Rob Pearigen Comes Home

The 18th vice-chancellor has been here before—as a student, as a professor, as a dean, as a fundraiser. Now, with the experience of having served as president of a peer institution, it’s time for him to lead the university that has mattered so much in his life.

In mid-December last year, the day after Vice-Chancellor Search Committee Co-Chairs Mary Claire Murphy and the Rev. Canon Katie Pearson called Rob Pearigen to let him know that he was the committee’s choice to be put forward for election by the Board of Trustees, Pearson emailed Pearigen to share a blessing from one of her favorite books. The Irish poet, priest, and philosopher John O’Donohue’s “For a Leader” begins:

May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.

May you be hospitable to criticism.

May you never put yourself at the center of things.

May you act not from arrogance but out of service.

No doubt O’Donohue’s words offer excellent guidance for anyone in a new leadership position, but Pearson shared the blessing for another reason: because, she wrote, “it describes you so well.” Like the generations of students, alumni, employees, and families who have come to know Pearigen at Sewanee and at Millsaps College, where he served as president, Pearson felt like he already embodied O’Donohue’s wishes for a new leader. By her reckoning, he has grace and wisdom. He is hospitable to criticism. He acts out of service and prefers not to center himself in any conversation. 

For all of his experience, it’s really these qualities that inspired many in Pearigen’s circle, and many who aren’t, to encourage him to apply for the vice-chancellorship when the role opened up with the departure of 17th Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety in late 2021. 

But Pearigen was a reluctant candidate. He’d been at Millsaps for 12 years, and while his administration had made significant headway in addressing some of the college’s most pressing challenges, he knew there was still work to be done. He and his wife, Phoebe, had found a place where they could make a real difference and had, in turn, been embraced by both the Millsaps community and the city of Jackson, Mississippi, where Millsaps is located.

On the other hand, Sewanee was home. And, in the end, there was little chance that Pearigen wouldn’t heed a call to come home and lead the institution that had shaped him as a student and that he had later helped shape as a dean, professor, and vice-president. 

Pearigen’s Sewanee story starts at a high school college night in the fall of 1971. As a senior, he had been elected student body president at Overton High School, a large public school in Memphis, and he took his position as a representative of the institution seriously. He wandered the hallways, welcoming the college admission reps who had come to recruit students and making sure they were taken care of. Pearigen noticed one rep who was alone in a classroom, not a single bright-eyed prospective college student in sight. He felt sorry for the guy, who turned out to be Sewanee Director of Admission Albert Gooch.

The two had a pleasant conversation, and Pearigen learned a little about a small liberal arts school on the Cumberland Plateau. A few days later, he received a letter from Gooch, and a phone call soon after that. Before he knew it, the student body president was visiting the Mountain, and his idea about attending Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) or Ole Miss were gone with the fog that shrouded the Sewanee campus on the day of his visit. “I remember walking up to the Quad and saying, ‘This just looks like college,’” Pearigen says. “’This looks like where I should be.’"

Rob Pearigen grew up in Memphis, the second of four brothers born to a pharmacist father and a mother who worked as a nurse in a cardiologist’s practice. His paternal grandfather was a small-town Methodist minister, and life in the close-knit family revolved around education, church, sports, and one another. The Pearigens’ house, with its pool table in a large playroom and backyard swimming pool, was a gathering place not just for the family, but for the boys’ many friends.

When Pearigen wasn’t at school or enjoying time with friends and sports, he could be found behind the counter at his father’s drug store, where he worked summers and weekends. “My parents instilled a strong work ethic in us,” he says. That work ethic included one occasion when Pearigen and his father painted the drug store after closing up shop for the day at 9 p.m. And it included never closing early. “There’d be times when nobody was in the store, not a single customer five minutes before 9,” Pearigen says. “I’d say, ‘Dad, there's nobody here. You think we can get in the car and go home?’” His father replied, “No. Someone may need us at the last minute. We close up and go home at 9.”

“Sewanee lit an intellectual fire for me in ways that I had not really had before.”

Pearigen brought that deeply ingrained work ethic to his studies at Sewanee. A political science major, he says he took as many English and history courses as he did poli sci classes, in part thanks to a number of favorite professors—John Reishman, Willie Cocke, and Brinley Rhys in English; Joe Cushman, Anita Goodstein, and Charles Perry in history; and Gil Gilchrist,  Bob Keele, and Red Lancaster in political science. And those faculty members inspired a new love of learning for him. “Sewanee lit an intellectual fire for me in ways that I had not really had before,” he says. “It became a place of true significance in terms of intellectual growth and learning for learning's sake.”

