afraid, we don’t have Einstein’s luxury. We are bombarded in the daily newspaper and on the internet by apocalyptic visions of the death of higher education. The mortal threats come from many directions, especially from new technologies, but they are not entirely unprecedented.
I am sure that if bloggers or Twitter had existed in the 1450s, there would have been a trending topic in Germany predicting the imminent demise of the traditional university in light of Gutenberg’s printing press. Imagine the Tweet, “Why will young men travel to Heidelberg to sit at the feet of second rate theologians when they can now read the best commentaries at a fraction of the cost?”
But the book did not put the great universities out of business – in fact, the emergence of a global marketplace of books fueled a great expansion of universities across Europe precisely because it fueled the marketplace of IDEAS. And that boom accelerated as European settlers came to America, since one of the first acts of many of these new arrivals, right after the establishment of a Church, was to establish a College.
Why a College, and not just a library? I think it is because these early pioneers understood that the book was really just a delivery mechanism for ideas, and one that operated in just one direction. And the liberal arts tradition, in which Warren Wilson College is firmly rooted, was not really about transmitting ideas. It was about sustaining a conversation. A conversation about ideas, to be sure, but also about the world around us, and about each other and how we fit into that world.
Liberal arts colleges were established to foster critical thinking skills, of the caliber that would be needed not just to get students a job, but to bring meaning into their professional and civic lives. They were dedicated to turning out self-directed learners, graduates able not just to understand a book but to have an opinion about it.
That is why, I think, so many see the Internet as an existential threat to higher education, because the internet is a “social medium” in which students can download their texts and then upload their commentary and engage in virtual discussions with students from around the globe.
But this misses a key fact about our connected world. The easier it has become for us to connect, the easier it is for us to disconnect. We have become a self-sifting society – we watch the TV channels we basically agree with, subscribe to periodicals that reinforce our worldviews, share Facebook postings we know our Friends will Like, follow Twitter feeds that amuse us rather than infuriate us.
The role for liberal arts colleges should be clear: we are society’s last chance to force people to mix — to encounter, debate and collaborate with people from different backgrounds and beliefs. It is our last chance, as a nation, to teach people how to argue constructively, how to be media literate, how to recognize the humanity behind viewpoints we may reject.
Yet in the face of this challenge, many colleges have commodified higher education. We are increasingly competing on amenities, and we are assessed on our students’ first jobs after graduation. Higher education is now commonly described as a product, with the college as a delivery mechanism and students viewed as consumers rather than as citizens-in-the-making.
Warren Wilson College has traveled a different path. We continue to mix and remix students, faculty, and staff: in classes, work crews, and service learning – all experiences you can’t replicate on the Internet. We continue to teach that being part of a community requires giving back to that community – whether that is on our campus, in Asheville and Buncombe County, or in the global community. Through our commitments to environmental and social justice and to service-learning and participatory governance, we continue to remind students that it is not enough to know how to think; it is even more important to know how to act.
How can we be sure that this is the right path for us? As the world around us changes, how can we stay true to what my predecessor Ben Holden called “the traditions and basic truths that have given Warren Wilson a unique place in the sun.”
I am a believer in serendipity, and as I was contemplating this question some weeks ago, I received a postcard from a friend in St. Petersburg, Russia. The postcard was blank white, except for a single quotation in small red type from the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin. And that read: “Not the Old, Not the New, But the Necessary.”
Tatlin and his Constructivist colleagues in the teens and 20s tried to re-imagine art as neither enslaved to tradition nor flitting from fad to fad. They sought a comprehensive re-imagining of how we worked, lived and even thought. And that, it seems to me, is what Warren Wilson College is ultimately about – a re-imagining of what college in America in the 21st century can, and SHOULD be. We must focus neither on the old, nor the new, but on the necessary.
Let us recommit to using the Triad as a framework for innovation, not for the sake of being different but because it is necessary that colleges in the coming decades connect the classroom to the campus to the community beyond.
Let us revitalize our leadership among colleges in the areas of environmental sustainability and resilience because it is necessary for colleges to take the lead in setting ambitious goals if our students are to save the planet, and because THIS college can and therefore should be a model to the whole sector on how to unite curriculum, work-learning, campus operations and community partnership.
Let us hold ourselves to the highest standards of excellence in academics, work, service, administration, alumni relations and community engagement, because it is necessary for us to meet those standards if we are to become the model in higher education that I believe we should be.
Let us aggressively seek more diversity on our campus, and find creative ways to engage with it – and not just because in the 1950s we were the first post-secondary institution in the South to admit an African American student, and not just because in the 1960s we were the most international campus in North Carolina. Let us do it because it is necessary for students, faculty and staff at a liberal arts institution to constantly engage with people of different ethnic, national and racial backgrounds, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations.
Let us actively and definitively welcome diversity of thought and opinions on this campus as well, because if our students are to leave here and change the world, it is necessary for them to welcome debate.
Finally, let us be nimble as an institution, not just because adapting to the needs of the times has been the secret of success for Warren Wilson College, but because trying new things is necessary in these rapidly changing times.
But how are we to know that all this is truly necessary? What if we try the wrong new things?
Kathryn Schulz, in her extraordinary book “Being Wrong” documents our obsession with being right. She describes our reluctance to revise our own views of ourselves — for example, our naive faith that we’ll answer all those emails after dinner — as a form of optimism. She calls it “an endlessly renewable, overextended faith in our own potential.”
If we are truly to live up to our potential as a liberal arts college to teach our students to question assumptions and think critically, we must embrace the inevitability of our own failure. We must accept that the only way to avoid failure is to avoid risk, and to avoid risk entirely will doom us as a College. In the words of William James, “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things.”
If we are to push our students to move beyond their comfort zones and take risks, then we must be equally prepared as individuals and as an institution, to take risks and inevitably to be wrong, and even to fail. Because in the effort, we renew our optimism as an institution, the same optimism we find in our students and in the very ideal of higher education.
So let us do what is necessary, without fear that we may make mistakes along the way.
I was reading a senior essay the other day, by a student who will graduate on this stage in just a few weeks. Rather than write the standard three pages, she decided to produce a graphic novel of her years at Warren Wilson College. And she ended it this way: “Because if Warren Wilson has given me anything, it’s the courage to try when I don’t know how or what to do.”
Let us all have that courage.
Thank you very much.