Lynn M. Morton: Announcement Day Speech

On Wednesday, May 3, 2017, at 12:30 p.m., Warren Wilson College announced Lynn M. Morton as its eighth president at an event in Morris’ Community Pavilion. This is her first speech as the incoming president.

Faculty, Staff, Students, members of the Board of Trustees and the larger Warren Wilson community and distinguished guests, I am so, so honored to be Warren Wilson College’s eighth president.

The opportunity to become a part of this very special community has excited and humbled me. As many of you know, I am a native North Carolinian whose Dad made sure that his three daughters learned to hike, and camp, and build fires (without catching forest on fire) and appreciate these mountains. So for me, quite honestly, this truly is like a homecoming. I can’t thank the Warren Wilson community enough for the warm welcome they gave me when I visited campus for the interview a few weeks ago, and since then, as we’ve planned for today and beyond. And a very special thanks to the search committee, who worked so hard on Warren Wilson’s behalf to sort through a multitude of applications and so many, many interviews. The commitment of Bill Christy, chairman of the Board of Trustees, board member Lach Zemp, who chaired the search committee, and the faculty, the staff and the students who led and participated in this search throughout the process is truly remarkable.

First, I would like to address Warren Wilson, my new home and new extended family. You’re all invited to Thanksgiving!

I do have a confession to make up front. I’m in love with you. And I have so much respect for you and the work you do here. Ever since I visited here with two of my children in their college searches some years ago, I have been just falling over in love, again and again, with this College.

Those of you who interviewed me know this story and know that it is no fault of Warren Wilson’s that my headstrong children did not attend here – one decided she wanted a great big school (go figure, I don’t get it) and one picked a community college on his way to becoming a chef. My husband, Ric (who is actually over there somewhere with the dogs that you don’t want to excite) turned to me during one of those campus visits and said, “Can I go to school here?”  And as a graduate of Guilford College in Greensboro, he knows a really high quality small, independent school when he sees one.

Do not for one minute doubt that you are a special place. I am going to share a couple of experiences from my interview by way of illustration.

While many schools struggle to identify what makes them distinctive, you have that nailed down. I knew I would be impressed by the farm and the forest, but quite honestly the campus tour by dedicated, passionate, knowledgeable faculty and staff blew me away. The ways in which the academic programs draw from the land in a true outdoor classroom is not only best practice in engaged learning, but here it is the best of best practice.

Here are a couple of quick examples:

Professor Dave Ellum (where is he?) was giving me a tour with staff crew leader, Shawn Swartz, that explained how students track invasive species, monitor the health of the trees, and do interesting experiments involving locust trees and grapevines, when I sagely  noted this was TRULY the extended classroom. Dave listened and then said, firmly and politely, gesturing to the forested hills around us, “Actually, allow me to correct that. THIS is the classroom. That building over there with the lab in it, that’s the extended classroom.”

Biology professor Mary Bulan (who’s in here, somewhere) and Farm Manager Asher Wright made clear that some students work in the garden on classroom assignments and plant living experiments, while others just want to put down the technology and get their hands dirty. We dropped by the sawmill (and if you haven’t seen students operating large whirling blades and wielding axes, now there’s an experience. Queens University in Myers Park would be astounded!), and I learned that the diminutive young woman working the saw is a Creative Writing major.

When I met with students, they said, for example, “I’m a history and art double major, minoring in Outdoor Leadership, and I’m on the landscaping crew.”  “I’m a Sociology major minoring in Peace and Social Justice, and I’m studying abroad next semester combining my major and my minor.”   Or I’m on the electrician crew, or the library, or the media, or the admissions, or the Bonner Scholars, or the herb garden crew, or the science lab crew, and my major has nothing to do with my crew, or my major has everything to do with my crew, because I want it exactly that way.

And of course there was the young woman who thundered by on a large backhoe, waving happily; I’m told she is a top scholar. Now you tell me that’s not distinctive.