Pearigen’s Sewanee was a place where there was little separation between the life of the mind and the lives of students and faculty beyond the instructional setting. Students and professors formed lasting, lifelong friendships that started in the classroom and expanded from there. Bob Keele’s love of teaching constitutional law and  jurisprudence sparked a similar interest in his student, who would later earn graduate degrees in the same field of study. The two kept in touch after Pearigen graduated, and, years later, Keele was instrumental in bringing Pearigen back to the Mountain as dean of men and a professor of political science. In 2017, Pearigen delivered the eulogy at Keele’s funeral because Keele had asked him to.

Pearigen (right) with his mentor, Bob Keele, when Pearigen was dean of students and Keele was dean of the College.

Pearigen (right) with his mentor, Bob Keele, when Pearigen was dean of students and Keele was dean of the College.

Certain campus locations also played a key role in Pearigen’s Sewanee experience, both the natural—Morgan’s Steep, the Cross, Green’s View—and the constructed. He remembers Convocation Hall serving as a kind of central living room for students, and it was there that he had a life-changing late-night conversation with Richard Simmons, C’76, who would become his dear friend and would later introduce him to the woman who would become his wife. “We were talking about where we were in our faith journeys,” he says. “And I think for both of us, that night  became a really pivotal moment.”

At the time, Thompson Union was the student union, and its location across University Avenue from All Saints’ Chapel meant that student foot traffic was concentrated around the Quad. That changed when the Bishop’s Common later became the student union, and Pearigen feels like something was lost. When he became vice president for University Relations many years later, his Thompson Union office had a view of the chapel and the Quad. He says visitors would admire the view and talk about how lucky he was to have it. “And I’d say, ‘I love the office. I love the space. But this belongs to students. This is where students should be, not some cranky old vice president.’" Pearigen now says he’s happy that Biehl Commons, the new student commons that will soon open in the old Thompson Union building, will bring students and more activity back to that part of campus. In fact, Biehl Commons is the final piece of a plan set in motion in 1999 to return student activity to the center of campus. That year, the decision was made to build a new dining hall, McClurg Hall, and to place it parallel to the All Saints’ Chapel and across the street from Thompson Union, which many hoped would someday become a new center for student life. The McClurg Hall design and construction project was chaired by Pearigen.

Just as he had been president of his high school student body and would later become vice-chancellor and president of the University, Pearigen also sought out leadership roles while he was a student at Sewanee, being elected president of his fraternity and president of the Order of Gownsmen (now the Order of the Gown). “I think I ran unopposed for both positions,” he jokes. 

As a senior at Sewanee, Pearigen thought law school would be his next step after graduation. But the closer he got to leaving the Mountain, the more he began to think that the life of an attorney was not for him. He graduated and went home to Memphis without a plan. He took a job as a bellhop at the Hyatt Regency, one of the city’s two big luxury hotels, and found that the work suited him and reminded him that no job, even that of a bellhop toting suitcases around, was without importance  and opportunity. And, the skills that would later make him an effective fundraiser—an easy, self-effacing charm and the ability to anticipate the needs of others—proved useful. Hotel management noticed and started assigning Pearigen to VIP guests, including touring rock stars like the Rolling Stones, Kiss, and Ted Nugent. He has stories, he assures us, but for another time and place.

The path from hotel bellhop to dean at his alma mater includes stints as a high school English teacher and as a graduate student at Duke University, where Pearigen earned a master’s degree in political theory and a Ph.D. in public law. While working on his dissertation, Pearigen taught political science at Virginia Tech for three years, where he says he had classes of more than 200 students. Looking to get back to his roots in a small liberal arts college, Pearigen took a job at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he taught for two more years.

During Christmas break of his first year teaching in Michigan, Pearigen went home to Memphis and then to Birmingham to visit his old Sewanee friend, Richard Simmons. The two went to church together and saw a young woman Simmons had dated and had told Pearigen about. “There’s Phoebe Stone,” Pearigen remembers Simmons saying. “I’d like for you to meet her.” The two met in the church and then, Pearigen says, “Richard and I went to the parking lot, and I said, ‘Richard, I just met Mrs. Pearigen.’" 

