Matthew Derr’s office on the second floor of Mager has pictures of himself with his partner, Julian Sharp, currently studying at seminary in California, as well as pictures of Harper, their recently adopted Labrador puppy. “She shares a birthday with the oxen [oxen team Doc and Ellis],” he says, “and I hope she’ll be smaller than them.”
The office also features a hand-hewed rake, made by President Emeritus Jed Williamson, and a taxidermied owl in flight, a gift from the Sterling faculty. It is from this office that Matthew Derr, Sterling College’s eleventh president, has spent the past five years leading Sterling College to new heights of acclaim, growth, and strength.
Jonathan Larsen, the Chair of the Sterling College Board of Trustees, says, “In only five years, Matthew Derr has made Sterling College a bigger, better, and more pioneering environmental institution. Our student population has grown in the past four years, we continue to climb the list of ‘coolest colleges,’ and we are now far more sustainable, having installed a solar array large enough to supply more than three-fourths of our power.”
In the past few months alone, Sterling College has recently finished its second reaccreditation process in its history as a four-year college; it started the 2016-17 academic year with one of the largest student bodies in its history, 131 students; and has raised the fundraising goal of Nourish the Roots, the largest comprehensive campaign in the College’s history, to $10 million from $9 million.
Dave Stoner, a former Trustee who sat on the search committee that hired Derr, says: “Five years ago, Sterling’s Presidential Search Committee was honored to have so many interested applicants. In these processes, the hope is that the cream of the crop will rise to the top. When the search concluded and we made our recommendation to the Board of Trustees, we felt totally confident in our selection. Our goal was to install leadership whose efforts would improve the reputation and financial stability of the College, increase enrollment, and establish a sustainable giving culture. Looking back on Matthew’s accomplishments during his first five years has not only verified our selection but his results have far exceeded our expectations. We are grateful for his leadership and honored to have been led to him.”
David Behrend ’64 concurs. “I had the opportunity of meeting President Matthew Derr shortly after he took office five years ago, along with Peter McKay ’63 and Jon Goodrich ’63. We represented, in part, the ‘pioneers’ amongst the original students at Sterling when it was then a boys’ boarding school.
“As we approach the 60th anniversary celebration in 2018, President Derr has propelled Sterling College as an institution of higher learning into national prominence. The students, faculty, staff, alumni, and Board of Trustees should feel very fortunate to have found such a gem as our leader. Under his leadership, Sterling has promoted ‘excellence in education’ with serious engagement for each student, just as we pioneers had six decades ago. Congratulations [to him] on helping Sterling achieve greatness and preeminence in it its areas of study and the many students who have benefited.”
A 50-Yard Dash
As Derr said at his inauguration ceremony in the fall of 2013, the role of president of Sterling College “is not for the faint of heart, but for a community working interdependently and together.” He elaborated during a recent interview by joking that his first five years seems to have been a “50-yard dash at the front of a marathon.”
He would know. Derr’s entire career has been one of surmounting challenges. His previous presidential role was at Antioch College, where he led the alumni effort to reopen the college as an independent institution after the Antioch University Board of Trustees shuttered the campus. In his presidency at Antioch, he developed a concept for a new undergraduate curriculum focused on issues related to environmentalism.
“Antioch was always thinking about what higher education should be doing to address the critical issues of the day,” he says of his time helming his alma mater. “So we created this model [for an undergraduate curriculum] focused on food, water, health, energy, and governance, because those are the principal issues that impact our relationship with the natural world and our relationship with each other today.”
He was unaware that Sterling College was also working on those exact same issues. After leading Antioch, Derr was a Fellow at the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), where he conducted research and advised college leaders on admission and fundraising. He also completed an MSW in Community Organizing from the University of Michigan. The search for a new president of Sterling College seemed to be in the cards.
“I didn’t realize at the time that . . . Sterling has been focused for a long time on what I thought Antioch should do as its next iteration. I applied and was selected president with a deep sense of connection to a sense of ideas, and I feel I never skipped a beat in thinking about those ideas.”
Sterling’s mission and values strikes a deep chord within him. “I think the most pressing issue facing higher education, the most significant issue that puts it in peril, is understanding its purpose,” he says. “We’re at a point in our history in this country where society is really demanding that you demonstrate pertinence. Institutions have to be able to show relevance in terms of workplace development, problem solving, all of those kinds of outcomes that people want to measure. I felt both as a candidate [for the presidency] and over the past five years, that Sterling could readily answer those questions.”
Sterling, Derr felt, didn’t need to search for its purpose or relevance. It was front and center in its mission, its curriculum, its majors, and its focus. And Sterling’s mission couldn’t be more timely, he feels.
“This is a particular time in human history where more people are aware of the critical issues facing climate, facing our water, our soil, our sources of energy, and the accompanying social conflicts that result in our degradation of the natural world,” he says. “It was immediately evident that Sterling’s mission of environmental stewardship and the ethos of the campus and the values of the faculty and the Board were perfectly aligned with the issues of the day. And not just the day! The history of the institution, going back to the 1970s, was visionary. I’ve seen over the course of Sterling’s history that evolution in thinking take place. Everybody else is catching up.”
He laughs. “I occasionally tease that our motto should be, ‘We Told You So!’”
Even with the timeliness of the Sterling College curriculum and values, the first three months of his presidency were not easy. “You know,” he says, “as a small institution, the financial aspects of leading an institution of this scale are always challenging. Always present, and always real. I had to figure that out, coming from institutions with much greater resources. That’s not something they teach you in president’s school.” He laughs. “It took me some time, and fortunately, I had good colleagues who were able to help me understand the financial dynamics of such a small institution.
