Q and A with Vice-Chancellor search committee co-chair Katie Pearson

Amelia Leaphart     

The Purple recently sat down with co-chair of the vice-chancellor search committee, the Rev. Katie Pearson, to discuss Sewanee’s ongoing effort to select new leadership. Pearson (C’89, T’17. P’16, ‘18 & ‘20) has chaired the selection committee with Regent Mary Claire Murphy  (C’82). The link to the vice-chancellor profile created by the committee can be accessed here. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

What do you see as the most important opportunities for Sewanee in the future?

Personally, I just finished serving on (Sewanee’s) Names and Places (committee). I think the opportunities for Sewanee are to hold on to the really healthy and good things about our past, the things that make EQB alive and well. In our future, I think the opportunity is to make EQB apply to everyone. I think there are some folks who have felt left out of EQB, and I would hope that we can hold on to all that is good about that and to not rest and to realize there is more work to be done. As we said in our (recent search committee) update, we did so, so, so much asking in this process. Mary Claire and I are two individuals who are deeply devoted to process in both of our lines of work. This wasn’t about me personally, it’s not about any one constituency.

We sent out surveys to various constituencies. I personally copied the link into every Sewanee Facebook group that I’m in– those that are positive and scary; we all know those exist for every organization, right? We just really took that information and tried to craft questions and a profile around that. The profile is really thorough, and I think it’s pretty candid about the opportunities and the challenges that will face us in the coming years. It wasn’t going to do us any good to not tell the truth. 

We used information from students, from alumni, from faculty, from staff, from both the college and School of Theology, from community members. All of those folks could tell the most accurate story and tell who Sewanee is and what Sewanee hopes to be and do. Housing and compensation. Whether we like it or not, our Episcopal identity is a huge part of who we are. While that may not impact everyone in exactly the same way, it is the DNA of this place. The Board of Trustees is made up of 27 constituent bishops and trustees from all those dioceses. It’s our governance and who we are. We’re the only undergraduate college with an Episcopal seminary embedded in it. So that’s a piece of the puzzle to be considered as well. 

What are the main concerns folks have offered when responding to invitations to comment?

I basically think I covered those. They were varying, right? I think in essence it speaks to my personal hope that they hope some of the essential things about Sewanee do not change, but that we continue to just try and do it better. To keep moving–we’re already 22 years in the 21st century–in a way that is healthy and inclusive of all. To create sustainable practices for faculty and staff. 

There is a deep desire for someone who is going to embrace this place, and whether they had a past history with Sewanee or whether they were willing to come in and learn about us and understand what makes us truly unique and be a great proponent of Sewanee. The reality is, you have to be able to sell it. Fundraising is a part of every college president(’s task), and it is part of how you get funds to build more housing, raise salaries, scholarships for students. All of that is contingent upon someone who can raise money and sell this place. That’s a huge part of being a college president. It’s not the only thing, but that’s in general what college presidents do, and it’s something Sewanee needs and has done well with in the past. Dr. Brigety wasn’t here long enough to do a capital campaign or anything like that, but the last capital campaign was wildly successful and really moved the University forward. 

What are Sewanee’s current greatest challenges?

You know, I think we are mostly aware of what those are. I think I see the challenges that most people, you know, see and answer in these interviews. Here’s one thing that’s been helpful to me: Sewanee is my only experience, right, I went here, my husband went here, my children. What has been really enlightening and eye opening for me is to work with our search consultants who are absolutely fantastic and can give us greater context on higher education, period. Every college and university has its challenges and its issues. Many of them are similar. Some are unique to Sewanee. Some are absolutely not. And that has really helped me sort of contextualize some of the things that we’re dealing with.

I think there was a sense in some of the listening sessions that people thought we have too many problems, who’s gonna want to come in. And I don’t think I ever felt that bleak by any stretch, like students are saying, but the reality is, every college and university has issues, and as our search consultant said, we just need to find a person who has a passion for our issues. Our goal was and continues to be just sort of hold that as the goal: to look at what our challenges and opportunities are and to align them and find passion from our specific opportunities and challenges that are really cool. I just found that perspective really encouraging, because I do know that from the perspective of like other schools –yes, yeah– and to say everyone has their stuff. But if you step back from it a little bit, that makes complete sense, right? Because institutions are made up of humans, and humans are inherently often doing their best, but we grapple with all of our own flaws. And so it makes sense that every place has something. 

