From the Spring/Summer 2010 Millsaps Magazine
If he were envisioning a perfect working day, Millsaps College's 11th president, Robert W. Pearigen, Ph.D., would begin with a run in the outdoors, followed by time to prepare for his day in the quiet early hours of the morning.
Most items on Pearigen's calendar would have been set weeks in advance and would relate directly or indirectly to the strategic priorities of the College - from a planning session with his senior leadership team to a luncheon with a major donor prospect to a meeting with local business leaders. He would also arrange time on his schedule to walk about campus, engage in casual conversation with students, faculty, and staff, and take in an athletic event, attend a dramatic performance, or participate in a student-faculty forum. Ideally, his day would also include teaching a class in constitutional law or political theory.
This mix of action focused on the strategic goals of the College and interaction with people characterizes Pearigen's belief that advancement of the institution will come from both formal and informal activities, and from keeping in touch with the people who are at the heart of the Millsaps' experience.
"We must always remember," Pearigen said, "that our fundamental purpose is the education and development of our students. They must be our uncompromising focus. At the same time, we must pay close attention to the folks who make the place work - the faculty and staff. I've always tried to support and encourage the people who teach and serve our students. It's important to me that my colleagues have rewarding professional lives, and it's my hope that their work will also contribute to their personal happiness." Pearigen strongly believes that relationships built around a common cause have an enduring impact upon people, their success, and the success of the institution.
He would close his perfect day by cooking dinner on the grill for his family. There would be lively conversation around the dining room table (where the Pearigens take all their meals), and he would later read beside a glowing fire in the fireplace.
Pearigen's lifestyle is characterized by a balance of work and pleasure, with interests ranging from fine food to the history of constitutional interpretation and from fishing to reading. He recently finished Run by Ann Patchett and has started on The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, recommended by his friend Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor and Pulitzer Prize-winner. Meacham is scheduled to speak at Pearigen's inauguration on Oct. 7 in the Bowl. Rereading Eudora Welty's Thirteen Stories is next on Pearigen's list as he attempts to immerse himself in the culture of Millsaps and Mississippi.
His activities are inspired by the idea that experiences are memories in the making. A collector of worthy memories, he recalls what he said the day he met his wife, Phoebe, the details of a trip to Italy with Phoebe and their daughter, Carolyn, and the way an excursion to Cactus League baseball games with son Wesley turned into a memory-making visit to the Grand Canyon.
His vision for Millsaps carries a similar balance, but ultimately he wants the College to be - and be recognized - among the very top liberal arts colleges and business schools in the country and to be sought after by the best students and faculty. He envisions Millsaps ascending in the liberal arts arena due to the quality of the faculty and staff; a distinctive academic program that exemplifies the best in liberal arts as preparation for life; a strong sense of service and community among the Millsaps family; a campus-wide focus on excellence as well as an incredible can-do spirit among the faculty and staff; and a pervasive belief among many people including trustees, faculty, staff, and alumni, that even greater success awaits the College.
"To have that kind of enthusiasm and ambition is a strong signal of great things to come," Pearigen said. His confidence in the value of a liberal arts education grew out of his own undergraduate experience at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., as well as his post-graduate study of classical political theory, particularly the work of Plato and Aristotle, at Duke University. "I have a passionate belief in liberal arts education as intrinsically meaningful for individuals as well as being the very best preparation for a good and worthy life of learning, leadership, and service," he said.
Pearigen's extensive experience in higher education caught the attention of Presidential Search Committee Chairman Tom Fowlkes and others throughout the Millsaps community. From the classroom to administrative positions - including student life, institutional advancement, strategic planning, and admissions and financial aid - Pearigen's expertise matches well with Millsaps' historic path and its hopes for the future. "Dr. Pearigen is a powerful intellectual force and a dynamic leader with a broad range of experience in higher education," Fowlkes said. "I am confident that we have found the right person to lead Millsaps College as we reach toward an ever brighter and more promising future."