Lynn Morton was announced as president of Warren Wilson College in front of a crowd gathered at the Morris' Community Pavilion. Photo: Reggie Tidwell
Lynn Morton was announced as president of Warren Wilson College in front of a crowd gathered at the Morris’ Community Pavilion. Photo: Reggie Tidwell

Next, I’d like to address the residents of the beautiful Swannanoa Valley, with whom the college shares not only the land literally but also the passion for it. And it is our residents. I am eager to learn more about the many collaborative projects between Warren Wilson and neighboring businesses, farms, and service organizations. The locust trees I referenced earlier are part of an effort to support small agriculture in the area. There is something very special about a valley, a sheltered place in the shadow of mountains, where a life-giving river runs through, that gives the land its green and gold and blue. There is also the reality of valleys, where that same river can cause floods even as it gives life. In mountains and valleys, people seem more in touch with the land, and with the weather, which we know can change hourly. Or … sometimes by the minute. I look forward to getting to know the people of the valley and even more of the land. And, of course, Asheville is growing toward the east, and Black Mountain is going to the west. And, there we are in the center of it all.

Finally, I would like to address Asheville, specifically.

My family of origin used to drive up highway 70 hauling our used, rickety Coleman pop up camper. That was after we graduated from a canvas tent. Asheville was a place to go through back then, maybe pick up a sandwich or groceries on the way to the Smokies and the eventual campground. And now, just look at her! A little bit funky, a whole lot classy, wildly creative, and sassy fun. And now, Asheville is what’s trending! Just pick up Southern Living or Our State, or even The New Yorker Magazine (I’m telling the truth, I saw it), and there she is, our own Asheville, struttin’ her stuff and proud of her singular identity. And just a few miles down the road, heck, minutes away, from Warren Wilson. Asheville and Wilson are like siblings, growing, changing, learning, a little bit funky, a whole lot classy, wildly creative, and full of surprises.

With our central mission at Warren Wilson College, education that combines academics, work and service in a learning community committed to environmental responsibility, cross-cultural understanding, and the common good, we are perfectly poised to serve as THE private, liberal arts college in the region.

So now for a bit of philosophizing.

The central questions for thinking humans used to be, and to a great extent still are, “What is a good life? How do we find meaning?” Many have answered or offered theories, with a wide variety of responses and experiences. All of them are useful to us. The existentialists said, “you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your response.” The hedonists said, “pleasure is the highest good.” The utilitarians said, “the ends justify the means,” and “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Our questions have become more urgent in recent times. What will become of us, in a time where polarization is the order of the day? Screaming one’s opinions has become acceptable and even commonplace. College campuses have become fraught with questions about the limits of free speech and the censoring of hate speech. When does speech damage, and when does it liberate and inform? When do we censure, if ever, in our intelligent and intentional democracy?

I believe that some answers can be found in acknowledging our shared humanity, in finding connection where it seems no connection can be found. When we learn the tools for dialogue that seeks to understand while reserving a place for advocacy, we have found the sweet spot between necessary rebellion against tyranny, oppression and inequity, and acceptance that different views exist and are not only ok in a democracy, but necessary for its very existence.

Social and mainstream media are rife with oppositional rhetoric, facing off against one another. Higher education can offer a different path, teaching ways of thinking and talking together that seek solutions, surely, but first, seek to understand one another. The ancient Greeks understood this, hosting difficult conversations in the spirit of intellectual engagement but also quite invested in the civic present, knowing that these conversations are not just exercises in mental agility but also have real world consequences (and, by the way, “symposium” actually means “drinking conversation”).

We cannot be of one mind; we must be of many minds. We must stretch ourselves in the discipline of listening to other points of view while we may come back to our own. We must not demonize the other, even as people around us demonize those who do not believe as others believe they must or should. We must rise above the temptation to only converse with those who agree with us, and to seek out those whose opinions challenge, for dialogue that may lead to common ground, and the common good. And all the while, there are certain ideals that we must never, ever abandon. For as I’ve said to my students while a professor for so many years, “Do not be so open minded that your brains fall out.”

So, now to the future. Watch how we will surprise the world, and ourselves. In the future, coming soon, we will build on the firm foundation of excellence in academics, commitment to service and the common good, and an innovative work program to show the world how it can be done. Humbly, without swagger (alright, maybe a little from time to time), we will support our community as it supports us, spread our story through the region and beyond, and most important of all, offer our students a transformative experience that will give them wings and an infallible ability to navigate, even in the metaphorical dark.

Like….well…owls.

Thank you for the warm welcome and for listening so attentively.