“The second part was a certain reticence about long-term planning,” he continues. “Because so many needs of the institution coming out of the financial collapse of 2008 were so near-term, so immediately in your face and present, it was a shift in thinking to understand that the [College] needed to plan not just for the next three years, not for the next five, not for the next decade, but that we are the stewards of the College now and our obligation is assuring its existence and thriving in perpetuity.”
Nourish the Roots
One of the first orders of business was putting together a new strategic plan, dubbed “Nourish the Roots.” The last Sterling strategic plan went up through 2009; it was time to bring faculty, staff, and students together to grapple with an up-to-date, comprehensive vision of the future. “There were practical concerns” with needing to craft a strategic plan at the beginning of his tenure as President, Derr says: “The College needed to have one in advance of the 10-year accreditation visit, it needed to happen to justify a really ambitious fundraising plan that we’re now getting near the end of, it’s part of the life of an institution. It shifts the culture of the College.” Nourish the Roots: The Strategic Plan is a five-year plan that covers the academic years 2013–2018.
“One of the things that surprised me about doing it,” Derr remembers, “is that it was a wonderful introduction for me as a new community member and a new president to quickly understand the challenges and the aspirations of the College and the faculty and the students who were here at that time. I think of it as an immersion experience.”
He continues, “The strategic plan surfaced a number of issues that had been lingering. When the College altered its core curriculum [in 2005], there were still conversations that needed to be had around those changes. In the plan, there were very forward-thinking new ideas, and there were a number of objectives that had to do with restoration. We were coming up on the 50th anniversary of Expedition, and we’ve made a deeper commitment to Bounder and Expedition than I think people would have anticipated.” The 50th annual Expedition was completed in the fall of 2014; Matthew accompanied the students and faculty on the traditional four-day, three-night winter camping trip in the nearby Lowell Mountains. He also joined Expedition in 2015 and is planning on going in 2016.
Dean of Academics Carol Dickson acknowledges the result of the strategic planning. “I have particularly appreciated Matthew’s leadership in challenging the faculty to review the curriculum with renewed intention,” she says. “He has helped us question our assumptions, leading us to articulate the essential questions and fundamental goals of our curriculum with greater clarity. The results of these conversations have been wide-ranging, from more robust and accessible Global Field Studies offerings, to curricular assessment initiatives around diversity, inclusion, and equity, to a more integrated student advising model.”
After the strategic plan was crafted, it was time to launch the largest comprehensive campaign in the College’s history. Nourish the Roots is the single largest fundraising initiative the College has ever undertaken; in March 2015, the Board of Trustees announced the $9 million campaign. Although Sterling had already raised $4.5 million in gifts and commitments by the launch, some were nervous that the $9 million was too ambitious and needed to be scaled back.
By 2016, the campaign was in sight of reaching the $9 million. Derr had secured the institution’s first seven figure gift, a $1 million gift to be matched by donations from alumni and friends of the College over fiscal years 2015 and 2016. The gift was matched, dollar for dollar, four months ahead of schedule, in March 2016.
Derr asked the Board of Trustees to raise the Nourish the Roots goal to $10 million by 2018; the Board agreed to do so in April 2016.
A Beta for Higher Education
Derr credits the cause of Sterling College to be the reason behind the campaign’s accomplishment. “[The success] connects to a deep understanding of the value of the education that we offer,” he explains. “This has been a cause-based approach. The most significant [financial] gifts have come from people who care deeply about the environment, who care deeply about finding solutions to the climate instability that we’re experiencing, that feel that this small college is a kind of beta for higher education. We’ve harnessed a population of supporters well outside the scope of the institution and its graduates.”
He credits this to Sterling’s dedicated faculty and committed student body, as well as to the alumni. “We’ve seen amazing support from our alumni and . . . they made this campaign work—not just because they gave, but because they were the evidence. They were the principal example of what it was that a cause-based campaign could be based upon.”
He muses, “And we’ve just gotten started. We’re a young institution, and this is our first big comprehensive campaign at the eight figure level. I’m hoping to be here long enough to lead one at the nine figure level.”
Not everything Derr has wanted to accomplish his first five years has come to pass. “We’ve got to make this campus a reflection of our values,” he emphasizes. “We’ve addressed deferred maintenance to a degree that’s significant. We’ve invested in information technology; and in some ways, I look around and I think it’s a beautiful place to be a student and to work. But we have buildings that are not positive reflections on our commitment to energy efficiency. Despite the fact that we have these new [solar] trackers, we’re still buying fuel oil for our buildings and we don’t want to have to do that. That’s proven to be a harder nut to crack than I had hoped.”
However, he hasn’t let that distract him from the accomplishments so far. “We’re more selective and larger than we’ve ever been,” he points out. “That’s not something many colleges can say in the beginning of the 21st century. Especially small colleges. Especially liberally focused small colleges. Especially liberally focused rural colleges. We’re really bucking a trend.”
When asked to “blue sky” the next half a decade, he declares: “Retain and build an extraordinary faculty. Have a waiting list for places in the class for extraordinary people who want to commit their lives to environmental stewardship. A robust School of the New American Farmstead reaching students all over the country. And an endowment that is equal to the institution and its aspiration.”
Sterling College, he believes, allows him to explore the critical issue he has grappled with his entire career. “The relationship between theory and practice and the richness of the applied experience, and the challenge connected to it in how we think critically,” he declares. “I’ve never been interested in books for the sake of books. And yet, I love the arts. I love literature. I’m keenly interested in the learning that happens as one works.
“So ‘Working Hands, Working Minds’—the first time I read that I thought, ‘Well, how do they mean that?’ And then I got here and it was exactly what I believe.” •