As he looks to the future for Millsaps, Pearigen envisions capitalizing upon the opportunities for the College to be a nationally recognized leader in distinctive areas of excellence where the College already possesses great strengths. These opportunities, he said, include but are not limited to international and global studies; business education through a liberal arts curriculum; community service; and vocational exploration and preparation in fields ranging from medicine to law to education.
He also will look toward advances in student recruitment and retention, increased support for faculty and staff, enhancement of the financial position of the College - particularly through growth in the annual fund and the endowment, and development of the historically rich relationship between the College and the Methodist Church. He will continue to promote Millsaps' vision of cultivating compassionate and principled citizens for a global society. "Our goal is to send graduates into the world who are loyal to their alma mater, who are leaders in their respective professions and communities, who have a high sense of honor and integrity and who are committed to helping change the world for the better," he said.
Pearigen enthusiastically anticipates life in Mississippi and Jackson. The second of four boys in a tightly-knit family, he grew up in Memphis, with north Mississippi and Sardis Lake feeling like an extension of home during his high school years. His father - a pharmacist (his mother was a nurse) - owned a drug store in Southaven, Miss., where Pearigen worked as a clerk, as he had done at his father's store in Memphis "from the time I could reach the counter and make change from the cash register." Working with
his father at nights and on weekends during junior high and high school was a formative and deeply memorable experience, he said.
Pearigen finds the cultural opportunities of Jackson appealing. "Phoebe will love the International Ballet Competition," said Pearigen of his wife of 24 years. "She is an accomplished ballerina and well-loved dance teacher. She's also very community minded, loves helping people, a great mom and wife... she's the glue of the family."
Carolyn, Phoebe, Wesley and Rob Pearigen
He counts Vaughan and Nora Frances McRae of Jackson among his dear friends. He and Nora Frances attended Sewanee together, and they and their families have remained close in the years since college. Nora Frances McRae has observed a soundness, a consistency, and a work ethic "that has never wavered" - from Pearigen's college years as president of the student body and his fraternity to his career in education. "When Rob talks to individuals in the Millsaps family, they can have confidence in what he says," McRae said. "Rob is so prepared to take on this job. Everything is in place... all the ingredients are there." He combines hard work with thoughtfulness, compassion, integrity, and humor, she said. "He is one of those individuals who is a born leader, but has taken these God-given talents for leadership very seriously all his life. He can articulate a vision and work tirelessly to make sure that vision is fulfilled with energy, creativity, and resources."
Besides ties to Mississippi, Pearigen has roots in Methodism. His paternal grandfather was a Methodist minister in small towns in west Tennessee, and his maternal grandfather was named Wesley, as is Pearigen's 15-year-old son. "My faith, my family, my mentors, and my friends are the important influences in my life," he said, "and I try to remember the words of the prophet Micah who said, 'What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.'"
The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and former chancellor of The University of the South (who received an honorary degree at Millsaps this spring) commented, "I think Millsaps has made a good choice, and I'm personally delighted that he and his family are going to be in Jackson. First and foremost, Rob Pearigen is a hard worker and a conscientious worker. Also, he is a wonderful person to get along with and enjoyable to be around." Gray, of Jackson, has served at The University of the South in several roles over the years, including that of chancellor, which is the senior religious official and ceremonial leader.
Pearigen's point of view is grounded in faith, family, and friendships and is informed by his education in political theory, his experience in higher education, and his intellectual curiosity. Optimism and humor also play a role.
He is referred to as "Sunshine" by security guards at his alma mater, because while he was Sewanee's dean of students he was "relatively pleasant" when called at home to handle student incidents during the middle of the night. He is known for wearing a coat and tie on almost all occasions, a habit he developed during his undergraduate days at Sewanee when a dress code was still enforced, as were Saturday classes.
"I'm considering introducing that dress tradition and Saturday classes at Millsaps," he said, but quickly adds, "Just kidding!"