Dr. Rob Pearigen (C ‘76), now Vice-Chancellor Pearigen (or VCP as students fondly refer to him), is back on the mountain after a 13-year hiatus. In the aftermath of three COVID years in Sewanee, Pearigen hopes to restore connections between the community’s various groups, something Sewanee was once known for. If you see the vice-chancellor on campus, he welcomes a passing hello from students, faculty and staff alike.
The Purple held a welcome interview with Pearigen in the beginning of the school year and asked him what some of his goals were for the upcoming year. “Connecting and reconnecting,” he said. “Reconnecting with folks we know and programs we know, and connecting anew with new folks, including new students.” Before serving as the president of Millsaps for 13 years, the VC served as Sewanee’s vice president for five years and, before that, dean of students for 18 years. Pearigen graduated from Sewanee in 1976, then earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Duke University in constitutional law and political theory.
Pearigen recognizes that the University has changed drastically since he was last here and hopes to learn about all of the new organizations and student groups. When Pearigen left for Millsaps, some of Sewanee’s larger organizations and projects did not yet exist, such as the Roberson Project and the Sewanee Integrated Program in the Environment.
The University’s strategic plan, which has been on hold for a year and a half while the University searched for a new vice-chancellor, “will set the direction of the institution going forward […] The goal is to keep our students at the center of what we do,” said Pearigen. The vice-chancellor often reiterates his desire to keep students at the center of the University’s mission when addressing an audience at Sewanee, and he did so twice in this interview with The Purple.
He also discussed the desire to increase diversity on campus–an initiative that the Office of Admissions has been pursuing for some time. “I’d love to think that this institution will look more and more like the diverse world in which we live–the students, the faculty, the staff. We’ve got work to do to embrace this diversity and to ensure that all voices are heard and respected,” said Pearigen.
Pearigen hopes to integrate the domain into the curriculum to the fullest extent, saying that we should take advantage of the unique campus we call home. “I’ve talked a lot about making sure that we’re taking advantage of this incredible domain of ours. This 13,000-acre laboratory, playground, sanctuary–there’s nothing like it on the planet. A lot of the students in the sciences are connected [to the domain], but are there ways that history students and English students and all of us can somehow have a curricular connection to this domain? What can we do to magnify the domain through our academic program?” he said.
During the signing of the Honor Code for first-year students in August, Pearigen presented the class with a challenge. When walking to and from class, McClurg, the library, or wherever one might be headed, Pearigen challenged the first-years to stay off their phones and embrace the passing hello that has always been prevalent at Sewanee. Pearigen even said that if students caught him on his phone while walking that he would donate $100 to their favorite charity. Pearigen calls the whole campus to “enjoy the company” of those you walk with everyday on the sidewalks.
He said he is planning to teach a class next year to stay connected with students and the heart of the academic mission of the University. Over the past few years, students and faculty have been struggling to build relationships like those so often idealized by alumni. This is, in part, due to COVID. “Phoebe [Pearigen’s wife and former Sewanee professor] and I have always had students come through our homes over the years. So many of the alums that we’ve seen in the past couple of months have commented on being at our home, at our dining room table, out on our porch. That’s what really builds relationships.”
However, a major obstacle to this relationship building is the housing crisis that faculty are facing. Since a large percentage of Sewanee faculty live off the mountain, some as far away as Chattanooga or Nashville, providing them with housing on campus will allow them to more easily participate in student life outside of the classroom. “That large number [of faculty living outside of Sewanee] really begins to wear on the fabric of our community.” He adds the caveat that for some, however, living off the mountain is the right choice for their families.
Pearigen makes it clear that making available housing for faculty who want to live on the Mountain is a primary goal for his tenure. The vice-chancellor mentions that five new houses were built and will be available for only faculty or staff through a lottery system. There is also discussion of an apartment complex on the highway and Pearigen says “we’ll hear more about that soon.”
At its heart, Sewanee is a liberal arts college, providing students with unique academic and social opportunities. It is difficult not to run into a friend while in the library, at McClurg, or going to class. Pearigen recalls when he was a student, he had two separate carrels in the library. “I had two carrels when I was here, one where I would go when I really needed to study, and nobody knew where it was. The other was where I went when I knew I wanted to go do something, because I knew within five minutes someone would come and grab me,” he said. He compared his carrel experience to that of first-floor studying in the library–perhaps more social than academic. This, current students know, hasn’t changed much.