As Confederate statues topple across the United States, it is clear that symbols hold tremendous power. While Warren Wilson College prioritizes making concrete changes to its structures, systems, policies, and practices in order to address institutional racism, our community must also confront the symbols that inspire us, that define us, and that profess who we want to be. In June of 2021, the lyrics to the Alma Mater were officially changed to better reflect the inclusive community we aspire to be.
In December 2020, President Lynn Morton acknowledged that the Warren Wilson College Alma Mater contained colonizing language. She asked the Advancement Office—the office tasked with preserving and honoring institutional history—to form a committee that would work with the broader Warren Wilson community to propose changes to the song.
As a result, members of the 2021 Alma Mater Committee convened in January and met regularly over the next four months. Our charge was to listen to the viewpoints of one another and of the broader community, to research the song and its context, and finally, to consider new lyrics that would make the symbolic song more representative of the inclusive community that Warren Wilson aspires to be.
Dr. Henry “Doc” Jensen wrote the original Alma Mater in 1942 when the Asheville Farm School and other predecessor schools were consolidated into Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College. Jensen wrote the lyrics and music, and Dr. Robert “Doc” Keener later wrote the choral arrangement. The current change will not be the first revision to the original lyrics of the Alma Mater. In the 1990s, the song was altered to replace gendered language.
Students and faculty members prompted this most recent change by bringing attention to the colonizing language in the song and demanding a more accessible and inclusive campus for the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community. Formally, a demand for inclusive changes to be made to campus traditions was included within a larger set of student demands in 2016, and the language of the Alma Mater was specifically examined in a public webinar in 2020.
In her November 2020 webinar titled “Decolonization in the Era of Black Lives Matter,” Warren Wilson Professor Dr. Rima Veseley-Flad used the College’s Alma Mater as an example of the symbolic power of rituals. She indicated that the first two lines celebrated colonialism with the use of words like “pioneers” and “frontiers,” and she said that changing the lyrics of the song would be “one way the Warren Wilson community can address, you could say, a myopic view of who we are as a community…”
While the initial interest in creating this change came from current faculty and students, more than 70 percent of alumni who responded to the announcement of the process to address this issue voiced their support of the changes, and more than 700 members of the campus community and alumni weighed in on lyric choices via a survey from the Alma Mater Committee. The committee anticipated that there would be understandable emotional responses and frustrations in response to changing such a long-standing tradition from the College’s history. However, this widely positive response and engagement in making change indicated to the committee that our broader community’s shared commitment to inclusion outweighs the notion that we must strictly adhere to preserving in perpetuity the most traditionalist versions of our past rituals.
The 2021 Alma Mater Committee was composed of current students, alumni spanning seven decades, Trustees, Alumni Board members, and faculty and staff representatives. The committee watched Veseley-Flad’s webinar in advance of their series of conversations together to better understand and acknowledge the problematic language in the lyrics and to inform their process together. They also discussed the greater international context of confronting songs and symbols—such as the national anthem change in New Zealand and the lack of change to the alma mater at the University of Texas. After four months of working together and considering input, the committee created a proposal.
In its unified proposal to President Morton in May 2021, the committee collectively acknowledged that this revision is just one change to one symbol of white supremacy culture and institutionalized racism at Warren Wilson College and should not, therefore, be overstated as a transformational component of the systemic change still needed at the College. At the same time, because the song is sung at most major events—notably Convocation, Homecoming, and Commencement—they feel it is an important signal to our student, faculty, staff, and alumni communities that Warren Wilson is committed to taking intentional steps forward with visible changes like this one.
Where the stalwart pioneers
built their highland homes,
Still our college presses near
frontiers yet unknown.
– and –
God who raised our hills of home
guard our fortress still
Walk with us along the way
teach us wisdom ’til
Where the river carves the stone
of our valley home,
Still our college presses near
futures yet unknown.
– and –
God/You* who raised our hills of home
guide our hearts and will,
Walk with us along the way
teach us wisdom ’til
The 2021 Alma Mater Committee
Saba Alemayehu ’05, Alumni Board
Philip Bassani, Alumni Relations Manager
Melissa Ray Davis ’02, College Writer
MaggieMae Farthing ’14, Alumni Board
Susan Leading Fox ’84, Alum
Rev. Dr. Kevin Frederick ’77, Trustee
Zanne Garland, former Vice President for Advancement
Mary Hay, Director of the WWC Fund
Rev. Matt Hoffman, Associate Director of Interfaith Initiatives
Dr. Stephen Keener, Trustee
Dr. Ben Krakauer, Professor of Music
Rodney Lytle ’73, Alumni Ambassador
Anna Marie Mackey ’69, Alum
Claudia Nix ’69, Alum
Bridget Palmer ’21, Student Trustee
Rowena Pomeroy, Executive Assistant to the President
Diana Sanderson, Former College Archivist
Madison Sings ’22, Student
Adam “Pinky” Stegall ’07, Alumni Board President
Lucy Wheeler ’92, Trustee
Reflections From the Committee:
“We can do great things when we work together for the good.” — Anna Marie Mackey ’69, Alum
“Like a river carving stone, the creation of lasting change takes incredible time and energy. This revision of our Alma Mater is a very small, symbolic step in a much larger journey. Our community must take more ambitious steps toward equity and inclusion, steps far more active and tangible than this one. May these new words call us to keep walking, keep pressing near more liberating futures.” — Melissa Ray Davis ’02, College Writer, Alum
“I believe the updated lyrics embody a greater sense of community, while preserving the spirit of Dr. Jensen’s original poem.” — Dr. Stephen Keener, Trustee and son of former music faculty member, Doc Keener
“I was honored to be part of this process. It was not an easy one, but I feel the words we chose are inclusive to all of us and honor the meaning that Dr. Jensen would have wanted. They also are in line with the core values of Warren Wilson College.” — Claudia Nix ’69, Alum
“Working with this group, it was really energizing to have so many perspectives not only from Warren Wilson but also our professions and lived experiences. We tried to look at this project from a wide variety of angles to make sure that this song could be representative of any and all Warren Wilson alumni. The Alma Mater says, ‘take your place and do with us what tomorrow needs of you.’ Knowing what tomorrow needs of you means change and evolution from today. I believe this is one small step on that journey to learning from yesterday and today to brighten tomorrow.” — MaggieMae Farthing ’14, Alumni Board
“Working on decolonizing the Alma Mater has been a learning experience to me as a young activist. Recognizing and changing outdated language that has been traumatic to some community members is important for our College. While this work is a great first step to fixing our institution’s racial issues, it certainly cannot be the last.” — Madison Sings ’22, Student
“I appreciate the opportunity and respect in which my input was requested and hope the diligent work by the committee is seen in the end result where homage is paid to the indigenous peoples who initially called the valley home. We also wish to honor the College and the Alma Mater composer, Mr. Jensen. While the revision of the Alma Mater is only one small step, we feel it’s an important one. There will certainly be mixed feelings about the change, as there is with any change. However, as I’ve always said, ‘there’s nothing constant, but change.’ Thank you for the honor of requesting my input, and I look forward to the next steps.” — Susan Leading Fox ’84, Alum and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee