The Warch Years: Not necessarily in the job description
By Margaret Carroll, ’61
Lawrence Today magazine, Spring 2004
Rik Warch’s legacy is Lawrence’s character, its ethos, its soul. His legacy is articulating Lawrence’s unwavering commitment to the liberal arts as a way of learning and a way of life. It is appreciating the joy that music brings to individuals and a civil society. It is serving the community. It is making a lifelong connection with other Lawrentians who have survived Plato’s Republic and Appleton winters. It is sometimes stepping away from the computer to reconnect with other beings and with nature. It is thriving on the diversity that is the world and ensuring equitable consideration and treatment of the world’s inhabitants. It is beautifying one’s surroundings. It is championing competitive sports and cheering on the home teams. It is finding ways to laugh when things get too serious.
The foregoing represents my own view of what Rik leaves to Lawrence as he ends his 25 years as president. As I thought about, and typed out, those words, I began to wonder how Rik himself would view his legacy and whether his perspective came close to my own. A few days later we had a wonderful, warm, sometimes sentimental, and very informative conversation on that subject.
You won’t be surprised that, asked to list the main elements of his legacy, Rik started his response with a quotation, this one from Jacques Barzun: The president’s “task is to ‘handle’ the trustees, the public, and the money. He makes speeches and contracts and signs diplomas. If, after his term of office, he has secured for the college a new gymnasium or library, he is held in as high esteem as if he had contributed an idea or an atmosphere.”
Rik acknowledges that Barzun’s statement is pretty critical of the college presidency, but you also won’t be surprised that it is the contribution of an idea and an atmosphere that he hopes will be his own legacy. First, he says, he has “tried to use Lawrence’s own history and past as a way of framing its present and future,” drawing on “the larger institutional history and trajectory, sometimes substantively, sometimes humorously.”
Second, he says, he has “tried to frame Lawrence’s circumstances in the larger context of American higher education, especially liberal education,” paying attention to “issues that are connected to Lawrence but transcend Lawrence.”
He believes it is important that the purposes of a liberal education get continually articulated, because if they’re not, the “transcending sense” of what the larger purposes are can too easily be neglected or forgotten.
He has “tried to create an atmosphere.” One way he’s done this is by maintaining the same rhythm in his convocation introductions. He always “begins with the same phrase and ends with the same phrase.” He attempts to introduce the speech, not the speaker (who is introduced in the printed program). “That rhythm provides a kind of continuity from one moment to the next,” he says. He’s done the same thing with Lawrence Today and the annual report of the president. Throughout his years, they have looked the same and had the same format, even as the content and message are new with each iteration. “Familiarity can induce a sense of stability,” he observes.
Relationships and opportunities
Then I wondered what had given him the greatest pleasure in his 25 years as president. His relationships with students, alumni, trustees, faculty, staff, for one thing. For another, the “extraordinary opportunity” to devote time to tasks such as “thinking about and preparing speeches.” This day he was about to immerse himself happily in the thoughts and writings of Steven Pinker — quite a large stack of material — as he prepared his introduction of Mr. Pinker’s convocation speech a few days later.
Rik has “loved the variety” of the job — “the number of things you have to address is so varied.” The attractiveness of the campus is high on his list — the landscaping, the signs, and his personal purview, the trash-free lawns. He has “cared for the physical place of the college.”
This time he cites Henry Wriston: “Learning, it cannot be too often repeated, is a way of life. That being so, we must pay attention to how students live. The college home is educational, or it is not….Students should be surrounded with works of artistic merit; the landscaping of the campus should not be neglected; music, poetry, drama, religious services, leisure activities of many kinds should invite appreciation.”
We turn to what he will miss the most. It’s the associations and friendships, he says with obvious feeling. He strongly hopes, though, that the friendship and loyalty he has felt from alumni and the broader Lawrence community will translate into loyalty and support for Lawrence now and into the future. He sees the growth of alumni giving during his tenure (20 percent when he arrived, closer to 50 percent today) as another piece of his legacy –– and fervently hopes we won’t stop there.
The life to come
My last question is how his own Lawrence education has prepared him for life after Lawrence. He warms to the question.
