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Campus News

Warren Wilson College president Sandy Pfeiffer Answers Questions About What We Can Expect in the Year to Come

by Micah Wilkins, web editor

Warren Wilson College president Sandy Pfeiffer

The start of this school year also marks the beginning of the end for president Sandy Pfeiffer, who will be retiring at the end of the Spring semester. The Echo sat down with Pfeiffer Sept. 8 to discuss changes that we will see this year, in years to come, and some of the president’s goals for his remaining time here at the college.

Echo: How did you think the community meeting went Wednesday? Why was Barack Obama’s interfaith and multicultural challenge chosen as the theme for the meeting?

Sandy: We’ve been talking for some time about ways to address the issue of diversity of belief on campus and to try to do it to be even more of a welcoming campus in this respect. This college is open in so many ways in all good ways that’s noticed by students.

What we heard yesterday was that it’s not as open as it should be, and I would expand it to political ideas too. I was pleased there was an open discussion on this, not just people lecturing to others. Strategies to get together and have open discussions that aren’t judgemental, especially about beliefs, getting facts, asking about experiences—that’s what a liberal arts college ought to be.

It was a good start but we need to follow it up, and make sure it’s student-focused… Any college that doesn’t make some effort to respond to spiritual needs to students isn’t doing it’s job. [A college should] provide that vehicle for conversation.

Echo: The new community meetings will be held the first Wednesday of every month, as outlined by the new governance system that was put in place this year. The agenda for the meetings is set by the elected voting members of staff forum, with some ideas coming from Student Caucus. Next month’s meeting will have a different topic, but the interfaith and multicultural challenge is a year-long effort, according to president Pfeiffer.

After the meeting concerning interfaith and multicultural tolerance, where do we go from here?

Sandy: Yesterday was an opening and opportunity to gather ideas about what we can do next. Phase one [of the challenge] is the kick off, the meeting [last Wednesday]. Two courses are also involved, Exploring Religions and Religious Students Colloquium, with components related to food, faith and fairness. Phase two, in the Spring, the Environmental Leadership Center will develop this interfaith theme, bringing together themes of hunger and faith. This will involve panel discussions on campus, and discussions about the role food plays in religious traditions. Phase three will involve service projects, led by the Service Learning Office, related to food security.

Echo: In your last year at Wilson, what are some goals you would like to achieve before you leave?

Sandy: My goal of the year is implementing the new governance system. We need to work on getting governance off the ground, participation being high for it, and then making sure that the ideas coming out of community meetings and forum and caucus come to the decision makers of the college.

This year, when policies come up, they should always go through [staff] forum, and if they relate to students, they should go through caucus.

Also new this year are the regular community meetings, which in the past were often called when there was some kind of crisis. They tended to have sometimes a more of emergency, negative connotation. I see under this new governance process community meetings expanding. I see them as being more regular, in a positive way, like [last Wednesday], where we’re presenting an idea for people to respond to, and to take part in, that can be sustaining to community. It’s an expansion of it, to evolve people in helping to run the place, to experience community in the way we want to do it. The community meeting isn’t my meeting, it isn’t the PAC’s meeting, it’s the community’s meeting.

Echo: Sodexo’s contract is up—how likely is it that Sodexo will return as our food provider?

Sandy: Sodexo’s done a terrific job. Our review, this process of putting out an RFP, a request for proposals, it’s in no way a negative to Sodexo. It’s a common process to do a competitive review of food service periodically. What we’re doing is what i would call best practice

I think they’ve done an excellent job and I’m looking forward to having presented to me the strengths and weaknesses of the companies. I’ll make that decision for the college by the end of the semester. The sooner the decision is made the better I think.

Echo: Sometime last year you said that one of your goals was to work on removing the road on the main campus, to make the campus more pedestrian-friendly. What are you doing to make this a reality? What is the long term plan for the year?

Sandy: We still have that on our agenda. It was my goal to begin the discussion. I don’t think it will happen on my watch though.

I think we have too much mixture of vehicle and people. I know it’s a huge challenge. I know parking is important. But I believe that parts of this campus should be pedestrian-friendly. We will advance that discussion this year. I’m not sure how far we’ll get on decision-making, but once we have some sense of where the new academic building will be, we’ll [have a better idea of how to proceed].

Echo: There will be a new academic building on campus? When will we see this?

Sandy: Yes, [last Friday], the members of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees gave the go-ahead to begin planning the new academic building. Now we’ll begin a planning/fundraising process, with the hope of having a building actually done within three years.

Carson Hall being demolished this summer

The real catalyst for [a new academic building] was Carson [Hall, which was demolished over the summer]. Once we realized that Carson needed to come down, we had a net reduction in our academic space. It wasn’t a great building, but it did house offices and it had classrooms. Even before Carson came down we believed that we needed more quality academic space, with different-sized class rooms, smart class rooms, with technology built into the class rooms. The demise of Carson [brought about the] recognition of me and PAC that we needed to provide students with quality academic space.

I’m hopeful that by the end of this year we will have planned it. And to have the building LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified, that is not a dream, that is an expectation that I would have, and everyone else would have on campus. [Hopefully, the actual building would involve] people on campus, with student crews helping out in building this. If we could find a way for a crew to help, that makes this so special. Not only does it give them a really good sense of accomplishment but its a terrific calling card for Warren Wilson. People, when they build things, have a much stronger connection to the college.

Echo: What else do you hope to accomplish this year?

Sandy: A big one is year two of the strategic plan. I want to make sure that we follow through on all the action plans that are in it, [to accomplish the priorities laid out at the beginning of last year: to strengthen the triad, to improve academics, to foster environmental responsibility, to promote service and social justice, to increase diversity, and more].

I hope to make sure we stay on task there. [One way of doing this is] helping to support the ELC [Environmental Leadership Center]. It’s in a transition phase with John Brock, the interim executive director. We’re spending a lot of time talking about how we can expand the ELC, both on campus and off, and planning new directions for the ELC. This year, working with John is a big part of one of my major goals—to keep sustainability at the forefront of this college. We’ve had a lot of rewards for it, this year and in the past, and I want to make sure we continue to deserve them.

Echo: Any news on what you’ll be doing after you retire from Warren Wilson?

Sandy: I’m working that out. I have so many interests, that they’re difficult to pursue. This is my sixth year as president here. I’ve been in academia since graduating graduate school. My wife and I are going to spend a year travelling a lot. I have a strong interest in that.

I hope that i write a lot. I hope to teach part-time, not next year, but in the next couple years. [I hope to do some] flyfishing, hiking, travelling. I’m excited about some new prospects

My kids are both grown now and they’re working. So I hope to have more time to spend with them. This is probably a long way of saying, I’m not sure yet.

This is a pretty time-intensive job. It’s hard to pursue too many other interests. I’ve loved the work but I’m looking forward to other interests.

Echo: Anything else to add?

Sandy: I’m really looking forward to this year. I’m excited about the college hiring a new president. its an exciting time. I’m also really pleased with the senior staff we have at the college. We have just a wonderful group of VPs and Deans here that i think carry a real load for the college. They’re so experienced, so caring and so invested in this place. I’m happy to say that I’ve hired four of them. We’re blessed with so much here.

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