by Christian Diaz, News Editor
When Lou Weber scored a job teaching at Warren Wilson College in 1997, her friends thought she had joined a cult. As time passed, and she sent out letters to her friends, they began to ask her how they could join. It’s easy to forget just how unique the triad is, but the allure of such a holistic approach to education attracted Weber, who during her time here as educator and Chair of Environmental Studies, takes credit for attracting John Brock to WWC and jumpstarting the environmental studies department. These two accomplishments alone attest to the role that Weber has played in the evolution of this campus during the last 15 years.
In the Fall of 2012, Weber will begin a new chapter in her career at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a Catholic institution embarking on their own trek toward sustainability. The school recently started a graduate program in environmental studies, and Lou Weber has been invited to join their team and eventually take it over and expand it. There is no other college in the region that is dominating the field, and their plan is to fill that void by recruiting a veteran from WWC.
“I’m hoping to take all I’ve learned at Warren Wilson to help another college that is now beginning,” she said. “I think there’s no doubt about it. We all see what the benefits of this bold experiment are. To have a campus in such a biodiverse region in such a beautiful valley, and with so many resources around us to take advantage of, the environmental studies program would have to be successful, that’s just a recipe for success…[but] I’ve done about as much as I can for Warren Wilson. They’re on their way now.”
When Weber first started teaching at WWC, she found a campus of 500 students. She was surprised by how lax that attitude on campus was. “When I came for my interview for the Warren Wilson job it was a cold March week. The windows in Morse Science hall wouldn’t close. They were stuck open and I said: ‘the students are wearing mittens. Can’t you just fix the windows?’ and they told me: ‘oh, those windows have been like that for a long time and the students have just gotten used to wearing mittens. That was just the kind of mentality here then.
“There were possums walking through Morse hall because in the summer they wouldn’t close the doors! They wouldn’t worry about locking things as they do now because literally the doors were open all summer. People wouldn’t think much of it. There were urinals that would flush on their own. Lights that would turn on themselves in Morse. We used to say it was haunted, but I think that maybe it was the possums.”
The shift to a more traditional university will be seen most dramatically in the change of student body. St. Francis is not much larger than WWC, but fewer than 20% of students there live on campus. Some of the challenges Weber foresees in her transition is that students are not as vocal there as Wilson students are. Weber will speak to a more traditional audience, though it is a liberal Catholic school. Plus, more than half of the student body are first generation college students.
It is unlikely that she will see the types of students that Wilson attracts, the kind that Weber recounted in her foremost memory on this campus, which takes place in 2004 when the Swannanoa river overflowed.
“It happened during Hurricane Francis. The river flooded all the way to farm headquarters and in the middle of the afternoon I started walking home and it was just pouring and thundering down, hard rain. I looked over from Orr Cottage to see how far the river had come up. What was taking place out there was that the farm manager and the farm students were trying to save the pigs that were out in the field. The water came up so fast that there were about two dozen full grown pigs swimming out in the flood.
“The students were out in waist-high, muddy water trying to catch these pigs and herd them up on land and they weren’t very successful. They kept falling in the water, falling in the mud and it was cold. Then the farm manager’s dog, who was not a trained herding dog, [rescued the pigs]. Somehow a gene from deep within kicked in and that dog started swimming out there in the water, and he got all the pigs herded up. Imagine, a herd of pigs, and they were swimming towards land.
“I remember them telling me too that because the pigs were swimming so hard, they were cutting their faces. I didn’t see that from where I stood, but afterwards they all had scars on their snouts from their hoofs, swimming so hard through that water. The whole thing was dramatic. It seems funny now but at the time it felt like life or death. The students were cold and wet and worn out, but everyone, including the pigs, were safe.”
Weber saw the college grow to what it is today, and she notes that when the student body grew, so did the school’s resources. She saw how a new science building attracted better students, from farther away in the country. The college has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. Weber says our small size is an inadequate home for so many different departments. She would like to see the school become less fractured. But the students here changed her perspective on what to teach, and how to frame her knowledge.
“I’ve learned that greening the campus is one of the core things any environmental studies needs to do. It’s not just about the academics. The students have the most passion for putting what they learned into action. If the campus is not green, they’re not going to believe a thing the professors say. What I’ve seen in the last 15 years as far as changes that have taken place is that we are better at walking the talk. The course evaluations can be a little scary, but through 15 years of reading the evaluations I can say that I am a very different professor than when I started.”