Sewanee alumnus and veteran administrator Rob Pearigen will return in July as Sewanee’s 18th Vice-Chancellor, following a January 26th Board of Trustees vote. Bells pealed across campus as a crowd of staff, alumni, faculty, friends, and students cheered on Pearigen’s introduction at Dupont Library.
Dr. Pearigen’s election came after a year long search following the resignation of 17th Vice Chancellor Reuben Brigety. The 20-member VC search committee included alumni, students, staff, and faculty from across the Sewanee community. Mary Claire Murphy and Reverend Katie Pearson, both alumni, co-chaired the committee. Pratham Singhal, C ‘24, an international student from India, the search committee’s student representative, praised Pearigen’s warmth and willingness to engage one-on-one. “After our interview, he approached me,” Singhal said, “I told him that I have so many friends who go to Millsaps who went to my high school, and he knew the names of all four of those international students that I was talking about. That was something that really stood out to me.”
Pearigen graduated from Sewanee in 1976, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors and a degree in political science after serving as a proctor and president of the Order of the Gown. Pearigen returned in 1987 as Dean of Students and member of the political science faculty and later served as the University’s chief fundraiser and vice president of university relations. Pearigen’s wife, Phoebe Pearigen, worked as a dance professor at Sewanee, and their children are also both Sewanee alumni.
In 2010, Pearigen became the president of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Millsaps took notice of Pearigen’s successful fundraising campaign for Sewanee which amassed $206 million in three years, exceeding Sewanee’s $160 million goal.
Pearigen began his Millsaps presidency with the goal of increasing diversity. When he arrived at the Mississippi college in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS Data Center, Millsaps’ 1,024 students included 11.81% people of color. Although the Methodist liberal arts college’s enrollment has fallen to 705 students as of the 2021-22 academic year, 29.8% are people of color. Amid shrinking enrollment, Pearigen was forced to enact budget cuts at Millsaps in the 2019-2020 academic year, cutting some majors and programs altogether and reducing others to minors. Pearigen also faced crises ranging from the Covid pandemic to an ongoing water failure in the city of Jackson. After the school was forced to bring in portable showers and bathrooms and pause in-person classes, Pearigen initiated a $4.1 million project last year to install two water wells and create a stand-alone water supply for Millsaps’ central-city campus.
On the Mountain, the search for a new VC included surveys and listening sessions with members of the Sewanee community. The search committee received over 1,000 responses – which the committee’s leaders said was a national record for the search firm hired to assist in the selection process.
“It was very important to our committee to engage with and get feedback from the entire Sewanee community,” said Murphy, “and it was a variety of feedback: an academic leader, an appreciation for our Episcopal identity, someone who understands and will live EQB with us, an experienced fundraiser, and, more importantly, a love of students.”
The committee’s co-chair said Sewanee’s search process prioritized someone who had experience increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Pearigen said to hundreds gathered in the library to hear him speak that “Sewanee can and must dwell together in unity in a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.”
After speaking, Pearigen stayed in the library to visit with the Sewanee community. Most of the attendees at last Thursday’s announcement were alumni and friends of the vice chancellor-elect rather than current students. The low turnout could have been due to students and faculty alike not receiving any information about the trustee vote, announcement and reception for Pearigen until only a few days before it took place.
While some in the community are excited to have an alumni with decades of both teaching and administrative experience, others voiced concern that the choice was a safe one. A number of students and faculty said they had hoped for a woman or a person of color – a leadership choice that would have mirrored trends in other prominent liberal arts institutions across the country.
“We intentionally wanted to emphasize the DEI efforts in alignment with Sewanee’s work in the past few years. Unfortunately, we did not get the diversity we expected or wanted in our applicant pool, so we unfortunately did not meet that goal we were looking for. But gender, race, and identity were not criteria for us. Our main focus was solely on their qualifications, their functioning as a leader. In the end, it would be unfair if we were not taking someone who was qualified and fit all the criteria. And Dr. Pearigen fits every last criteria,” said Singhal.
He noted that the committee’s focus was on Sewanee’s four pillars chosen during a recent strategic planning initiative – DEI, student success, economic development and stewardship of the doman – plus a fifth element crucial to the University’s future, fundraising. “We were looking for someone who can equally balance these. Pearigen really fit in,” Singhal said. “He brings in that perfect amalgamation of knowledge of what Sewanee was and what it can be while still embracing its culture, traditions, and values.”
The University posted a number of statements from search committee members praising the vice-chancellor-elect on Sewanee’s website on Thursday afternoon. “[Dr. Pearigen] brings a deep understanding of and appreciation for the liberal arts and for Sewanee in particular…As vice-chancellor, Rob will be poised to do this important work—by supporting our recent efforts to foster a diverse and inclusive community, and providing the resources and infrastructure necessary to foster the kinds of lasting relationships that faculty, staff, students, and alumni cherish,” said Dr. Elise Kikis, chair of the biology department and member of the search committee.
After Thursday’s announcement and reception, Pearigen was scheduled to meet with members of Sewanee’s business community late Thursday afternoon and hold virtual meetings online on Friday with major donors. But the University’s marketing and public relations chief, Parker Oliver, declined to make Dr. Pearigen available for an interview with Sewanee’s independent student newspaper. Oliver told the Purple in an email that the vice-chancellor-elect would not talk with the Purple until “on or about his first day as Vice Chancellor, July 1.”
In his prepared speech in the library on Thursday, Pearigen told the crowd of well-wishers: “I want to be clear. For me this is not just about returning home. Just as higher education and the world around it has changed, so Sewanee is a different place than it was when I left it over a decade ago. I have accepted the call to be the next vice-chancellor, not because of nostalgia or a return to something familiar,” Pearigen said. “I accepted the call because I believe I can make a positive and meaningful impact on the Sewanee of today and the Sewanee of tomorrow.”