Warren Wilson College News

2009 Convocation Address

By: Sandy Pfeiffer

My 2007 installation and convocation speeches included references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry James. Then in last year’s Convocation address I raised the bar by beginning with a reference to the writing of our own John Bowers in the Owl and Spade. Little did I know the year ahead would give John and me stories to share about our accidents and neurosurgeries. I’d like to start today’s event by officially welcoming JB back among us. His editorial eye and sense of humor will be needed this year on many tasks, not least is the Strategic Plan about which I’ll speak in a minute.

Rather than Emerson, Thoreau, James, or Bowers, today I’ll begin with an excerpt from City Slickers, a 1991 film in which three men from the East Coast head west to face their mid-life demons and “bond” during a cattle drive. In the process they meet a grizzled old cowboy from whom they learn plenty. Here’s a scene that includes one of the mid-lifers, Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, and the old cowboy, Curly, played by Jack Palance:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No, what?
Curly: [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch:Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing.
You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh–
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you gotta figure out.

During the last year, as the economy crashed and the College dodged various fiscal bullets, I had an opportunity to wonder if there’s “one thing” that has helped Warren Wilson survive and indeed thrive during many fiscal crises since its founding in 1894. Like many of you, I believe our “one thing” flows from one main fact: Warren Wilson College embraces a community of students, faculty, and staff that take part in an experiential education like no other, one anchored to this particular geographical place but one appropriate for all times. The power of our experiential education—what we call the Triad—informs all that we do. It inspires passionate argument, has a strength that escapes easy definition, and confounds us not a little because we know this Triad is greater than the sum of its three parts.

Not a disembodied educational outcome to be described in a journal, our Triad gets lived daily by a dedicated community of people—all of whom would probably describe it differently. Some were passionately attracted to it before they arrived, and a few may have joined the college in spite of it or oblivious to it, but all end up marveling at its authenticity sooner or later.

Besides the people at the College, our geography gives context to the “one thing” that defines us, both because of our rich history and also because of the strong connection between stewardship of the land and preservation of our community values. In an essay in his collection entitled The Art of the Commonplace (Counterpoint, 2002), Wendell Berry writes the following about “community”:

If the word “community” is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. . . . “[C]ommunity” must mean a people locally placed and a people, moreover, not too numerous to have a common knowledge of themselves and of their place (p. 178).

The phrase “not too numerous” has special meaning here as we’ve faced unexpected small bumps in enrollment because more students have accepted offers of admission than we anticipated. That point aside, most of us believe our community must remain small enough so that what Berry calls “common knowledge” can be maintained. As for place, we occupy land that has been a sought-after site since the Archaic tradition of 8,000 years ago, followed by Woodland, Pisgah, and Cherokee peoples—and now us. (Note: part of my summer reading was Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (UNC Press, 2003), a gift from Ruth Currie that includes references to the work of David Moore and a drawing by Gwen Diehn.) When our college was placed in this valley, we became part of a continuum of groups and cultures for whom this land became sacred and worth protecting. A skeptic might say that Warren Wilson and its Triad are transportable and thus could exist in any location. I doubt that, but even if they could, it would be in a much diminished state. The land matters here.

So I believe our “one thing” is the Triad in context of this place, this people, this time. It drives the College, and it’s the lens through which we’ll view our work this year on our 2010-2015 Strategic Plan. Soon you’ll have the chance to review parts of the plan that have been drafted by the Board of Trustees Planning Committee and by the President’s Advisory Council (aka PAC), with the help of responses you submitted in a survey last semester. Although the Planning Committee and PAC are still preparing drafts that you’ll be sent in preparation for our September 3 Planning Day, I’d like to provide some advance information here. The mission statement that the Board committee drafted is a slight revision from our current one and is as follows:

The mission of Warren Wilson College is to provide a distinctive liberal arts education combining academics, work, and service in a learning community committed to environmental responsibility, cross-cultural understanding, and the common good.

There also is a vision statement draft that will include language about our aspiring to be a leader among selective residential liberal arts colleges by offering a distinctive, affordable education that combines academics, work, and service. We’ll want to explore some important phrases therein—for example, “leader among selective liberal arts colleges” for one, and “affordable education” for another.

Of most importance to our work on the September 3 Planning Day will be our discussions of a draft set of values and priorities, with the major categories as follows:

1. Refining our Triad education of academics, work, and service
2. Nurturing the liberal arts tradition in an innovative and rigorous curriculum
3. Modeling environmental responsibility to provide leadership on and off campus
4. Promoting citizenship through social justice, diversity, and civic engagement
5. Fostering personal responsibility to enhance individual and community wellness
6. Advancing cross-cultural understanding and experiences
7. Strengthening and wisely using financial resources
8. Enhancing our marketing plan and college brand

After being critiqued on Planning Day and then later by our on-campus governance bodies, the plan drafts will be reviewed by the Board of Trustees at its October 8-10 fall meeting. Assuming the Board approves this first part of our plan, the PAC will work with various constituencies to develop Phase 2 of the Strategic Plan by December. This second phase will include specific action plans for accomplishing each priority, using various guidelines such as those offered by our accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

So from City Slickers to SACS, there you have a sense of how our unique Triad mission relates to the upcoming planning exercise. The Plan will influence our operating budget, our recruitment strategies, the buildings we plan, and more. Your participation in it will shape the college for years to come. Unlike documents that sometimes end up on the shelf after the lofty rhetoric has faded away, this plan will affect all of our lives and connect with the fundraising goals of the College, about which I’ll say more in a moment.

