Colleges used to be referred to as “Ivory Towers,” a cloistered and exclusive academic environment, a sort of gated community for intellectual enlightenment. The intellectual enlightenment is, of course,
still being pursued, but the drawbridges have lowered and connections with the larger community have become an essential element of the mission.
Rollins College has a long history of this type of community engagement, and one of the most energetic new ambassadors of that engagement is Peg Cornwell, wife of Rollins College President Grant Cornwell. Since arriving on campus, the welcome mat has been out, and their home, The Barker House, has become an important meeting place for the community. But Ms. Cornwell is not content simply inviting people in (though the Cornwells hosted more than 3,100 guests the last academic year); she has aggressively pursued a role as one of Rollins’ envoys to the region.
In this interview she talks about Rollins’ role in the region, the unique partnership she and her husband share, and what it has been like since her husband became president of Rollins.
“To be a truly better college means providing an education that anticipates our changing world, both economically and culturally, through experiences that allow our students to build competencies and skills to be the future leaders of our multicultural, international societies.”
EW: Your connection and engagement in the community seems like a high priority, has that always been the case?
PC: It’s relatively new for Grant and I to be involved in the local community at this level. Our last college (College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio) was in a community about the same size as Winter Park, but Cleveland was 60 miles away. For Rollins, which is in the heart of a city and only a few miles from a large metropolitan area, there’s a need for someone from the college to be involved in the regional community in specific ways. Everyone is engaged at some level, but we need to make distinct connections.
So I’m going through LEAD Orlando, which connects you to the seven counties that make up Central Florida. It has been a great orientation to the area, but you also get to know the other individuals you’re going through the class with; it’s a valuable resource.
What has been eye opening for me, coming from New England, the oldest part of the country, is that Orlando is relatively new. Everything is happening for the first time; it isn’t a remake. Because it’s so new, the opportunities for engagement are unparalleled in my experience. People want to work together, and there is an ethos of desiring to raise all the boats in the harbor.
EW: Why and how is Rollins, as a liberal arts institution, positioned to impact the region?
PC: Because of the specific type of education we offer, we’re ideally set up for this entrepreneurial, innovation economy that’s emerging. Our students are trained in all the areas that make them ready for the new global workforce — things like small classes that produce more interaction with students, the oral presentation requirements and opportunities to speak with people who are much different from them. To be a truly better college means providing an education that anticipates our changing world, both economically and culturally, through experiences that allow our students to build competencies and skills to be the future leaders of our multicultural, international societies.
Approximately one-third of our students are international or from a domestic ethnic minority. Also, we’re very intentional about having our students travel abroad to bring that global perspective to the campus; about 45 percent of our students have this experience. These are crucial factors in preparing students to be a part of an economy that is in many ways without borders.
Also, a liberal arts education doesn’t exist in many of the places we visit. In fact, countries like India, China and Japan are looking to replicate that model in their educational institutions where they can. Some can’t, as their system is designed to produce people who are prepared for particular vocational tracks like engineering or accounting. There isn’t a liberal arts core of philosophy, art and literature. What researchers are finding is that people who receive both liberal arts and vocational education have a better chance of becoming leaders in their respective fields. Grant often is asked to lecture on this subject, and I’m fortunate enough to go along.
EW: I’m sure the spouses of all college presidents are key partners and participants, but you seem extraordinarily so; tell me how you met and how that role has grown.
PC: Grant and I met the first day at college during the traditional candlelight ceremony held on our quad at dusk. We became friends first and have been married for almost 37 years.
I was raised outside of New York City. We both attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, a liberal arts college, not unlike Rollins, except for its geographic location, which is rural upstate New York. I majored in economics and upon graduation went to work on Wall Street for Chemical Bank. After my training, I was transferred to the new loan production office in Chicago where I was a lending officer for the Fortune 500 food and pharmaceutical companies in the Midwest.
Grant was attending the University of Chicago getting his Ph.D. When he got his first teaching position in philosophy at our alma mater, we moved back to Canton with our newborn son. I transitioned to work in the career planning office for the next 15 years and then started a leadership education program for six additional years before we moved to Wooster, Ohio, where Grant had taken the job as president of the College of Wooster.
At Wooster, we began to work very closely together, and that work has continued here at Rollins. Initially, I was involved on the student-life side of the college and Grant the academic side. This has given us a unique perspective and balance; we learn about each other and also learn from each other.
EW: Being a college president is an extremely demanding job; tell me how the two of you have navigated that terrain.
PC: Grant’s transition to college president was a huge one, but he had the gifts and skills to be exceptional at it. It was a change most people can’t really appreciate until they’ve experienced it for themselves. The complexity of the work and the variety of demands are breathtaking. Grant was the vice president of Academic Affairs at St. Lawrence before he was the president at Wooster, so we knew what the life of a high-level college administrator might feel and look like. However, being the president is unique in that everyone at the college and the community looks to Grant for leadership on all fronts.
I quickly learned, both from the role I took on at Wooster and now at Rollins working closely with Grant, that many people engage me with the understanding that they’re talking directly to Grant.
The most wonderful aspect of this role is we have the privilege to galvanize everyone’s passion for Rollins. They want to see Rollins succeed as much as we do, and the encouragement, cooperation and support we receive from all areas of the campus and community has been overwhelmingly supportive.