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Warren Wilson College, started by women in 1894, announced its first female president at an enthusiastic outdoor event May 3 attended by students, faculty, staff and visitors.

Lynn M. Morton became Warren Wilson College’s eighth president. In July, she will replace Steven L. Solnick, who last year said he would be leaving in June to lead the Calhoun School in New York City.

Morton, 59, has been at Queens University of Charlotte for more than 25 years, rising from part-time instructor to provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Warren Wilson College, started 123 years ago by women as a school for Appalachian boys, has been coed since 1942. Morton faces challenges that many colleges do when many of the skills people want these days can be studied online. Enrollment at Warren Wilson has declined by about 10 percent over the last 10 years. The college currently has around 715 students.

The college started searching for its new president last semester. The search involved representatives of the faculty, staff and students, Brooke Milsaps, associate dean of community engagement and a staff representative on the search committee, told the audience May 3 before Morton was introduced. The person the search committee recommended is “the right person to lead us forward in our next chapter,” Milsaps said, someone “who gets Warren Wilson.”

Catina Bacote, a creative writing professor and a faculty representative on the search committee, said Morton had “great enthusiasm” for the college’s triad educational platform, which develops students through study, on-campus work and volunteering in the community. Bacote called Morton “an innovator and collaborator” who “takes risks when necessary.” Melvis Madrigal, a student on the search committee, said Morton shared “the love and devotion we all have for Warren Wilson.”

The search for the new president generated “an immense response,” said Bill Christy, a Black Mountain resident who chairs the college’s board of trustees. In March, the search committee had whittled the list to four candidates. Each spent two days on campus, meeting the people who work and study there.

“You all helped us determine who was the right person to lead” the college, he told the crowd. “We made the right choice,” he said as Morton, out of view of the pavilion where the announcement was made, readied to walk to the lectern to address the crowd.

Morton, a native North Carolinian whose father taught his three daughters to hike and camp in the state’s mountains, called her move to the area “a homecoming.”

“I do have a confession to make up front – I’m in love with you,” she told the audience. “Do not for one minute doubt you are a special place. While many schools struggle to make themselves distinctive, you have that nailed down.”

Morton recounted her two-day visit to campus as one of the four candidates. She talked about being impressed by the farm crew’s swinging axes and by a top scholar’s operating a backhoe. She talked about the campus’ fortunate location between growing Black Mountain to the east and “wildly creative and sassy fun” Asheville to the west.

She called Asheville and Warren Wilson College “siblings” who are “wild and funky.” She hopes to create more connections between the city and the college’s academic programs, starting with a strong emphasis on the liberal arts.

The freedom to speak one’s mind during a time of extreme divisiveness is possible if “we can find connection and tools for dialogue,” Morton told the audience. A democracy celebrates its people's differences, and the path of higher education is to seek solutions that enable people of opposing minds to understand each other, she said. Higher education should teach students to listen to people whose views run counter to their own, she said.

“We cannot be on one mind. We must be of many minds,” Morton said.

That said, she said she has advised students not to be so open minded “that your brains fall out.” But listening is key to learning, she said.

In a press release issued by the college, Morton said she viewed the college’s website last year on the day Warren Wilson announced it had hired a search firm to find its next president. “It was incredible,” she said in the release. “From that moment, I wanted this presidency and resolved to do my very best to show what a good fit this would be for both the college and me.”

Christy, in the press release, said Morton stood out in the search process.

“We were looking for someone who had a high emotional quotient and would be able to understand the unique qualities of the Warren Wilson College community,” he said. “Lynn’s warmth, clarity of vision, experience in academia and ability to communicate clearly and effectively with diverse constituencies made her an obvious choice for the presidency. Plus, she genuinely wants to be part of this college.”

Morton holds degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of South Carolina, which is where she earned her Ph.D. in Renaissance literature.

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