SCA: Special Friend Rob Pearigen’s Vision

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Some people manifest a rare combination of warmth, humor and honesty that makes others feel as though they’re in the presence of a special friend. At the Nov. 6 Sewanee Civic Association meeting, special friend and new University Vice Chancellor Rob Pearigen talked about how he experiences Sewanee, his vision for the University, and what community means to him. During the business portion of the meeting, SCA President Kiki Beavers updated members and guests on Community Chest progress and offered a glimpse inside the proposed Welcome and Heritage Center building.

“It means so much to the University to have a community behind it,” Pearigen said citing the SCA’s work and the example of the players rushing into the stands after a recent woman’s soccer match to hug the community members who cheered them on. Sewanee was unique for encouraging students to interact with the community in research and outreach work and unique, as well, for a faculty who embraced serving in three roles, as “teachers, scholars, and mentors.” When Pearigen mentioned to a friend, his role in Sewane included being “mayor,” the friend cautioned him, “You don’t know anything about being a mayor.” “I’m still learning the mayor role,” Pearigen joked, then conceded, “I’m still learning the vice-chancellor role, too.”

A Sewanee graduate, after receiving his PhD from Duke University, Pearigen returned in 1987 to teach political science and serve as Dean of Students and Vice President of University Relations spending 23 years in Sewanee. His wife Phoebe was an adjunct professor of Theater and Dance and founded the community-centric Perpetual Motion dance program. “Phoebe taught every little kid in Sewanee to skip,” Pearigen said with a chuckle. The Pearigens recently returned again, with Rob Pearigen tapped to serve as Vice Chancellor. Over the course of his long affiliation with the University, he has met eight decades of alums, nine decades if the count includes a 1939 alum Pearign met recently. Over the past three months, Pearigen has attended 20 Sewanee Club events as the University’s ambassador traveling coast to coast, from Richmond to Los Angeles.

Pearigen’s fourfold vision for the University begins with students. “Everything we do needs to be centered around the students,” Pearigen insisted. Following closely in suit, his second goal emphasized the importance of “strengthening the already strong curriculum” to prepare students for leadership roles in the mid and later 21st century. Third, but clearly a priority, Pearigen stressed, “We need to look more like the diverse world where we live. We have work to do.” He pointed to a recent dinner attended by 89 international students from 39 countries, including students from South Ameria, Pakistan, Ukraine, a student with family who recently evacuated Gaza City and another student with two brothers in the Israeli armed forces. Offering the international students reassurance, Pearigen’s message was, “You’re safe here, and we as a community will be here for you.” Pearigen’s fourth goal celebrated the “power, magic, and majesty” of the 13,000-acre domain that serves as “our laboratory, playground, and sanctuary.” He envisions every curriculum incorporating the domain as part of the learning experience, reminding his audience, the village was part of the domain as well.

Updating the SCA on the Depot Welcome and Heritage Center project, Beavers said the former Hair Depot building “redo” called for a deck, an ADA compliant ramp and restroom, and a permanent home for the Historic Downtown Sewanee exhibition currently on display at the Archives. The renovation’s estimated cost of $124,000 did not include repair to damage caused when pipes burst last December, Beavers said. On a positive note, the University class of ’73 raised more than $100,000 for Phase 2 of the project.

The SCA recently concluded two projects. The Nonfood Supply Drive held in conjunction with the Community Action Committee collected household necessities the financially challenged cannot purchase with SNAP benefits, such as cleaning supplies. In collaboration with Folks at Home, the SCA sponsored a vaccine clinic where 50 people received flu shots and 20 received COVID booster vaccines. The Community Chest fund drive, currently underway, supports quality-of-life enhancing programs and activities on the Plateau. To donate to this year’s $120,000 goal, the largest ever, visit
or mail a check to P.O. Box 99, Sewanee, TN 37375.

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