Higher education leader Robert Pearigen elected vice-chancellor and president of the University of the South
Robert Wesley Pearigen, Ph.D., C’76, the president of Millsaps College known for his commitment to academic excellence, community partnerships and diversity, and a highly regarded former leader at the University of the South has been named the university’s 18th vice-chancellor and president.
The Board of Trustees elected Dr. Pearigen unanimously today following a national search that began in March 2022. Pearigen, who previously served Sewanee in several executive and academic positions, including leading university relations from 2005-2010 before assuming the Millsaps’ presidency, will take office as vice-chancellor on July 1, 2023.
“It will be my great privilege and pleasure to serve the University that has played such a formative role in my life and career and that of my family,” Pearigen said. “Though this is, in many ways, a homecoming of sorts, I am grateful to be returning to a place that has grown and evolved in vital ways over the past decade. I admire the progress Sewanee has made during the past 13 years and I look forward to helping lead its advancement in the years ahead.
“To ‘dwell together in unity’ is our motto and in our DNA; we have the opportunity and responsibility now to manifest what is best about relationships, community, and humanity, and to live fully into all that Sewanee is and can be in the future,” Pearigen continued. “I am thrilled to be leading the University into its next chapter.”
Board of Regents Chair James D. Folds Jr., C’86, observed, “We are excited and fortunate to be able to hire a sitting president with over a decade of experience leading through incredibly challenging times and who also has extensive knowledge of our community. Rob is well-prepared to engage with the entire community to drive our future priorities and propel the University to achieve its tremendous potential.”
Pearigen has had a distinguished tenure as Millsaps’ president. Located in Jackson, Mississippi, the private liberal arts college, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, is consistently ranked as one of the best values in higher education and is one of Loren Pope’s 40 Colleges that Change Lives.
Notable achievements at Millsaps during Pearigen’s tenure include: a comprehensive strategic plan and redesign of the curriculum; a significant increase in diversity of the student population, with students of color now comprising 40 percent of the population; expansion of the college’s partnerships with the local community; tripling of annual fund donations to the college and expansion of alumni engagement; completion of $25 million in capital projects, all fully funded in private donations; and development of plans and $2.5 million raised to create a campus solution to Jackson’s water crisis.
Pearigen succeeds Reuben E. Brigety II, who stepped down as vice-chancellor and president in December 2021 to be nominated by President Joe Biden as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, a role to which he was subsequently confirmed. The Board of Regents elected Provost Nancy Berner acting vice-chancellor and president in January 2022, and she will continue to serve in this role until Pearigen takes office.
“On behalf of the Board of Regents and the Board of Trustees, I extend gratitude and appreciation to Nancy for her continued leadership and service during this time of transition,” Folds said. “She and her team are ensuring the University’s steady progress and have positioned the University well for the next era.”
Board of Regents member Mary Claire Murphy, C’82, and Board of Trustees member Rev. Katie Pearson, C’89, T’17, co-chaired the Vice-Chancellor Search Committee. More than 1,000 members of the Sewanee community participated in the search process, which attracted candidates from across the country.
“Rob Pearigen brings to us a deep love for and understanding of Sewanee, years of experience in higher education, a passion for student success, over a decade of presidential leadership in the liberal arts, and a vision for continuing to move Sewanee through the 21st century,” Pearson said. “Add to that Rob's warmth, humility, and humor, and it is clear that Sewanee is poised for great things in the coming years.”
Pearigen’s family connections to Sewanee run deep. His wife, Phoebe, served for years as an adjunct professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and made significant contributions to dance programs in the community, including founding the Sewanee Conservatory and initiating the student-led dance organization Perpetual Motion. The couple’s two children, Carolyn, C’14, and Wes, C’17, are both actively engaged alumni.
“Dr. Pearigen’s proven leadership and his intimate knowledge of and deep abiding love for Sewanee will be invaluable in leading the university as it examines its past and looks to its future,” said Dr. Renia Dotson, C’88, a member of the Board of Regents and of the Search Committee. “Rob’s commitment to a liberal arts education and his profound understanding that the cherished relationships developed while on the Mountain are what makes Sewanee unique will serve him well as he guides the University during this very transformative time in its history.”
Pearigen graduated from Sewanee Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor of arts in political science. At Sewanee, he was a proctor and president of the university’s academic honor society, the Order of the Gown. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Duke University. In his postgraduate research, he focused on constitutional law, judicial process, and political theory, particularly the work of Plato and Aristotle.
Pearigen returned to Sewanee in 1987 as dean of men and as a member of the political science faculty. Over the next 23 years, he served as dean of students and then as vice president for university relations. In that role, he led the institution’s largest fundraising effort ever at that time, a $200 million comprehensive campaign that exceeded its goal. He also led a campaign to raise funds to acquire the 3,000-acre Lost Cove tract.
Throughout his career as a leader and administrator, Pearigen also has continued to teach, including courses in constitutional law, civil rights and liberties, jurisprudence, and political theory. He plans to continue to teach upon his return to Sewanee.
Pearigen is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Distinguished Faculty Award from the University’s Associated Alumni in 2001. Also, in recognition of his dedication to the academic success and social well-being of students as Dean of Students, the University’s Student Life Cabinet established the Pearigen Commitment to Community Award which is awarded to students who demonstrate exemplary service and leadership to the Sewanee community.