by Micah Wilkins, web editor
Jeanne Sommer, who has worked at Warren Wilson as a professor of Religious Studies, and has served as Chaplain of the College this past year, will not return to the college in the fall.
“Someone once told me that the definition of a tragedy is the ‘choice between two conflicting goods’,” Sommer said. “I feel as if my leaving is a tragedy by this definition. I love the college and have served it well over the years and I need to leave in order to work more effectively.”
Sommer has worked at the college for 17 years, and she has seen the college grow and change in many ways.
During her first 10 years at the college, Sommer was the school’s only full-time Religious Studies faculty member. She was initially hired on as a feminist theologian, but quickly she realized that the students’ needs and desires called for more preliminary education on different religions, and in particular their relevance to the modern world.
When the current school year began, Sommer was appointed Chaplain of the College, shifting her focus away from the classroom. However, she maintains a strong influence educating students on campus.
“She has a deep desire to share everything she has learned with the students at the college, and I feel that is what makes her an extraordinary professor,” said freshman Allie Giles. “Once I asked her how she knew all of these important religious and political figures and she replied, ‘When I meet someone who makes an impact on my life, I never let them forget me.’ Jeanne is definitely an individual I will never forget.”
Sommer has brought a lot to the college, according to her colleague Dr. Kathy Meacham, philosophy professor from Mars Hill College, including an array of internationally renowned scholars, speakers and activists.
“Jeanne’s teaching meets the challenge of being creative and engaging while maintaining high standards of scholarship and production,” Meacham said. “It’s a fine line, and she walks it well.” Here, she reflects on her time at Warren Wilson.
Q: What have been some highlights from your experience here?
A: Definitely my ongoing relationships with students, really learning with and from them; getting married in the formal garden in 1995; taking students to Thailand and Israel; being pregnant with one child and adopting another and enabling them to experience this community as family and this land as home; attending the Salzburg Seminar in Austria and being invited back as a visiting scholar for the Asia-U.S. forum on education.
Q: What have been some of your proudest moments?
A: When Fred Ohler, the former Chaplain of the College and Chair of the Religion Department, who was an amazing orator, told me that he thought I was, next to Fredrick Buechner, one of the best public speakers in the country. That was high praise coming from him. When he died, his wife asked me to deliver his eulogy. That was probably the highest honor I could have received because it came from someone for whom I had such tremendous respect.
When I told my students in a class of about 30 people that I wished Wilson students would take education as seriously as the students in the film “Dead Poets Society” did. I loved how they eventually sat on top of the desks, not hiding behind the desks. During the next class after I made this comment, I came in and all the desks in Jensen 305 were moved to the walls and everyone was sitting on top or in front of the desks.
When a Women and Religion class took me to the pond for the last class session. They blindfolded me and had me sit in the middle of a circle. One by one, students came by and whispered in my ear something important they had learned from me that semester. Some students placed flowers in my lap, others gave me their favorite books to read. It was beautiful.
While I can’t say this makes me particularly proud, it is an honor to have been able to help people through life’s transitions such as: being present with Carol Howard when she gave birth to her daughter, Hannah; caring for people in our community at the time of a tragedy; officiating for former students at their weddings.
The many sweet notes I’ve received from the faculty, staff, and students who do know I’m leaving telling me how much I’ve meant to them.
Q: What accomplishments have you made in your time here?
A: [I’ve] Helped students to think about their lives holistically and find the kind of path they think will begin their life after college in an effective way.
[I’ve received] funding in 1998 from Harvard University to document religious diversity in Asheville and working with over 35 students to send 2000+ pages of primary research to the Harvard University archives;
[I’ve helped in the growth of] the Religious Studies program and helped design the Religious Studies major for the college;
I’ve raised over $275,000 for the college, over 40,000 in grants from the Higher Education fund of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A);
A scholarship in honor of my late father, John Matthews, Sr., that’s now worth over $110,000 and supports at least three students yearly
My friendship with Sarah Belk Gambrell (of the Belk department store) that has prompted her to give at least $75,000 to the college;
[I’ve helped in] getting an infrastructure in place for there to be student-led spiritual life groups that represent the wide range of diverse perspectives: Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Interfaith, Atheist, Quaker, etc.
Q: Why are you leaving Warren Wilson?
A: The best answer I can give relates to a quote I read two days after I resigned. It’s from one of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach:
[N]o punishment anyone lays on you could possibly be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment. With that insight comes the ability to open cell doors that were never locked in the first place and to walk into new possibilities that honor the claims of one’s heart. (171)
My choice to leave honors the claims of my heart and my sense of what it means to have integrity. It is my heart’s desire to work and teach within an environment that gives the highest value to creativity, wisdom, compassion, honesty, and joy. These things are difficult to measure, but they are the very substance of what it means to live a whole and productive life. Until a few years ago, Warren Wilson had a sentence in its mission statement that inspired me: “Warren Wilson College strives to be a learning community that enhances whole, examined, productive, and fulfilling lives of maturity, freedom, creativity, and joy.” This sentence was, in my opinion, the one sentence in the earlier mission statement that gave the college a distinctive character, a kind of soul really. This sentence was removed in the writing of our current version of the mission statement. I think that, perhaps, when that sentence left the mission statement, a good part of me started to leave with it.
Q: What will you miss most about Warren Wilson?
A: Oh goodness, that’s an easy one: the wonderful students I know who have great intelligence and also have, if I can draw from our NC state motto, the desire to “be rather than to seem.” I have learned so much from and with our students and I will always care about them and their desire to create a better world.
Q: What will you do after Warren Wilson?
A: The picture of my new life is slowly beginning to unfold. It will likely be some combination of writing, speaking, teaching, community organizing, and counseling. Right now, I am working on an idea that was inspired during my sabbatical in Thailand. While there, I met with the founders of a non-profit known as the “Midnight University.” It is a free university that fosters critical inquiry as a means to finding peaceful, actively nonviolent alternatives to conflict. I have the seeds of an idea I am currently exploring with students and some potential funders. I think my enterprise will likely pick up the sentence that used to be in our mission statement and run with it. The form of the Midnight University I envision (whatever it will eventually be called) will enable people within our community to gather for the purposes of education, spirituality, and social-environmental activism in order to “enhance whole, examined, productive, and fulfilling lives of maturity, freedom, creativity, and joy.” I am buying the White House on the hill that you see in the valley across from the college and it will become home to whatever form this new enterprise will take.