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Alum concerned over turn to “professionalism”

Billy Peard, guest writer

It was six years ago this month that I first set foot on campus as a prospective student and discovered the magic that is Warren Wilson. The last signs of winter were receding and the final scraps of debris were being cleared away from the old Schaefer as I strolled around campus, excited by the prospect of spending four years learning and living in such a unique place.

Like many who land at WWC, I sought a place that was somehow immune to the cultural homogeneity and the lackluster sameness that has consumed vast swaths of this country in recent decades. I sought a place that had not yet been standardized, systematized, franchised, or otherwise mass produced into a bland blob that characterized the suburbs from whence I came. In Warren Wilson I found that unique gem.
My college experience, like that of many Wilsonites before and after me, was guided by singular experiences that could not be easily replicated at other schools. Despite all this, I can’t shake the feeling that our school has been losing some of its charm and identity in recent years.

A noticeable indication of this trend was the endangerment and later extinction of the Bubba tradition – a slow process that began in 2003 when our quite sensible lawyers warned that it wasn’t legally prudent for the school to implicitly condone regular, mass gatherings of underage Bubba-goers. And thus, with the death blow of a lawyer’s pen, the curtain was drawn closed on a Warren Wilson ritual that embodied the spontaneity and camaraderie of the campus.
To be sure, the loss of the Bubba has been deeply felt, but a more far-reaching transformation has taken place in countless and almost imperceptible ways over the past few years. Gradually, formalized procedures and policies have emerged to govern tasks that were once guided by institutional memory. Increasingly, student bosses report to new bosses who report to other bosses still. Room for spontaneity diminishes and is replaced by predictability and controllability.

As in other corners of society, Warren Wilson has become increasingly fixated on creating a culture of consistency and measurable competency. Some people acknowledge this trend as a consequence of institutional growing pains. Others embrace and welcome the changed attitude in the name of increased professionalism. I call it an unnecessary and thriftless bureaucratization.

I am not insensitive to the challenges and organizational tensions that arise from growth. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona – one of the fastest growing cities in the country – and I watched as my city struggled to keep pace, almost like an adolescent awkwardly and unevenly fumbling toward adulthood.

I recognize that progress comes wrapped in complexity and that many good things at Warren Wilson have resulted from a turn toward formality. But I also know that in the process of institutional growth, people often focus on the details and lose clarity in the big picture. There comes a time to take a step back and look seriously at the direction of things, and I feel that now is one of those times.

As is often the case, presenting a few numbers helps to bring into focus the intangible yet notable changes that I’ve been describing. When I arrived as a student in the Fall of 2003, for example, the College counted 778 students. This week I counted 864 student faces in the online facebook. That represents an increase of 11% – a modest annual growth rate that is just a few paces faster than the increase in the overall U.S. population. During that same time, however, the school’s number of full-time, non-teaching staff has increased from 93 to 135 – an extraordinary increase of 45%.
As a wave of professionalism sweeps across the campus, work responsibilities are taken away from students and allocated to an increasing number of staff. More middle management has been added to the payroll in recent years while the number of full-time teaching faculty has increased only marginally.

I pick on staff not because I wish to suggest that there are 35 or 40 superfluous employees walking around but because these numbers raise the question: are these staffing decisions increasing the quality of the education? Certainly they are increasing the cost of it.

As an alumnus, I have a vested interest in seeing the College succeed and thrive. Most importantly, I want it to continue forging a unique path that has set itself apart from the myriad of other small, liberal arts colleges. I want current students to feel the same excitement for Warren Wilson that I felt. For all these reasons and more, I urge the community members to engage in an ongoing debate about what makes Warren Wilson the unique place that it is and ought to be.

**A note about the numbers: the 2003 set of numbers comes from the Warren Wilson Factbook. The 2009 numbers originate from the WWC Facebook. Although the number of non-teaching, full-time staff in 2009 was estimated and is not beyond reproach, the 135 number is more likely to be an undercount rather than an overcount

Discussion

One Response to “Alum concerned over turn to “professionalism””

  1. This is a good article, and echos my experience a bit. When I first came to WWC in the early 90′s, Doug Orr was just getting the water from behind his ears in his new post. He’d taken over after a long time and very popular president and many of the sentiments put forth in this article were being expressed at that time. I can’t say I am totally discouraged by the recent changes as a college environment is a very fluid thing. The experience from one class to the next can be quite different, but I am heartened to hear that a student who started in 2003 felt equally free to create their own unique experience. In my day, it was anger over the sacking of the baseball and softball teams, the additions of security locks at the dorms, and the ‘draconian’ rule of having to keep your beer in a cup while in common spaces. As WWC changes, I hope that they stay far enough in left field to keep it unique from other colleges so that it can still carry the motto of “we’re all here because we’re not all there.” I think one thing that makes WWC special is that we as alumni want those following us to get a good education and experience personal growth through the work and service program, but most importantly we want them to have that unique Warren Wilson experience that is like no other college in this country. It’s like our little secret that folks who went to those bland other schools just can’t understand. Hootie Hoo!!

    Posted by Todd Phillips | May 5, 2009, 12:26 am

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