The Warch Years: Unamuno's difference

By J. Michael Hittle
Professor emeritus of history

Lawrence Today magazine, Spring 2004

Colleges ask much of their presidents: sharp minds; intellectual attainments; keen vision; leadership skills; high principles; fund-raising prowess; Job-like patience; political savvy; schmoozability; and, where possible, graying hair that bespeaks mature wisdom and a youthful bounce in the step that projects endless energy. That is a tall order, and the difficulties in filling it go a long way toward explaining why 25-year presidencies are thin on the ground. But, fill it Lawrence did with the selection in 1979 of Richard Warch to be the college’s 14th president. From the moment he assumed office he began to place his stamp, both in style and substance, on the whole of the college, and by the end of his first decade or so in office, the basic lineaments of what might now be called the Warch Era were firmly in place. The story of those first years has much to say to anyone who would understand a rare achievement.

President Warch came on board in difficult times for the nation, for higher education, and for Lawrence. The turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s had called into question almost every institution of American life, including the private college. At Lawrence, budgetary difficulties, enrollment fluctuations, and a reduction in the size of the faculty had eroded institutional self-confidence.

The temptation to retreat into the ivory tower and lick societal, institutional, and personal wounds was great. Drawing on his experience and expertise as an historian of American higher education, Rik, however, took the opposite tack. In his first matriculation convocation speech, “Unamuno Begs To Differ,” he reminded the university community that “there is a city, a nation, and a world of which we are an integral part” and called for Lawrence to take an active role in shaping them. But it was his ringing endorsement of liberal education, understood as a powerful synergy of intellect and values, that stood at the center of his remarks on that occasion.

    “We protect free inquiry because we value freedom. We insist on precision because we cherish truth. We endorse an honor system because we are a community of trust. We foster cogent expression because society needs clear thinking. We employ high standards because we desire excellence. And we teach classics, political modernization, genetics, topology, aesthetics, art, literature, developmental psychology, macro-this and micro-that, and a wide variety of other subjects and methods because we affirm that coming to terms with and attaining mastery of the richness and diversity of achievements and knowledge bring us closer to the full possibilities of our humanity and hence capacitate us to act humanely. We receive light so that we may radiate warmth.”

For President Warch, those who taught served purposes beyond the generation and dissemination of knowledge within the academy, and those who learned faced the expectation that they will become citizens who act “intelligently and responsibly.” Liberal education, traditionally understood, if contemporaneously practiced, was alive and well at Lawrence.

These remarks, and like-minded ones that followed over the months and years, played an extremely important role in the Warch presidency. By placing Lawrence in its national context and by reaffirming the higher purposes of liberal education, President Warch set before the college a renewed vision of itself — as a regional liberal arts college of national stature. The pursuit of that vision became and remained an integral part of Lawrence for a quarter of a century. Moreover, his unflagging support of teaching and learning within and among the disciplines of the liberal arts made it clear that, under his watch, Lawrence would never succumb to creeping vocationalism or similar diversions of purpose. That assurance was surely Rik’s greatest gift to the faculty, for it made Lawrence a secure place for teaching and research in the liberal tradition and, in so doing, honored the faculty’s highest values.

A breath of new life
Rik’s words clearly energized Lawrence, but his actions spoke even more loudly. Guided by a strong understanding of the crucial interplay of the university’s many constituencies and of the need for excellence in each of them, he set about the task of breathing new life into seemingly every nook and cranny of the college.

In anticipation of the capital campaign that everyone knew had to happen soon, he set in motion a reorganization and expansion of the development office. He also reached out to the college’s alumni, whose enthusiastic participation in any campaign was crucial to its success. His frequent visits to alumni groups across the country decisively boosted new initiatives by the alumni office, initiatives that were to lead to unprecedented levels of alumni participation in the life of the college.

On campus, the perplexing issues of admissions and retention regularly drew the president’s attention and involvement. At his direction, the college undertook studies, engaged consultants, convened committees, and reorganized the admissions office and the Office of Student Life — though the problems that prompted such activity proved surprisingly persistent.

In dealing with student life, the president was guided by an unwavering commitment to the residential college as a place where living and learning were inseparable and where a closely knit community provided the context for individual growth. The University Convocation series, which has brought to the Lawrence family and the Fox Cities some 150 distinguished speakers since its inception, might well be regarded as the signature expression of Rik’s sense of community — though one might also cite in this regard the Buchanan Kiewit Center, the first construction project of his presidency, which afforded students, faculty, and staff a top-flight recreational facility in the heart of the campus.

