Dr. Pearigen speaks at a Friday Forum, fall 2011
Tell us about your background and why you wanted to come to Millsaps.
I grew up in Memphis, graduated with a B.A. in political science from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and studied at Duke University where I earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in philosophy, with concentrations in political theory and constitutional law. I taught in Virginia and Michigan before serving as dean of students and professor of political science at Sewanee. I also served as Sewanee's vice president for University Relations and led the university's most recent $207 million capital campaign.
I came to Millsaps because it was a great opportunity to serve one of the outstanding colleges in our country and to help advance Millsaps as a beacon of liberal arts and business education for the next generation of leaders.
What have been your biggest challenges since assuming the presidency in 2010?
The competition for outstanding students is intense, particularly in an economic climate in which public universities are seen as costing much less. The reality, however, is that Millsaps provides generous scholarships and financial aid, and we work closely with families to make a Millsaps education possible. We also try to help families understand our exceptional value as they consider their investment in higher education; our students enjoy an intimate residential college experience, including small classes taught by professors whose highest priority is teaching. They develop life-long relationships with their professors and peers, they experience deep intellectual engagement in a caring environment, and they graduate in four years with impressive experiences and credentials.
What have you enjoyed the most?
I love being at a liberal arts college that's in the heart of the capital city of Mississippi, in the heart of the state. Many colleges are located in rural, isolated settings. At Millsaps, we have the advantage of being in the very center of public life. We're a mile north of the State Capitol with opportunities for students to connect with leaders in government and business; we're across the street from one of the finest medical schools in the country and in the middle of an extensive medical community where our students enjoy internships and fellowships; we're next door to the Belhaven community with its rich cultural and literary legacy exemplified by the Eudora Welty House; and we're across West Street from the Mid-town community where our students serve and learn from the children and families in this historic part of Jackson. In other words, every street you cross when you leave campus provides an opportunity to experience life and learning beyond the classroom.
I enjoy teaching Constitutional Law, and I love telling stories about our students and their involvement in distinctive programs like high-powered research with their professors in the science and pre-med areas, our humanities courses that take advantage of our literary and historical legacy, our 1 Campus 1 Community service opportunities in the neighborhood, our international education programs in places like London, Albania, and China, and our very own ancient Maya archeological site in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.
I also enjoy talking about the Else School of Management that is training future business leaders for ethical and successful careers. Our professors in both the business school and college have been recognized among the top 10 in the nation, and we're among only a handful of colleges that have both a Phi Beta Kappa chapter and accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. There's no better mark of excellence than that!
Millsaps has a rich history. How would you describe the Millsaps of 2012 and its role in Mississippi higher education?
Millsaps has long been known for its intellectual and moral leadership in the city and state. It's been an "honors college" well before those words were used by our fine public universities to designate specialized programs on their campuses.
We believe it's important in 2012 to be an institution that promotes intellectual freedom and social justice, that stands by the Wesleyan tradition embracing reason and faith, and that instills a commitment to civic engagement and service.
We also believe we must better prepare students for life after college. We've expanded experiential learning programs, collaborative work among students and faculty, and international education opportunities. We've also strengthened our focus on leadership and entrepreneurship, and the Else School is reaching into the community through the Business Advantage Program and our new Executive MBA to promote both learning and economic development.
Public higher education has faced budget challenges. How has the recession affected private institutions such as Millsaps?
The recession hit our endowment hard and made it difficult for families to afford private education. Consequently, we've spent more on financial aid and we've made reductions in other areas. But, it's inspired us to undertake an extensive review and cost analysis of every aspect of the College. This will serve us well for future planning.
Public universities have experienced continued rising tuition. What is the average cost of an education at Millsaps? Has it increased?
Our total cost is about $41,000, and we've kept increases in the five to six percent range. However, the cost of attending is considerably less than the sticker price with the average aid package being $22,000 and most students receiving some form of assistance. The Fiske Guide to Colleges rated Millsaps a "best buy" for its reasonable price, high academic standards, and quality of student life.
How important is financial support from private contributors and alumni?
Millsaps has been blessed by the generosity of alumni, parents, friends, and foundations. Our Board of Trustees has been especially generous. Without gifts to the college, our costs would be higher and we would be less able to provide scholarship assistance, new and inspiring programs, and support for the beautiful buildings and grounds of our campus. Preparing and transforming our next generation of leaders is expensive, but donors recognize that it's one of the most important investments they can make.
Do you have any upcoming events, programs or initiatives?
"Quest for the Lost Maya," a National Geographic documentary filmed in the Yucatan last summer and featuring the archeological project at Millsaps'4,000-acre Kaxil Kiuic reserve, will be broadcast on March 28 on PBS.
I would also mention our popular Arts and Lectures Series and our varsity teams that compete frequently on campus. Our women's basketball team is on a 13-game winning streak, our new lacrosse teams - the only varsity collegiate teams in the state - are gaining momentum, and our baseball, softball, tennis, golf, and track teams are sure to excel this spring.
Mississippi falls behind other states in the number of citizens with college degrees. As a private college leader, what do you see as needs for higher education in Mississippi?
We need to have the best and brightest students - from whatever socio-economic background - able to get a top-quality education and help make Mississippi great. Our founders in 1890 wrote into the charter a commitment to make a Millsaps education available to able Mississipians from all backgrounds, and currently 25 percent of our students come from Pell Grant-eligible families. We consider it a privilege to help students from all backgrounds achieve a Millsaps education.
We also enhance the state's K-12 education by sending well-prepared teachers from our education program into elementary and secondary schools, by partnering with public schools in important ways, and by hosting summer institutes for principals and teachers of AP courses. These initiatives will help promote educational goals of Blueprint Mississippi.
What are your goals for the future of Millsaps?
My key goals are: to reinforce Millsaps as one of the top colleges in the nation and a leader in distinctive areas of excellence; to help increase Millsaps' influence in Jackson and the region and help advance our state through support of Blueprint Mississippi; to enhance the beauty and environmental sustainability of our campus; to enhance our historic relationship with the Methodist Church and use that heritage to promote social justice and freedom of thought; and to attract great students and teach them to be knowledgeable, active and honorable leaders and engaged citizens committed to making a positive difference in the world.
What advice and counsel do you find yourself most often giving to students?
Slow down; remember who you are; carve out for yourself your own college experience.
There has been debate on the role of a liberal arts education. Is that changing?
I hope so because it's often misunderstood. While liberal arts is grounded in the classical study of the humanities, arts, and sciences and in exposure to the best that has been thought and written and performed throughout history, it also develops skills that are essential for a successful and meaningful life - skills related to critical thinking, communication, reasoning, risk-taking, and personal relationships. Along with a broad-based education, these skills make for individuals who are interesting, well-rounded, intellectually curious, and civic minded - the "complete package."
Anything to add?
Raven Scott, a junior from Boutte, Louisiana, is an anthropology major with minors in business and Faith & Work. She has studied in Tanzania and Costa Rica and she's a star player on our volleyball team. She also serves on our Strategic Planning Committee. During a recent meeting she said, "I have the resumé and the people behind me to be successful." That says it all about a Millsaps education.