by Micah Wilkins, web editor
Steve Solnick sat down in his home office with a hot cup of coffee. It was a late evening in the Echo office, but an early morning in New Delhi, India, where our next college president joined me for a Skype call Jan. 19.
He drank his coffee quickly before it got cold. New Delhi is usually a warm place, but this Friday morning, the temperature had dropped down to the 40s. A cold fog cloaked the city, making it a “suspended motion day” for Solnick.
Solnick has been living in New Delhi since 2008, when he became the Representative there for the Ford Foundation. Before attaining his post in India, he was the Foundation’s Moscow Representative.
Solnick will leave his current post in India and move to Asheville with his wife, two daughters and son to take up his new position, effective July 1, filling the shoes of Sandy Pfeiffer, who is retiring after six years as president of the college.
MW: Can you explain what the Ford Foundation is and what your responsibilities are as a representative?
SS: The Ford Foundation is an independent charity organization. We were founded by Henry Ford, but we are in no way related to the Ford Motor Company. We are the second largest charity in the world. The Foundation is a grant-making organization. We make fairly large grants, from $100,000 to $1 million grants mostly to Indian and international [non-governmental organizations] that work to promote social justice causes. We support groups in areas around the world that promote things like the arts, culture, high education, reproductive health, and more.
The Ford Foundation has been working in India for 60 years. We came shortly after independence. In India, we support six different areas: rural livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, economic and social rights, government transparency and accountability, girls’ reproductive rights, and media rights.
[At the Ford Foundation,] I wear a lot of different hats in a given week or a given month.
MW: How did you come across this job opportunity?
SS: I was teaching political science with a focus in Russian politics at Columbia [University]. I knew the woman running the Foundation in Moscow. I was interested to engage in Russia in a way that went beyond just writing about it and reading about it. I was contacted and they asked me if I was interested in [being the Moscow Representative]. . . It was too exciting an opportunity to pass up, and it presented an opportunity for the family to live across seas, so we decided to do it.
[I ended up staying] six years, which is a long time to live in Moscow, especially when the political climate became hostile. The last two or three years were challenging, but still stimulating.
MW: What do you think you have gained from living and working abroad for so many years?
SS: I think that when you live outside [of the United States], you find yourself a representative of America all the time. And it makes you acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of American society and America as a country. You’re always an ambassador for the country. It makes you aware of how Americanness is a part of your identity, and I value that.
For families who live overseas, they become tighter as a team. We’ve done a lot of travelling as a family, and I think my kids understand how big the world is and how America fits into it.
We also have a rich appreciation for the value of diversity. Russia was a hostile society to diversity. India claims to embrace diversity, and usually does, with some few exceptions. How diversity within a culture and community can be a real strength has been a real lesson for all of us.
MW: What do you think it will be like to live and work in the United States once again?
SS: We’ve been out of the US for 10 years. We have a house in Massachusetts about an hour south of Boston where my wife’s family is, so the family manages to spend the summer there. But I think the country’s changed a lot in 10 years. In some ways I think it may be like coming back to another foreign hosting.
MW: How so?
SS: When you land in a new culture, you need to be very careful to interrogate all of your assumptions. Returning to the US we might understand the country, but it might have changed while we were gone. [We must] focus on listening to people and not making assumptions about how people think, but to really try and accept any new place on its own terms.
We left the US just after 9/11. It’s just been an enormous change in the US in that last 10 years. At one level we’re excited to get back. We’re Americans abroad, after all, but I think we need to be a little cautious about how things have changed.
MW: Do you think your experience teaching at Columbia is what inclined you to search for a job in academia once again and to apply for this position?
SS: It had an enormous impact on it. I really enjoy teaching. At Columbia I taught a variety of students. I had international affair students from SIPA [School of International and Public Affairs], I taught graduate students and undergrads. But the group I most enjoyed teaching were the undergrads. The best of them were interested in ideas for their own sake. They were excited about ideas and learning. And I think a good teacher inspires students to be excited about ideas.
The opportunity to come back into an environment that focuses on students and values teaching is really in the heart of the whole. Warren Wilson is a particularly unique model and that was an exciting prospect. I hope to do some teaching when I get there. Students are why we do this.
