Have a conversation with UNC Asheville’s Chancellor Anne Ponder, and you’ll quickly realize that you are speaking with an Asheville native—a self-described “mountain girl,” who loves the place and the people—someone who finds the greatest pleasure and purpose in bringing them together.
It’s that important and personal work that brought her home to Asheville nearly nine years ago, after spending 39 years away, first as an undergraduate and graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, then as faculty and an administrator at Elon University, Guilford College and Kenyon College. She served as president of Colby-Sawyer College until 2005, and so was a sitting president when she was selected as the sixth chancellor of UNC Asheville.
“I always thought the phrase ‘sitting president’ was not adequately descriptive,” said Ponder. “It is a sitting, running, speaking, dancing president.”
As a result, you’ll rarely find her sitting still, but UNC Asheville Magazine caught up with Ponder shortly after her retirement announcement in January 2014 to learn more about her next steps. She will retire from university service this summer, but with no plans to slow down. She will continue as an ambassador for the university, a proud public servant of Asheville and a strong voice for issues in higher education, particularly concerning the liberal arts and college affordability, both strengths of UNC Asheville.
And she trusts that UNC Asheville will continue its momentum forward, building on the accomplishments from the past nine years—accomplishments, which she points out, are rarely hers alone.
When Anne Ponder took the oath of office at UNC Asheville on Sept. 15, 2006, her mother, Eleanor Ponder, a legendary high school English teacher in Buncombe County, held the Bible, a reminder that Ponder comes from a family of teachers, who trace their roots in Asheville back to the 1780s.
Growing up, Ponder recognized the UNC Asheville community as an extended family. She has met all of the UNC Asheville chancellors who served before her, and she grew up knowing many of the individuals who now have their names on campus buildings and who have established some of the most personal traditions at the university, such as the Manly E. Wright Award.
As Ponder explained, “We embody the homegrown mountain determination of our region, doing splendid work even when resources are meager, turning what my grandfather used to call ‘mountain cussedness’ into a virtue in times of great need.”
During Ponder’s tenure at UNC Asheville, the need has been great. Despite a particularly challenging budget climate, she established priorities that fortified the university to become stronger and more focused on its unique mission, to improve its visibility throughout the state and nation, and to significantly increase its contributions to and collaborations with greater Asheville and the state.
"We have seen the development and growth of UNC Asheville from the beginning. There have been several chancellors through the years, all with different leadership styles. Chancellor Anne Ponder has put Asheville back into UNC Asheville." — Bruce and Carol Peterson, community leaders and Asheville natives
Her commitment to strengthening the university’s outreach and partnerships with Western North Carolina communities and businesses, as well as with sister UNC institutions, has resulted in a UNC-Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy satellite program being established at UNC Asheville. Agreements with Mission Health System, the City of Asheville, the Renaissance Computing Institute of North Carolina and others have provided enhanced learning and research opportunities for students and faculty. The university also is a founding member of the Asheville-Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, a major contributor to the region’s economic development. In fact, an economic impact study from 2012 shows that UNC Asheville contributes $268 million annually and supports 2,592 local jobs.
This emphasis on collaboration also led to the cultivation, with other campus and community leaders, of some of the largest multi-million dollar donations in the university’s history, including a significant endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation to name the former North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement—now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville—and enhance its creative retirement options and college for seniors programs. These investments and initiatives have placed UNC Asheville at the heart of the Greater Asheville community, strengthening the shared vibrant culture.
As community leaders Bruce and Carol Peterson commented, “Being natives of Asheville and Buncombe County, we have seen the development and growth of UNC Asheville from the beginning. There have been several chancellors through the years, all with different leadership styles. Chancellor Anne Ponder has put Asheville back into UNC Asheville.”
That was part of Ponder’s plan.
You might call it useful idealism, a phrase Ponder has used to characterize her strategy.
“The description optimally of who we are has made it possible for us to live up to it. We become the university we are describing.” And if her definition of strategic planning is more poetic than expected, it’s not unexpected for her. “That’s what you get for hiring an English major,” she said.
Building a Narrative
In hiring Ponder, UNC Asheville gained more than an award-winning teacher and expert in strategic planning.
“For an English major, Chancellor Ponder is one of the steadiest and savviest managers I know,” said Michael Andry, wealth advisor for Wells Fargo Wealth Management and chair of the UNC Asheville Foundation. “She has provided strong, consistent and visionary leadership for our university, and has been instrumental in the transformational evolution of UNC Asheville. Higher education is in the middle of extraordinary change, and she has beautifully positioned the university to continue to thrive in the educational model of the future.”