And so our goal is to use that guidance we received through all the surveys, all the listening sessions, all the constituencies who are present on the search committee, and just find that individual who has a passion to partner with us and who isn’t afraid. Courage, right? That’s one of our values. And also to just let you know, I think almost [every] candidate we have talked with have all mentioned reading The Purple. They’re not putting themselves forward for this process out of some kind of romantic notion of Sewanee being Arcadia. 

What qualities, abilities and experience are you all looking for? 

Clearly, a depth and a breadth of educational experience in higher education. I’m trying to think back to, and you can see in the profile, try to think back to some of the specifics. There are things that are tangible, and they’re things that are intangible, right? So I would say deep understanding, a willingness to listen. Lots of people said they were looking for someone who would collaborate. Someone with warmth. That’s probably implicit in some of those other qualities, right? So a high appreciation for what makes Sewanee different from other places.  Whether it’s the domain or it’s an Episcopal identity, or whether it’s sort of you know, a lot of universities, I’m sure you have friends who go to other colleges and universities. Students don’t kind of all live together for four years. You might live on campus their freshman year and then they are headed off to apartments and things become very fractured, relationship-wise, or they go to live in Greek houses. And they become very kind of particular that way. I think Sewanee was very unique in that sort of continued expansion of community over four years by where you live and what your affiliations are. I think that’s a pretty unique thing. I think, by how important it was to keep students on campus and in classrooms and all of that. I think each Vice Chancellor has kind of made (their) mark on this place; you can contribute something lasting. Someone who feels like that’s what they want. They want to contribute to the soil.  

What are the key priorities for the next Vice-Chancellor?

There are always the academic priorities, right? That’s everything from admission to retention to graduation. The evils of the US News and World Report rankings that, you know, people use, right? For better or worse, that’s, that is a metric that’s out there. So someone who has a deep understanding of that and is willing to work with the admissions office. And I think that spirit of collaboration has been huge, over and over again, in what people have said they want and need. And what we honestly know from the candidates we’ve interviewed is that there’s a deep desire to collaborate, to work together with the folks who are on campus on the ground and have the greatest understanding of where Sewanee is right now. And I think that’s one of the ways we were really compelled to start this out–to start out really leaning into all of these listening sessions, because people have a desire to be listened to and to feel like their experience is validated, heard and validated. I hope that people got a deep sense of how important it is to the search committee. 

We’ve received from 1000 surveys. Our search consultants are overwhelmed. They said they’ve never gotten that many responses anywhere, even a giant university. They search at large schools as well as small liberal arts colleges, and they said in all their years, they’ve never had a response like this. We had a really high number of nominations from within the Sewanee community. Students nominated faculty, people, whether they were affiliated with Sewanee or not, and most of them were not. There was just a tremendous amount of energy and interactions. 

What are you hearing from candidates about Sewanee’s strengths and weaknesses?

We had over 70 applications, which is tremendous. So that should actually make people feel really good, because purely by numbers, that dispels the myth that Sewanee is too wounded to be attractive. That was really heartening, and there were outstanding applicants in that pool. We were incredibly encouraged by that. I think back to my earlier comment, I think we have applicants because we have been very clear about the challenges and the opportunities, and because you and your colleagues on The Purple have continued to write about the opportunities and the challenges at Sewanee.

I think we have applicants who are very clear about this campus and this community, and are actually energized about the opportunity to come and help us….I think we are not unique in that everyone has challenges, and as long as we are clear about what those challenges are, and candidates are doing their homework, and they are, they’re not going to walk into like, ‘oh, wait, this is not what I expected.’ And they’re good.

What mistakes has Sewanee’s leadership made in the past, and how have those mistakes informed the search?

I can’t answer that. That would be way outside my lane. What I will tell you is we have a large search committee; there are 20. Part of that is driven by the very strange governance system that Sewanee has. Most colleges or universities only have a Board of Trustees… We have Regents, Trustees, and faculty from the college, faculty from our school of theology, a student from the college, and a student from the School of Theology. It’s great when one person wears a couple of hats, like I’m a parent and alum. Every single viewpoint is being heard. So if there are any of those constituencies with particular concerns, I want to be sure they are there to lift us up and to make sure that it remains part of the conversation with candidates about candidates. 