MW: What kind of courses would you teach?
SS: I need to talk to the faculty about what would mesh well with our offerings. In the process, teaching a class a year [would help me] maintain some contact and get back to being a reminder of why we’re doing this.
SS: There are two parts to that question: Why apply to be president of a college and why Warren Wilson. As for the college presidency, at the Ford Foundation, we’re an idea-based organization that’s focuses on producing social change. We’re very decentralized. We’re knowledge-focused. We build upon networks to accomplish our mission. All of that is similar to colleges. They’re focused on knowledge, built on networks. The skill set would transfer well.
So why Warren Wilson? I think the college is a unique model in higher education. The triad is very distinctive and I think it’s a really compelling model when liberal arts colleges are challenged with how students benefit. Being able to advocate for that model was an exciting opportunity. [The college’s principles] like commitment to the environment all echo work that I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. It’s a really neat eclectic bunch of people in a beautiful place and we’re really excited to be going there. It’s the mission, the model and the location all combined.
MW: Had you heard of Warren Wilson before applying for the job? If so, what did you know about us as an institution?
SS: The honest answer is no. I would hope that five years from now, if we were recruiting [for another position], I would hope that the candidate’s response would be yes. The college has a lot of potential and it should be better known than it is.
MW: What are you doing to prepare yourself to begin your new position in July?
SS: I think that the first year is a year of trying to understand the institution, the community, the whole Warren Wilson family; what people love about the place, what people think could be better about the place, and so what I’m trying to do is really reach out and talk to the many different stakeholders for the Warren Wilson community and that’s time consuming right now because I’m here in Delhi, so I can’t reach out as easily. I’m trying to talk to people by phone, by Skype and I’ve already got a Warren Wilson e-mail and I’m CC’ed on all the community postings.
Mostly it’s talking to people on campus, in Asheville, alumni, trustees, people who have thoughts and feelings about the college, trying to understand what they value about the place, to learn how we can improve and make it better.
MW: Do you have any changes or ideas that you hope to implement as soon as you become president, and if so, what do you have in mind?
SS: [When I first visited in November] I think I was taking in a lot of impressions. I’m trying really hard not to lay out at this early stage an agenda for the first 100 days or first year or two years.
I think there’s a number of themes I want to revisit, like making the programs rigorous, planning on developing strategy for raising more resources, building a culture for conversation and exchange, respect for diversity and beliefs, and retention, to make sure that students are happy and receiving the education they expect.
Beyond that I’m really tyring to be a respectful a listener, to try and create consensus around specific objectives.
MW: What are you looking forward to most once you move here and become the college’s president?
SS: There’s a lot we’re looking forward to. I’m really looking forward to getting to know the students and faculty and staff. I feel like there’s this great family and they’re kind of hidden behind a curtain somewhere.
I’m looking forward to going to meetings, performances, I’m looking forward to getting into that whole community.
This is really mundane but I’ll say it, we’re looking forward to fresh locally grown organic produce and fresh air, because that’s in short supply here in Delhi.
We’re looking forward to the art scene, which has also been limiting here, surprisingly.
We’re not moving straight onto campus for the fall. The first year or two we’ll live in Asheville [while the president’s house is being accommodated to fit a bigger family.] It’ll take an extra effort to get on campus, but it’ll also help us understand and make connections in Asheville, which is an important resource for the college.
MW: What do you think you will struggle with the most once you’re president?
SS: I’m sure there are things I’m going to struggle with. One of the things that makes a job like this exciting is there are always unanticipated challenges. I don’t know what they’re going to be yet, I’m sure I’m going to have to ask the community for patience as I struggle with them, so I don’t know.
I think there’s a lot of issues we’re going to want to look at, but my job when I come there is not to be the decision maker. My job is to lead a committed and smart group of staff, faculty, admnistrators and students who all care about the college, and to harness that energy, not to come and dictate or set priorities but to lead a number of different teams, and to be responsive. The whole DNA of the place embodies a shared commitment to running the college. It’s part of the DNA of the work program, it’s part of the new governance scheme. It’s a place that everyone has a stake in. And I respect that and value that and I’m going to look for ways to be sure that that’s unleashed.