Pearigen returned to Memphis that day, made up an excuse to pass through Birmingham on his way back to Michigan (Birmingham is not between Memphis and Michigan), and took Phoebe Stone out to dinner. They had a great date, and soon he was inviting her to visit him in Michigan. Pearigen remembers that at least one member of Stone’s family had some misgivings about this idea: “Phoebe’s  mother said, ‘You've had one date with this guy, and now you're going to go visit him? And he lives on a lake? What if he tries to drown you?’ I said, ‘Tell your mother it's January in Michigan. The lakes are all frozen.’" Stone survived the trip, and the two were married seven months later.

Pearigen got his first call to return to Sewanee—from then-Vice-Chancellor Bob Ayres—when the University was searching for a dean of men in 1987. At the time, a dean of men and a dean of women combined to serve in the role that would later become dean of students while also teaching in their respective departments half-time. At Sewanee, the dean roles were traditionally held by academics. Deans would typically serve five or so years and then return to the classroom full-time. It made sense to hire a political science professor who was also an alumnus of the College. And so, he returned to Sewanee to replace his mentor, Professor Doug Seiters, and to serve alongside another mentor, Dean Mary Sue Cushman. As had his predecessors, Pearigen taught courses in the College while serving as dean. Doing so, he says, kept him connected to the core academic mission of the College and provided an opportunity to get to know a small group of students especially well. Teaching while serving as an administrator is a practice that Pearigen has continued throughout his career.

As dean of men, Pearigen earned a reputation as a tough but fair administrator. He dealt with disciplinary issues and housing for male students, and oversaw fraternity life and the Interfraternity Council. He had been a Sewanee student and a fraternity member just 10 years before, so he knew the kinds of issues—and the kinds of characters—he’d be dealing with. “There were kids who got in trouble, and I’d go bail them out of jail,” he says. “But before we’d come up the Mountain, we’d stop at McDonald’s. I’d buy them something to eat, and we’d talk about what happened. It was a true educational moment.” One former student recalls making some bad choices, being called into Pearigen’s office, and asking if the dean was mad at him. “No, I’m not mad,” Pearigen said. “I’m disappointed.” The student says he spent the rest of his Sewanee career working to redeem himself, and ended up winning the Pearigen Award—an honor named for the dean and given for commitment to community—his senior year. Pearigen says some of the students who were the biggest challenges at the time are the ones he’s stayed closest to since they graduated.

Soon after they arrived in Sewanee, the Pearigens hosted a reception for students in Chen Hall.

Soon after they arrived in Sewanee, the Pearigens hosted a reception for students in Chen Hall.

At every step of his career in university administration, Pearigen always thought he was a few years away from returning to the classroom full-time. It just never happened. When Sewanee, under Vice-Chancellor Sam Williamson, combined the dean of men and dean of women roles into a single dean of students position, Pearigen first became associate dean for Dean of Students Mary Sue Cushman, who had served alongside him as dean of women. Upon her retirement, he became dean of students, a role he served for 14 years. Before he could make his much-anticipated move back to full-time teaching, another vice-chancellor came calling. This time it was Joel Cunningham, who needed a chief fundraiser.

Apart from holding out his hand for a tip from Mick Jagger when he was a bellhop, Pearigen had never done any fundraising and was reluctant to start at this point in his career. (“I have a hard time asking Phoebe for my allowance every week,” he says.) But a conversation with former Vice-Chancellor Bob Ayres changed the way he thought about the job. “Mr. Ayres helped me envision it—not as asking people for money, but asking people for gifts for a place they care deeply about and that has lasting value,” Pearigen says. “And then it became kind of an easy thing to do.”

He became vice president for University Relations in 2005, just after the Sewanee Call capital campaign had been launched with a $180 million goal. Much of fundraising is relational, and Pearigen had the benefit of having spent 25 years cultivating relationships with Sewanee students, alumni, and families—many of the same people he’d be seeking support from. Pearigen, his staff, and Vice-Chancellor Joel Cunningham depended on many of those relationships over the next few years to raise funds for campus improvement projects as well as endowment and scholarships. The campaign was a success, raising $190 million, topping the stated goal by $10 million. There were few blockbuster gifts to the campaign, but Pearigen is proud that there was broad participation in the campaign by alumni, parents and friends of Sewanee, with the vast majority of money raised coming in the form of smaller gifts.