Boldness in the curriculum
President Warch early on called for a review of the curriculum and counseled “boldness” in doing it. With an occasional nudge from the president — here a reminder of current trends in higher education, there a warning against “curricular log-rolling” — the faculty gradually worked out and then approved a new set of general education requirements, one that was more exacting than the divisional requirements it replaced.

Shortly thereafter, again with the strong encouragement of the president, the faculty restored a second term to Freshman Studies (following a few years’ absence, a one-term version of Freshman Studies had been reinstituted during Rik’s stint as academic dean). Taken together, these changes in the common expectations that Lawrence held for all its students formed the basis of a coherent academic program that enjoyed strong faculty support and that could be effectively articulated to prospective students, foundations, and potential donors alike.

The arts received particular attention during the president’s first decade. To help the conservatory remain competitive for students in certain instrumental areas, President Warch authorized, in spite of budgetary limitations, a modest increase in the size of the conservatory faculty. That step not only met immediate needs, but it also laid the groundwork for a subsequent major transformation of the scale of the conservatory’s operations. Also in these years, the first steps were taken in a campaign to replace the old chapel organ with a new tracker organ.

The art department, which had long struggled with the limitations imposed by a building designed for purposes of another time, was to be the beneficiary of the first academic building to go up during the Warch Era. The Wriston Art Center reinforced the college’s long-standing commitment to the integration of studio art and art history and brought to the fore the university’s fine — and growing — permanent collection. The old adage that all a college needs is a log with a teacher on one end and a student on the other has its charm, but in fact contemporary higher education demands sophisticated facilities. The Wriston Art Center was but the first in a series of new instructional buildings and renovated older ones undertaken during President Warch’s tenure in office.

Style commensurate with quality
Whether dealing with external or internal constituencies, President Warch sought to infuse Lawrence with a heightened sense of style, one that would be commensurate with the underlying quality of the college’s educational program. Formal occasions — receptions in the Teakwood Room, dinners in the Barber Room, evenings at the President’s home — fairly sparkled with well-catered meals and excellent entertainment by conservatory students and faculty. University publications, from Lawrence Today to special fund-raising documents, took on a fresh aspect. Innovative landscaping created new spaces, changed vistas, and brought color to the campus. Uniformly designed signs guided visitors. Paint from decorators’ palettes brightened building interiors. And, to the faculty’s delight, premium liquors appeared at the president’s term-end receptions.

Of course, most of these stylistic enhancements were aimed at conveying an image of Lawrence to the outside world, but they also affected the way in which those on the inside viewed themselves. A college that could do things right was a college with which one could proudly associate.

One might argue that the crowning achievement of President Warch’s first decade was Lawrence Ahead, an ambitious capital campaign whose goal of 35 million dollars far exceeded that of any fund-raising effort previously undertaken by Lawrence. The achievement lay not just in meeting and then surpassing the goal by some five million dollars, but also in the way in which the entire community — animated by a renewed sense of itself and its purpose — joined in the effort. The Board of Trustees shouldered the ultimate responsibility for this huge step forward. The faculty helped to shape the programmatic goals of the campaign and represented the academic enterprise to select groups of potential donors. The development office, ably assisted by the alumni office, carried the main burden of the campaign, though all branches of the administration were, at one time or another, called upon to support the effort.

The driving force behind the campaign, however, was President Warch. From his early — and successful — visits to the Joyce and Mellon Foundations, through numerous on-campus fund-raising programs, to his final road trips to secure goal-breaking pledges, the president proved himself an eloquent, persuasive, and tireless spokesman for Lawrence. When he announced to the faculty in February of 1987 that the campaign had reached 35 million dollars and that the goal would be raised another five million dollars, he received a burst of applause of a kind rarely heard in that setting.

Yet the President knew, as welcome as the campaign’s success was, that the financial pressures bearing down on higher education were about to render capital campaigns continuing, rather than episodic, undertakings. As he had remarked, light-heartedly, to the faculty in the previous year, "Lawrence Further Ahead" was not far off. Still, demanding as the future would be, the pattern had been set, and the confidence gained, for another round.

Wit and wisdom from the fishbowl
The breadth of President Warch’s activities and the range of his accomplishments might be accounted for by the following formula: words, wit, and work — galvanized by total dedication to and enthusiasm for Lawrence University.

