Foundation Representative to Lead a Hands-On College

Tim Steadman

Steven L. Solnick
April 08, 2012

All undergraduate students at Warren Wilson College work 15 hours a week for the liberal-arts institution. Their choices include the dining halls, the library, the fire crew, and the college's farm and forest. They also must perform 100 hours of similarly varied "service learning" while earning their degrees.

That "triad" of classroom instruction, workplace experience, and community service is what made Steven L. Solnick enthusiastic about assuming the college's presidency, come July.

"Those emphases teach stewardship of an institution," he says by phone from New Delhi, where since 2008 he has directed the Ford Foundation's programs in South Asia. "Warren Wilson is not a college where students spend four years as guests, receiving services from a professional staff and then learning in class. They're learning in class, but they also have ownership of the college."

Before New Delhi, Mr. Solnick spent six years with the Ford Foundation in Moscow. In both Ford jobs, he worked with nonprofit organizations and other outreach groups whose staffs were social-justice-minded people just like the ones Warren Wilson College tries to turn out, he says.

Helped by an executive-search firm, the college found him in Delhi. Its search committee was picky because it wanted to preserve and build on the gains by the incumbent president, William Sanborn (Sandy) Pfeiffer, who is retiring after six years in the job. Mr. Pfeiffer has boosted enrollment over 1,000 for the first time and lifted the endowment from $34-million to $54-million despite the economic pinch.

Mr. Solnick, who is 51, says he is glad to be returning to the United States. Asheville, N.C., the nearest town to Warren Wilson, is far from Moscow or Delhi, but he expects few adjustment pains. Colleges that boast of such goals as "sustainability decision-making" may sometimes be accused of indulging in platitudes, but Warren Wilson seems to walk the walk, or, rather, dig the organic gardens and tend the surrounding forest.

The way Warren Wilson maintains paths into the world beyond reminds Mr. Solnick of the missions of the Ford Foundation offices he led. He managed Ford programs in coordination with nonprofit organizations, donors, government agencies, and many other groups in such areas as human rights, higher education, arts and culture, media, sustainable agriculture, and reproductive health.

Along with honed management skills, Mr. Solnick has academic chops. Raised in Jersey City, N.J., he studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and political science at the University of Oxford. He earned his doctorate in political science at Harvard University, then taught at Columbia University for nine years and coordinated Russian studies at its Harriman Institute. He wrote Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions, published by Harvard University Press in 1998.

"What's interesting and attractive about this opportunity to return to academe is to do it at a place with a very strong cultural consciousness and sense of being connected to the outside world," he says. "I see that as being very much in the DNA of the college."

He may teach a course at Warren Wilson because, he says, "I'd feel somewhat handicapped if I didn't have a hand in a classroom setting." And perhaps the college's farm, whose bounty goes directly to the food halls, will beckon, and he'll end up milking a cow some morning.

Correction (12:36 p.m., 4/11/2012): A few details were in error in the original version and have been corrected. Mr. Solnick is 51, not 50. He spent six years with the Ford Foundation in Moscow, not eight. A second reference to William Sanborn (Sandy) Pfeiffer should have been to Mr. Pfeiffer, not Mr. Sanborn.