On the home front, Phoebe taught dance classes (ballet, jazz, tap) in the Theatre Department and founded the Sewanee Dance Conservatory for children in the community, enrolling as many as 75 students in a year ranging from four-year-olds whom she taught to skip to high schoolers who went on to be professional dancers and dance instructors. She also created Perpetual Motion, a student organization in the College to provide performing opportunities for dancers and allow younger students to see what they were working toward in the dance studio.

Phoebe and Rob Pearigen with their children, Carolyn and Wesley, at a Sewanee athletic event.

Phoebe and Rob Pearigen with their children, Carolyn and Wesley, at a Sewanee athletic event.

The Pearigens welcomed their children, Carolyn and Wesley, into the world in 1992 and 1995 respectively, and continue to say that their children were raised and given the gift of imagination and joy by Sewanee student babysitters. With Abbo’s Alley as a magical playground and the front porch of a fraternity house as a hangout, Carolyn and Wesley were immersed in the Sewanee experience by students to whom Rob and Phoebe entrusted their childhood and with whom they remain in touch. Carolyn graduated from Sewanee in 2014 with a double major in English and art history. She earned a master’s in art history from the Courtauld Institute in London, England, and is now a middle school history teacher at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Alabama. Wes graduated from Sewanee in 2017 with a degree in geology (following in the footsteps of his godfather, Professor Bran Potter), completed a master’s of science at the Colorado School of Mines, and is now a geologist in Midland, Texas.    

With a successful capital campaign under his belt, and 18 years of higher ed experience in teaching and student affairs, Pearigen was perfectly positioned for a college presidency, and soon, an opportunity would come knocking. 

The Millsaps College presidential search committee reached out to Pearigen in the fall of 2009. He traveled to Jackson to interview for the position and to take a look around. He liked the people, he liked the place, and, most of all, he loved what he saw as an opportunity to help make a real difference in the life of the college. Pearigen recalls that newly elected Vice-Chancellor John McCardell encouraged him to stay at Sewanee. “He was incredibly gracious,” Pearigen says. “And he said to me, ‘This is my newly adopted home, but you have been birthed here, and it would be really good if you could stick around.” But, McCardell went on to express his deep respect for Millsaps and his understanding of why Pearigen would be interested in serving as president of the college. Despite the tug to remain at his alma mater and to continue to play a part in its growth and success, Pearigen says, “At Millsaps, I felt like we could make a transformative difference. It felt like a place that really needed a fresh start.”

To be sure, there were challenges to be met. Like many colleges, Millsaps faced financial constraints, and it had an endowment that was less than a quarter the size of Sewanee’s. When Pearigen got to Jackson, the college had recently spent some $30 million on deferred maintenance and building new dorms, but the money  had been borrowed and had to be paid back. Also, being “the most expensive school in the poorest state in the nation,” as Pearigen puts it, made recruiting students difficult, among both in-state and out-of-state prospects. 

But there was also a lot to work with. The school had an excellent academic reputation, outstanding faculty, and its location—across the street from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, just down the road from the state capitol and the political, economic, and cultural hub of Mississippi, and next door to an underserved community—offered a wealth of opportunities for students. Pearigen recalls a visit early in his tenure from former Governor of Mississippi William Winter, who wanted to offer his support and impress on Pearigen how important the college was in its context. “He came to see me my first week there and he said, ‘Rob, Millsaps really matters to this city and this state. What can I do to help you?’”

With Winter’s words in mind, Pearigen set about raising money for important capital projects so that the college wouldn’t have to borrow. He oversaw a comprehensive strategic plan, a redesign of the curriculum, and a significant increase in the diversity of the student body. He met with families to make the case that Millsaps was an excellent place for their students to spend four years. He remembers a Texas family whose daughter had taken a shine to Millsaps, though her dad was unsure about the choice. “The father said, ‘My daughter really wants to come here—but it’s Mississippi,’” Pearigen says. “I said, ‘Well, sir, you need to think about it in this way: Not but it’s Mississippi—but because it's Mississippi. Because she will have opportunities to make a difference, to see things, to learn things, to be involved in things that are unlike anywhere else. Because it's Mississippi." The student enrolled for the coming fall semester.

