Warren Wilson names 10th president, its 1st Latino and openly gay top leader

Karrigan Monk
Black Mountain News
Dr. Damián J. Fernández will be Warren Wilson's tenth president, effective June 1.

Warren Wilson College will have a new president come June 1, Dr. Damián J. Fernández.

“I’m ecstatic,” Fernández said. “I’ve had a crush on Warren Wilson for many years and all of a sudden I’m president, so one is doing the happy dance.”

Fernández comes to Warren Wilson as its 10th president from Eckerd College in Florida where he served as president.

He began his teaching career at Colorado College in 1986 and went on to serve at other small liberal arts colleges like Warren Wilson as well as public research universities like Pennsylvania State University and Florida International University. He has also been the head of school at Fieldston School in New York City.

“I’ve been provost, I’ve been chancellor, I’ve been president,” Fernández said. “Now I am joining Warren Wilson. My experience has been wide-ranging in terms of beginning as a faculty member and racing through the ranks until becoming president.”

In total, Fernández has more than three decades of experience. A first-generation college student, he is a Cuban immigrant who grew up in Puerto Rico. According to Director of Communications Mary Bates, this makes Fernández Warren Wilson’s first Latino president. She said he is also the college’s first openly gay president.

Fernández said he is excited to join Warren Wilson.

“Warren Wilson is a place that engages students in the real world,” Fernández said. “Engaging students in the real world is the best way to learn. This is liberal arts for the here and now, and research shows that students get better outcomes when they are very much involved in their own learning.”

Warren Wilson is one of nine colleges in the country where students are required to work on campus in exchange for money toward their tuition. Students are also required to engage in community service, something Fernández said goes hand-in-hand with academics.

“It’s also a place that brings academic and education into service, and I think that’s a moral imperative,” Fernández said. “To realize that there is something higher and bigger than oneself. I think Warren Wilson does that very well. It brings excellence, and it also brings access. We are a place that is open to students regardless of background economics.”

Fernández said he has big plans for the college. He said he wants Warren Wilson to be known as “the liberal arts college of the future” and teach students by doing. He said he also wants to further the connection the college has with the community in addition to changing the business model for a small liberal arts college.

“We need to be entrepreneurial,” Fernández said. “We need to seek partnerships. We need to be creative in funding.”

For Fernández, he said it is important to keep liberal arts “impactful,” and he can do that by facing any challenge Warren Wilson has head-on and seeing them as opportunities rather than challenges.

He also said it is important for him to keep Warren Wilson accessible to all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status or other identities.

“I also want to make sure that we open our doors as wide as possible for students of talent, regardless of their means,” Fernández said. “I myself am a first-generation college graduate. I know that if you can provide students the opportunity to learn, they will thrive. I want to be that democratic place that welcomes all these different students with talent to explore their potential and to deliver on that potential.”