by Christian Diaz, News Editor
During the last six years he has overseen, among other things, the renovation of Bryson gym after it collapsed, the development of a strategic plan for the college and the creation of a new governance structure.
But the deep gladness that he’s felt as College President has been the reaction that the school’s name elicits from donors, alumni and the general public. Warren Wilson attracts a special breed of students, the kind that, he says, are out to change their world.
As an English major, Pfeiffer first learned of Warren Wilson by the reputation of its MFA program in Writing. He had heard of a quaint institution in the mountains of Western North Carolina near the historic Black Mountain College.
In 2004, long before the school began its search for a new college president, he and his wife, Evelyn, visited the campus as they drove through the region. Pfeiffer remembers seeing three students walking by the farm, their arms flung over each other’s shoulders like streamers. The students seemed unaware of their surroundings, engrossed in each other’s company.
His most vivid memory of the hiring process at Warren Wilson takes place at the first meeting between students and candidate.
He had been applying for the same position at other schools, and was even offered a job at the University of Montevello in Alabama, but he was surprised by the amount of students who wanted to meet the candidate at WWC. “That was something that tipped the scale for me,” Pfeiffer said.
Instead of the usual group of student leaders, he met 200 students who were curious about every aspect of his life. What car he drove. What his children did. “It was a no holds barred kind of Q and A, and that impressed me,” Pfeiffer said. He found that WWC students were engaged with the hiring process, and more than anything, that they wanted to be here.
But the school was experiencing difficulties. A task force had been working for more than a year to reform the governance structure, and right before Pfeiffer started his new job in 2006, Staff Forum rejected the proposal.
In 2007, WWC was donned the most pot-friendly campus in America by the Princeton Review. Such national attention on substance use irked donors and affected enrollment, and Pfeiffer had to deal with the fallout. Today, WWC is off the list.
The size of the college too was a contentious issue. Though on-campus housing could accommodate more than 800 students, enrollment had been capped artificially at that number, driving up tuition for students who had to pay the cost of maintaining the extra space. Pfeiffer had to sell the idea that growing the college was necessary in order to keep tuition from hiking dramatically.
Change at Warren Wilson, he learned, is difficult. “There’s a strong streak, not necessarily a bad one, toward conservatism in the sense of not changing. I’ve tried to push a little bit sometimes with the change, maybe sometimes a little too hard and a little too fast,” he said.
Pfeiffer recounts moments when he’s had to reel in his decisions. Most notably he remembers an outcry in 2009 over his proposal to leave the Dean of Service position unfilled at a time when the college was struck by financial woes. During a meeting with Student Caucus, which drew a record crowd of 105, Pfeiffer explained to disgruntled students that budget cuts are not easy. “At the end of the day I make budget decisions,” he said to them.
Ultimately, Cathy Kramer was hired as Dean of Service. “I didn’t have to do it, but the views that were presented made sense. I found other ways to save money,” Pfeiffer said of the incident.
Today, the issue of budget cuts remains divisive. Pfeiffer surmises that enrollment seems unfavorably low for next year, and that interim positions need to be looked at closely in order to ensure the financial health of the college.
“The budget is a zero-sum game,” he said. “We cannot have everything, we cannot keep everything.”
Though issues of fiscal responsibility rouse feelings of insecurity, Pfeiffer contends that the college finances are healthy.
“While I take the point that no one likes to be in an environment of budget cuts, we have preserved jobs and departments. The school has not had any major programs cut, that I can think of. We have arguably, at a national level, the highest level of visibility that we’ve ever had right now.”
Pfeiffer has a clear vision of how the school can continue to improve on its mission in the future. General education reform, as well as an honest discernment of programs is integral to strengthening the college.
“My experience is that if you have too many small academic programs with three or four professors in each one, then you have to look really carefully and ask if students are getting the range of courses they need to get a credible major. I think it’s time now to really look carefully and consider where we might make some tough decisions in the next few years.”
Pfeiffer looks forward to a year of planning after retiring from his job at WWC. The Pfeiffers acquired property in Biltmore Forest, so they will remain close enough to be contacted if needed.
His experience as president of the college, he says, has ingrained in him a deep sense of altruism. There is honor in donating time and effort to organizations that need it.
“Service will be a much more integral part of the rest of my life, and it may otherwise have been,” he said.