The five-year time period for the Strategic Plan begins July 2010 and ends June 2015. But what of goals for the year a
head, the ten-plus months before the Plan period begins? This last part of my remarks will address our goals for the current academic year. I’ll frame my comments around “3R’s” that will drive college actions in the year ahead—and most certainly will drive mine:

1. Resources for the College
2. Reputation of the College
3. Relationships within the College

Indeed, these 3R’s may undergird all that we do for years to come.

First, Resources—with a capital “R.” Though careful budgeting and strong enrollment has kept our budget in the black—usually with a good-size surplus to help with deferred maintenance and other needs—we have challenging fiscal times ahead and will need more money. We are expecting enrollment to stabilize, tuition to increase at a lower rate, and fixed costs like benefits to confound our best predictive efforts. That means we need new strategies. One we may try is zero-based budgeting, which requires that we build operating budgets from “zero” based on compelling and strategic needs, rather than simply taking last year’s budget and adding a percentage increment. And there will be other approaches as we try to use our current budget even more carefully.

Besides judiciously spending the money we already have in our budget, we need a more aggressive fundraising operation for attracting new money to the College. If you’ve had a chance to read the first Advancement report sent to the campus community by Interim Vice President for Advancement Richard Blomgren, you saw an example of this cultural shift. His plan of action has jumpstarted the Advancement office for the year ahead. And once we hire a grant writer, even more fundraising possibilities will be open to us.

For my part, activities related to increasing resources will take a much greater part of my time than before. With better systems as well as experienced PAC members in place, I’ve asked our deans and vice presidents to take even more on-campus responsibility—both on their own and in collaboration with their PAC colleagues. While just a Blackberry message away, I’ll be spending much more time on activities intended to gain resources for the college, whether nearby or far from campus. Here are ten of my Resource goals for the year:

1. Continue to be the immediate and most personal contact with a foundation from which we’re seeking a major grant to support one of our degree programs.
2. Meet every other Friday with Richard, Margo, and our chief development officers to share updates on the attention we’ve given to current and prospective donors.
3. Visit out-of-town trustees in their home territory, with the goal of visiting all of them over several years.
4. Work with Richard and the Advancement team to plan trips to visit alumni, donors, parents, and prospective students. Richard and I have tentative plans to travel to Chicago, New York, Princeton, Atlanta, and Florida this semester.
5. Assist the Advancement Office with a renewed effort to gain alumni support. With the help of Rodney Lytle and other Advancement staff, I’ll visit alums and also give special attention to returning classes during our October Homecoming, as I have in the past.
6. Make “targeted” short trips to prospective donors that the Advancement team believes will benefit from a visit.
7. Hold a series of monthly President’s Community Dialogs or Roundtables, built around dinners, luncheons, or breakfasts, with the purpose of acquainting friends and potential donors with the College. These will be much like a number of dinners we held this summer before Swannanoa Gathering concerts.
8. Work with Advancement to develop my own list of top prospects to cultivate—and ultimately from whom to solicit gifts.
9. Pay particular attention to friends and prospects interested in the sustainability and environmental mission of the college, given the considerable national and regional attention we’ve received in the last few years.
10. Serve as chair of the President’s Council of the Work Colleges Consortium for a term that began July 1. As such, Ian Robertson and I will work to retain the federal appropriation that the seven-college consortium receives each year to carry on the important work-related activities on all seven campuses.

Granted, many of these activities are investments for gifts that may not arrive for years—that’s the nature of fundraising. Yet others will have an immediate goal of increasing our Annual Fund this year, which directly contributes to our operating budget. By the way, you can help Richard, Miranda, and me to meet the College goal by giving any amount to this year’s Annual Fund. Last year 33% of you did so, and I thank you for that. Now I hope we can double the percentage this year. Donors often want to know the degree to which faculty and staff have been generous to their own college, so I urge you to help us gain their support by giving any amount to the Fund so that we increase our participation level. It’s an easy way to help Advancement and me to persuade people outside the College to give.