The Pearigen years at Millsaps saw $25 million in new construction, with every project fully funded. Contributions came from traditional donors as well as foundations that had never given to Millsaps before. In 2017, along with Brown University, Duke University and others, Millsaps was tapped by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) as one of the first 10 institutions in the country to host an AACU Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center (TRHT). (Sewanee was named a TRHT site in 2022.) The college produced two Rhodes Scholars in a three-year period between 2015 and 2017. And in 2022, several million dollars was raised to drill a well and create an independent water source for the college so that the city’s unreliable water system would no longer create problems for Millsaps’ students and the campus community.

“We made some major improvements on campus,” Pearigen says about his time in Jackson. “We brought in some outstanding faculty. We created new endowments. Phoebe and I  left Millsaps with a feeling of having made a difference and with friendships that will be lifelong.”

Phoebe and Rob Pearigen

Phoebe and Rob Pearigen

Just before the start of the Fourth of July fireworks show over Lake Cheston and just days into his service as the University’s 18th vice-chancellor, Rob Pearigen stood to address a gathering of Sewanee alumni under a large tent on the front lawn of the Centennial House, across Texas Avenue from Harris Stadium. “The Sewanee Club of Sewanee is the most Sewanee of all Sewanee clubs,” he quipped at the start of his talk. What Pearigen didn’t say as he offered his remarks to a friendly crowd on a warm summer night is that he might be the most Sewanee of all Sewanee vice-chancellors. 

Certainly there have been vice-chancellors who were once students of the College. And vice-chancellors who had served on the faculty and in the administration. But never before has there been a vice-chancellor who served as an administrator under three other vice-chancellors, was an alumnus, a professor, a dean of men, a dean of students, a vice-president for University Relations, and the parent of two more Sewanee alumni.

The Fourth of July Sewanee Club event was part of Pearigen’s effort to hear from as many Sewanee constituents—students, faculty, staff, alumni, families, and friends—as he can during his first 120 days in office. He’s embarked on a listening tour at events on campus and across the country, and he’s reading and responding to every response to a widely distributed survey that essentially consists of two questions: What do you love about Sewanee? And, how can Sewanee be improved? Pearigen isn’t quite ready to lay out detailed plans for his vice-chancellorship before listening intently to the hopes and concerns of people who will be affected by those plans.

Pearigen spoke at a Sewanee Club of Sewanee event on July 4, 2023.

Pearigen spoke at a Sewanee Club of Sewanee event on July 4, 2023.

“I'm always intrigued by a president who starts by saying, ‘Here's my vision,’” Pearigen says. “To me, it has to be a collective vision. And the ‘collective’ part of that equation requires listening to and learning from others.”

At the same time, Pearigen acknowledges that his long experience at the University gives him something of a head start. He knows the people, the places, the programs, and many of the issues the University is currently grappling with. “I do have the advantage of knowing the place pretty well,” he says. “A person walking into Sewanee with no prior exposure or experience would have a pretty steep learning curve.”

While he’s not ready to talk specifics until he’s had a chance to consider a wide variety of perspectives, Pearigen says that his leadership will have a singular polestar. “First and foremost, I want to ensure that everyone here understands the centrality of the student experience,” he says. “I want the students to be our fundamental priority and, from them, the academic program and our financial strength to be our focus.”

When it comes to facing that old Sewanee tension between tradition and progress, Pearigen emphasizes that the two must co-exist. He knows there are constituents who believe that Sewanee won’t be Sewanee if it changes too much or too quickly. And he knows there are others who think it can’t change quickly enough. “I want us to have a free, open, and honest exchange of ideas in which everyone's ideas are respected—not necessarily agreed with, but at least respected,” he says. “Balancing principle and progress, in my mentor Red Lancaster’s words, will enable us to achieve our boundless potential.”  

Considering the balance between principle and progress, the past and the future of the University, Pearigen refers to words from the John O’Donohue blessing that Katie Pearson sent him at the beginning of this journey. The poem asks for its blessings so that the leader to whom it is addressed will “… continue as a servant of the frontier/Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old.”

That was especially meaningful to Pearigen in thinking about his leadership at Sewanee. “That’s going to be part of my theme,” he says. “It’s a frontier. There’s a new place we’re going, but the new will be enriched by the old.”