UNC Asheville’s model of liberal arts education continues to rank highly, coming in as the seventh best Public Liberal Arts College in U.S. News and World Report annual rankings and is the only North Carolina institution listed among National Liberal Arts Colleges whose students graduate with the least amount of debt. The university also makes the list for Best Buys or Best Value in The Princeton Review, Forbes, Fiske and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
“One of the first things that I said when I came back to this place—where visitors think of the Grove Park Inn, the Biltmore Estate, and Thomas Wolfe—is that UNC Asheville should be in that list of the things they think of when they think of my hometown. We are well on our way to becoming one of Asheville’s anchor institutions.” - Anne Ponder, UNC Asheville Chancellor
Credit goes to the entire campus community, which over the past nine years has improved the academic profile and diversity of the student body, as well as the proportion of students living on campus. These were goals established by the entire campus community in the Strategic Plan of 2008, and initiatives that the campus has worked on steadily together since then. In 2009, UNC Asheville became the national headquarters for the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) and, in 2012, received its 10-year reaffirmation of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Bruce Larson, professor of economics and chair of the university’s reaccreditation working group, said, “Anne Ponder brought to UNC Asheville an enormous capacity to listen to everyone and transform what she heard into action … what stands out for me is the strategic planning process she led during her first years at the university. This is clearly one of her signal achievements. She came to the university with a process, not a plan, and she was able to evoke from the faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the greater community, a strategic plan that captured their aspirations, could be acted upon, and has continuously guided subsequent action.”
The strategic plan prompted further collaboration and action, including a recently revised liberal arts core curriculum to better meet the needs of students, an expanded Undergraduate Research Program and the addition of several new majors from anthropology to religious studies, art history to jazz and contemporary music. The number of endowed faculty has increased with six newly endowed professorships in as many years, made possible by the C.D. Spangler Foundation, with matching funds contributed from the North Carolina General Assembly and raised by the UNC Asheville Foundation.
Ponder also has overseen the largest building program in UNC Asheville’s history—most recently Overlook Hall, home to more than 300 students. The new residence hall boosts the number of students living on campus from 35 percent to more than 40 percent and is one of the “greenest” buildings on campus, with cutting-edge sustainability features including geothermal heating and cooling. Other major building projects have included the New Hall classroom building, Sam Millar Facilities Management Complex, Zeis Science and Multimedia Building, and the Wilma M. Sherrill Center, which houses the North Carolina Center for Health & Wellness and Kimmel Arena.
But if Ponder is going to be known for building the campus, it’s more for the narrative of serving students rather than the physical footprint, though that has expanded too with recent land acquisitions that will allow for future campus growth. She prefers to focus on the foundation of liberal arts ideals and the people that make it possible.
As Ponder explained, “The liberal arts, and the interdisciplinary habit of mind, are more than what we do; it is who we are, and it is what we teach. It is our conviction that a liberal arts education, UNC Asheville style, is our greatest single tool in uncovering the long-term solutions to the most significant threats to the well-being of our state and our nation.”
She came to the university with a process, not a plan, and she was able to evoke from the faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the greater community, a strategic plan that captured their aspirations, could be acted upon, and has continuously guided subsequent action. — Bruce Larson, professor of economics
Envisioning the Future
As she prepares for her own creative retirement in July 2014, Ponder can see at least part of her legacy as the longest-serving UNC Asheville chancellor since the first chancellor. In true English-professor style, she is best at articulating this achievement, as she said in her first Founders Day speech:
“Each individual brings the potential to be of lasting importance in the lives of individual students and in the life of the university. We are reminded each day of Chancellor Highsmith … without whom there would be no university for us to serve. Chancellor Brown is remembered for his entrepreneurial energy. Chancellor Schuman’s legacy includes our designation as North Carolina’s public liberal arts university. Chancellor Reed’s calming and steady influence is still felt today. And the fifth chancellor, Chancellor Mullen, will be remembered for opening the university toward interest and involvement in the wider community. … We find ourselves among extraordinary people, planning for an exciting future in a place uniquely our own. And it is my chosen work, my good fortune, and my honor to add my service as Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.”
In returning home to lead UNC Asheville in 2005, Ponder found everything in place to bring Asheville’s University back to the community that founded it, contribute to the regional economy and earn national recognition in the liberal arts.
“I’ve been fortunate to lead this institution when the necessary leadership tasks were things that I could do well,” she said. “I’ve brought a clarity of mission, a closer knit between what we say and what we do, and a courage of conviction.”
And if she has invested fully in the university, so too has her husband, Christopher Brookhouse, an award-winning writer and publisher and ardent advocate for UNC Asheville.
“Chris and I have always believed in living where we are and where we work. You place yourself fully there,” Ponder said. So it’s no surprise that she intends to give the next chancellor this advice: “Love the place like I do and attend to our intellectual quality and integrity. Want to serve as chancellor of this university, with this mission and this sector of higher education.”