This has been a really beautiful process because people are engaging faithfully, critically, and respectfully. We have to talk about hard things as a committee. We have to listen deeply to each other. And it has been done over and over again with incredible respect. …Personally, I feel like the spirit of EQB is alive and well in our sessions, as it has been throughout this process and the listening sessions. So it’s been really, really positive. All of us have connections to Sewanee. It’s a lot of work. But it has not felt like a burden because it has been done so well. We’re people from wide and varied backgrounds, and it doesn’t have to be this way but it is.

What have been your takeaways about Sewanee from going through this process?

I have had the privilege of being intimately connected with Sewanee for over 30 years. I was a student. I came out here to get married. My best friend is (associate dean for integrated advising and career readiness) Kim Heitzenrater. We were sorority sisters and graduated the same year. My husband and I have moved a lot. And Sewanee has sort of always been the true north for us and our children.

I do not live in some mystical shroud of Sewanee in the past. I think my experience having children here is that it just keeps in so many ways getting better. They received an unbelievable education. They had great experiences. The things that we do well are still alive and well. They have deep and meaningful relationships with professors. They put in better dorms than when I was here. I know y’all complain about Clurg, but oh my gosh, did you know there used to be like one food line, and I ate a lot of Captain Crunch while I was in college? Because that was one of the only options if you didn’t want what was there.

It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But it does mean that it has continued to move forward. And I find that encouraging. I think we will continue to move forward. I don’t have this image of Sewanee frozen in time from the ‘80s. I just see this beautiful evolution that needs to keep those so current and relevant and a place that is welcoming.  We are vital for all the students yet to come and all the people who call this home and all of the faculty and the staff who give so much of themselves to the students.

I think you would talk to some of my classmates from the ‘80s who would just wax nostalgia, but I just think it keeps getting better. There’s so many people who care so deeply about it. And that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement, right? I am all about evolving. It can’t be just this isolated, literal bubble like it was during the pandemic. Nobody wants that. I just think that for all students who do study abroad, it was very rare when I was in college. If you were a Spanish or French major, you went to Madrid or Paris or whatever first semester. It was not widely done like today. Just look at the opportunities, I’m amazed at all the ways the Sewanee goes out to the world.

What can you say about the timeline for the announcement?

We went through those–oh my goodness–70 cover letters and CVs. That was really a lot. We were able to come together and narrow that number and do that first round–these are people we’re interested in learning more about, and learning about how they might be right for Sewanee’s next chapter. And we were able to do that over Zoom, which was fabulous, actually. We narrowed our focus based on what we were hearing and seeing and what we had been charged to do by all of the people we listened to. We met with a number of the candidates in person recently, and that was great. There’s just nothing like being able to see all of those intangibles like body language, it’s a game-changer. 

It was wonderful to be able to do the Zoom part first. What we really hope to do is have an announcement early in the new year. The proposed start date is July 1. That’s the goal. I’m encouraged because so far we’ve met every goal on our timeline. I don’t anticipate that changing, but you never know. 

It has just been an incredible privilege to do this, to give back to Sewanee in this way, to be part of the search. I think that I was here in the fall for one of the listening sessions. I was able to sit at a table in front of facilities management and talk about what they were looking for in the next vice-chancellor, what their hopes were for Sewanee. Our listening sessions were not narrowly focused. It was incredible, just so much fun. There’s a lot of people here with longevity rates. 

It’s been a privilege, I think every person serving on that committee feels that way. 

Our goal is to get it right, just to get it right for you, and for that person who works in dorms, for student success, for faculty members, for the community. We’re doing our very best to get this right. We’ve had direction from all those constituencies. Again and again we return to that profile for what people want and need. There’s no personal agenda on this committee, where I want my people to get this thing at the expense of everyone else’s thing. Whenever a church does a search, they want to find Jesus. We’re not going to find Jesus, but we’re gonna find a really great human being who’s going to love this place and help us move forward. Every candidate we’ve talked to sees that. 

What I do hope you and the rest of the community feel is how hard we worked to listen, and how hard we worked to find representation for each constituent of the committee. While I can’t tell you, you can trust that (student trustee) Pratham [Singhal (C’24)] is at the table. He’s done a phenomenal job. He’s a piece of the big Sewanee puzzle in that he’s representing the students really well and continues to have conversations with students.