"The experience here has stimulated but not satiated my curiosity and interest in a lot of things,” he replies. Clearly he relishes the thought of having the time to pursue those interests: "I look forward to listening to opera on Saturday afternoons,” he notes, “and to learning more about music so I can appreciate it more intelligently.” He’s also intrigued with his forays into the sciences and his exposure to a wide range of disciplines and subjects. “Having the opportunity to be in touch with bright, interesting people who do bright, interesting things has certainly provided me the intellectual resources” for a stimulating and fulfilling life.
He also has in mind editing some of the speeches and addresses he’s given over the years, and he intends to write a book, with the working title Other Duties as Assigned. He says that, “truth be told, what I have found over two and a half decades is that very often it is what one does not find in the job description that can be the most fascinating and engaging and, of course, sometimes the most vexing. Put another way, the topics and issues one doesn’t expect or doesn’t want are typically the topics and issues that command an inordinate amount of one’s time.”
Then he returns to both his legacy and his future life: “The revival and extension of Björklunden is the one thing I really care about — opening it up to students and faculty for experiences and engagements beyond the classrooms, studios, and laboratories of the Appleton campus.”
His Björklunden vision
Björklunden is the beautiful and serene acreage on Lake Michigan’s shore, given to Lawrence about 40 years ago by Donald and Winifred Boynton. When the lodge at Björklunden burned irreparably in August 1993, the future of the property became uncertain at best. Most Lawrentians had never been there, many trustees knew it mostly as a deficit item in Lawrence’s financial statements, and its closest connection to the college was the series of summer seminars — some taught by Lawrence faculty members — that small groups of alumni and friends attended beginning in 1980. The trustees challenged Rik to present a vision of what Björklunden could be — “how it could fit in the overall mission of Lawrence as an undergraduate college of the liberal arts and sciences and music,” as Rik described his charge.
What he came forth with was a masterpiece titled “Autodidacts, Cyberspace, Students, and Björklunden,” a version of which became the President’s Message in the Winter 1995 issue of Lawrence Today.
"As a physical setting,” he wrote, “Björklunden provides a place that enables and encourages people to confront themselves and others on a personal scale, one that is and will be at sharp contrast to the isolation of the autodidact or the anonymity of mass culture.”
"I do not want to wax poetic and sentimental about nature and natural beauty,” he said, “nor am I about to suggest that Björklunden is a place where we hold hands in a circle and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ But we should not dismiss the capacity of Björklunden to effect in us sentiments that help make us whole. I do not want to ignore the very real sense of peace and serenity that Björklunden affords, as these human needs are met with decreasing regularity in the modern, digitized, high-tech world. As what Winifred Boynton called ‘a sanctuary for all,’ ‘far removed from confusion and aggression,’ Björklunden can serve an aspect of our mission in a distinctive and important way.”
He said that, in 1995, faculty members were already proposing “some very promising uses of the place for the teaching and learning mission of the college” and were “certain to devise many other creative proposals….”
"But my vision for Björklunden takes a different and more ambitious tack,” he continued. “I propose that Lawrence commit itself to a program that would guarantee every student an opportunity for a Björklunden experience at some point in his or her undergraduate career. Rather than leave it to the initiative of individuals or groups to go to Björklunden or to the happenstance of which faculty have integrated activities at Björklunden into their courses in which term, I urge us to explore and create ways to make Björklunden a part of what it means to be a Lawrence student and to participate in our brand of liberal education.”
He called for “broad participation of students and faculty in determining the content and contours of what I’ve called a Björklunden experience and in devising the program to deliver it.” He envisioned that “The universality of a Björklunden experience would be a common bond shared by all Lawrentians, a memorable, even a pivotal moment in their undergraduate years.”
The trustees unanimously embraced his vision, and the “Björklunden experience” is now a reality. Today, the student or faculty member who hasn’t been part of it is a rarity, and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has had the experience and doesn’t yearn for more. It is with good reason that the place has become known as the northern campus. The summer seminars also continue, with a greater and greater variety of offerings as more alumni and friends discover them and with summer extending this year into October with mid-week seminars as well. A legacy indeed.
Rik and Margot will move to their Door County home this summer, and from there he hopes to stay connected with those he has come to know and all that he has loved and savored about Lawrence.
Margaret Carroll, ’61, was an alumni trustee from 1974 to 1980 and has been a term trustee since 1982. She served as chair of the Board of Trustees from 1993 to 1995, the period during which the lodge at Björklunden burned and was reincarnated.