Solnick to step down as Warren Wilson College president

Black Mountain News

Warren Wilson College President Steven Solnick announced he is leaving the school next year to take a job with a private day school in New York City.

William “Bill” Christy, chairman of the college's board of trustees, said a search committee has been formed and will work with a search firm. The board hopes to have Solnick's successor in place by July 1, 2017, Christy said.

In a letter to the Warren Wilson campus, Solnick said that just before fall break he accepted the job as head of the Calhoun School, a pre-K through grade 12 school. His resignation is effective June 30 of next year.

“This decision was difficult for me because I believe deeply in the mission and values of Warren Wilson College and I know it has a bright future,” Solnick said in the letter. “I am grateful to the board of trustees for the trust it placed in me and the unwavering support it has shown since my arrival.”

“This opportunity to return to New York," he added, "was too rare and compelling to pass up.”

Solnick took over as Warren Wilson president in July 2012, replacing former president Sandy Pfeiffer, who retired after six years as president.

At Warren Wilson, Solnick was instrumental in creating Warren Wilson’s strategic plan. That plan has focused on strengthening academics and rethinking how the college’s service learning programs fit together “under the umbrella of applied learning,” Solnick told The Asheville Citizen-Times. Solnick said he’s also proud of the work of Warren Wilson “to move (the college’s) investments in line with its values.”

"He (Solnick) really understood the transformative force of the liberal arts, especially when they are combined with what we call applied learning," said Gary Hawkins, associate dean for faulty at Warren Wilson. Hawkins pointed to grants the college has received during Solnick's tenure, as well as the college's strong showing among national rankings.

Paula Garrett, Warren Wilson's vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, said Solnick will be remembered "for his commitment to the intellectual life on campus. He has certainly elevated the level of debate, of serious intellectual inquiry,” Garrett said.

Solnick said the search firm for the Calhoun School reached out to him.

"Sometimes opportunities come at unexpected times from unexpected directions," he told The Black Mountain News in a written response to submitted questions, "but as I got to know the (Calhoun) school, my wife and I found the opportunity really attractive. It’s a place that shares many of the values and the mission of Warren Wilson – commitment to social justice, progressive education, community engagement. And it was an opportunity to move back to New York where I have family, and we’re a lot closer to my wife’s family. That, ultimately, was what was compelling."

Solnick came to Warren Wilson College from New Delhi, where he served as representative of the Ford Foundation. He previously worked as an associate professor of political science at Columbia University and coordinator for Russian studies of its Harriman Institute.

"We’ve enjoyed Asheville, Swannanoa, Buncombe County – everything about it," Solnick told the Black Mountain News. "The college is deeply engaged in the whole community. We’ve enjoyed the landscape. We’ve enjoyed the people. Our kids have had a wonderful experience growing up here and going to Asheville High. We’ve enjoyed the food. We’ve enjoyed the craft. Above all, we’ve enjoyed the college and being part of that community of students and faculty and staff and alums who love this place, and we’ll miss it.

The job at the Calhoun School will allow him to be closer to family. "I grew up in Jersey City just across the river," he said. "I attended a Saturday morning program in New York at Columbia when I was in high school. I have a lot of family in New Jersey, New York – in all five boroughs, in fact. My wife’s family is in Massachusetts, just a four-hour drive away. There’s a lot of family pull and history for me in that area.

"I consider myself incredibly fortunate and privileged to have been in this community and have this opportunity. I think it’s humbling to see the kind of dedication that our faculty and students have to our planet, to our future, to the cause of social justice and to the values that we share as a community. To see all the different ways in which that’s pursued is profoundly impressive. I’ve been lucky in that I came to this job out of philanthropy where I worked with social change leaders, and this was a great opportunity to continue to do that. I’m going to a place where I will continue to work with folks who share that sort of vision and value.

The Warren Wilson College board of trustees has interviewed search firms and planned to select one last week, Christy said in his letter to the college.

“The search firm will immediately begin working with the search committee and the community on the process of identifying traits that we hope that the new president embodies.”

“I think it is important to acknowledge that sudden change can be unsettling, and I know it may take some time to adjust,” Christy wrote in the letter. “I noted in April when I was elected chair that the college has faced challenges a number of times in its history and that innovation and determination have been Warren Wilson’s character traits that helped the college succeed and prosper in the face of former obstacles.”

"Life," Solnick told The Black Mountain News, "is sometimes about continuing to look at new challenges and be ready for new challenges. And this is one that’s very exciting, back in a place that we’re excited to live in again."