Ensconced in a fishbowl of an office at the front of Sampson House, he produced, now in “high institutional style,” now in a warm personal style, but always carefully crafted, a vast body of writing. The administrative memos, letters to patrons, notes to faculty members, statements about liberal education, remarks for faculty meetings, speeches for audiences on and off the campus, etc. that came from the president’s word processor — however varied in style, tone, and purpose — all reflected his resolute commitment to liberal learning and his unwavering confidence in the members of the Lawrence community to deliver same.

That President Warch managed to write so much in an office whose location fairly advertised accessibility and invited drop-in visits from faculty, administrators, and students remains something of a wonder, but the fishbowl office worked two ways, for what might be termed “pounceability” (the reverse of accessibility) redounded to the president’s favor. On spying a passerby with whom he wished to converse, the president leapt from behind his desk, raced to the front steps of Sampson House, and hailed the unsuspecting party. In fair weather, the president and his prey might be seen chatting away on the walkway to Sampson House, their conversation interrupted only by the president’s occasional sorties to pick up odd bits of litter and deposit them in a nearby waste container. Many an innocent trip to the union for a cup of coffee ended thus.

The wit that the faculty had come to know during Rik’s two decanal years continued unabated in his presidency. Presiding at his first faculty meeting, he thanked — tongue firmly in cheek — the former vice president for academic affairs (himself!) for his diligence in preparing a draft of the faculty handbook. Two months later at his formal installation the president, himself the object of some learned roasting by a former mentor, turned the tables with an hilarious recounting of his mentor’s lecturing style. But it was the president’s artful practice of badinage that best expressed his wit and that served him so well with every constituency. Whether a situation was relaxed or formal or fraught with tension, he seemed to know just when a bit of banter could enliven a moment, put someone at ease, or diffuse a conflict. At times he pushed limits, for banter can also be a weapon of attack; but he very rarely stepped over them.

For the faculty, especially those whose fondness for verbal facility knows no bounds, the opportunity to have a good go with Rik was highly prized, and even losing encounters with him were often retailed with delight. To wit: one senior faculty member, known at times to be a bit of a thorn in the administrative side, told President Warch that he would retire forthwith if he could retain his office until he died. Without missing a beat, the president asked in response, “Does it have to be a natural death?” Such wit served to demystify the presidency even as it put the community on notice that the president could play a winning game in anybody’s house.

And then there was work — and more work. The lights frequently stayed on in the fishbowl office until the wee small hours, and then they sometimes reappeared in the library at 229 North Park. The writing was job enough, but it had to be worked in amongst endless meetings, public appearances, travel, and the handling of crises great and small.

Making decisions, of course, is at the heart of a college president’s work, and Rik approached the presidency as an adherent of the maxim that enjoins one to make reversible decisions quickly, irreversible ones slowly. Even though events tended to frustrate that maxim — nearly every decision seemed to work itself into the latter category — he strove always to do the right thing both for individuals and for Lawrence and struggled over those moments when the two seemed in conflict. The president’s thinking time was also work.

Dedicated to Lawrence…and Lawrentians
If his labors bespoke his dedication to Lawrence, President Warch’s palpable delight in the achievements of all Lawrentians attested to his enthusiasm for the place. He was genuinely excited by news of faculty scholarly publications, fellowships, and performances, as well as by news of student academic and co-curricular successes. And anyone who ever observed President Warch pace about, writhe, and cheer at an athletic contest might well think that he was the prototype for the phrase, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Given his strong sense of community, the attainments of any Lawrentian reflected well on the whole enterprise; for the president, nothing could better vindicate the college’s purpose.

Without question, the first decade of Rik Warch’s presidency was a whirlwind of activity, one that swept up to good purpose all of Lawrence’s constituencies. To be sure, not every initiative was fully realized, not every problem was solved, and some new issues emerged to claim space on an already crowded agenda. But the accomplishments were many, substantive, and decisive in bringing the university through difficult times. In those years of ceaseless action, President Warch, by exhortation and by example, challenged the Lawrence community to become the best that it could be. The community responded, and Lawrence experienced a well-deserved revival of spirit and fortune. A 25-year presidency was in the making.


J. Michael Hittle witnessed the first years of the Warch presidency at close range, serving as dean of the faculty from 1980 to 1988. He joined the Lawrence faculty in 1966 and retired as professor emeritus of history in 2001.

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