Our next major goal for the year ahead—and the second “R”—is continuing to enhance the reputation, or visibility, of the College. Warren Wilson may have the best local, regional, and national reputation today than it has ever had. All of us—every single one of us—has a role in maintaining and enhancing that hard-earned reputation. You can help by continuing to support partnerships with the community, working with students in collaborative research, taking part in scholarship of all kinds, and using every contact you have to spread the word about Warren Wilson. Each activity—from an archaeological dig nearby, to service trips to West Virginia, to work conferences at which our graduates speak, just to name three examples from the past year—enhances our reputation and draws attention to the success of our Triad.

For my part this year, I’ll redouble my efforts to take part in regional and national activities that help strengthen our reputation. Although I always carefully scrutinize any requests that take time away from campus or fund-raising, I also know that work on major boards gives the College much-needed visibility. Toward that end, I’ve accepted the following positions and memberships for the year ahead, among a few others:

• Chair, Presidents Council, Work Colleges Consortium
• Board of Directors, Asheville/BC Chamber of Commerce
• Board of Directors, N.C. Campus Compact
• Board of Directors, N.C. Outward Bound
• Executive Board, Asheville HUB Alliance
• Steering Committee, American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and Co-Chair of the Education Committee
• Community Energy Action Council (Progress Energy)

Like memberships you may have, these activities lay the foundation for benefits that might help our students (such as internships), that might lead to grants and gifts, and that keep us current with affinity groups related to our majors (such as Outward Bound) and to our Triad (such as Campus Compact).

The last “R” deserving our attention this year is strengthening relationships within the college. Living in a small community, where literally everyone works to keep the college running smoothly, gives everyone the responsibility to support one another in this enterprise.

One way we can attend to relationships is to make sure to participate fully in our on-campus governance system. With no goal other than making certain we have a system that works well and empowers you to participate fully in decision-making, this academic year I’ll appoint a committee of faculty, staff, and students to work with all of us to study our current system o
f shared governance. The committee may recommend no changes, it might suggest slight adjustments, or it might offer significant revisions for our consideration. Of most importance to me, and I hope to you, is that this review will result in more robust participation by all of us in shared governance. I’ll appoint the committee soon and request the study be completed and reported to the campus this year.

Regarding governance, I should mention that when I applied for this job in 2005, I was sent a document that laid out the challenges ahead for the person selected to be president. The section in that document on governance included the following passage:

Clearly there is the need for the establishment of more functional and effective channels of communications and connections between bodies as well as more effective and efficient systems of operations that define explicitly the roles, responsibilities, and interdependence of the faculty, staff, students, and administration. Currently a study is underway to address this matter. Whether this study provides the changes wanted or not, it will fall to the new president to either implement the proposed changes or continue the exploration of ways to govern. [My emphasis.]

I consider this year’s committee to be the “exploration” that the campus and Board of Trustees mandated when I was appointed president.

One last comment regarding on-campus relationship building as it affects my job. The three years I’ve been here have seen considerable change, perhaps more in the last year than ever. With much change behind us, I think it’s a good time to slow down the pace, take stock of where we are, and work on building stronger relationships and more mutual trust. For my part, when I’m not on the road working on the first two R’s—resources for, and reputation of, the College—I’ll spend more time reaching out to groups and individuals to strengthen ties that bind us. Here are a few ways:

1. Again this year, I’ll ask the leadership of on-campus governing bodies to meet regularly with PAC—in addition to having individual meetings with me, if they wish.
2. I’ve asked Academic Affairs if I may meet regularly with the faculty to listen to their concerns and share suggestions for strengthening academics. My hope is that the Faculty Body will give me a few minutes on the agenda of some meetings of the Faculty Body. I’ll bring my egg-timer and be brief.
3. Although I’ve always been open to “walk-in” visits by faculty, staff, and students, I’ll soon announce weekly “open hours” so that members of the community are further encouraged to drop by. For starters, come see the walnut meeting table one of our new crews built for the office, from trees harvested from our forest.
4. I’ll make better use of the common meeting ground of the college—our dining areas—to share information about the college and get to know you better.
5. At least a couple times a month I’ll work on different crews to get a better inside view of what makes the college run. Ian is setting up a lottery to determine which crews I visit.
6. I hope to do a few guest lectures in classes, if invited to do so by faculty. Last spring I sent out an email in that regard.
7. I’ve asked the six members of PAC to invite me to attend at least one of their division meetings each semester. I’d like to hear first-hand about issues you and your division heads think most important to your work.
8. Rowena and I will set up some social occasions, in addition to events that start and close the academic year. I’d like such occasions to be very casual and a natural part of the fabric of our community, as opposed to an “event.”

So I suggest that these three R’s—Resources for the college, Reputation of the college, Relationships within the College—should be our mantra for the year ahead. All three depend on each other, all three relate to the Strategic Planning process ahead, and all three comprise a short list that will drive my own work on behalf of Warren Wilson. Let’s have a productive year ahead, let’s have some fun together while we’re at it, and let’s celebrate this great college. We can start the celebrating tomorrow afternoon at the Opening Picnic Evelyn and I host at our home (or in the Cow Pie, if the rains arrive). Hope to see you there.

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