Letter to the Community

Posted on August 28, 2017 by Meredith Woo

August 28, 2017

Dear Sweet Briar Community:

Under a clear sky embracing the green dells we love, our College launched the new academic year last week — just as it has done year after year, for the last 112 years.

For the new students crisscrossing the Quad in excitement, history was in the here and now and had meaning primarily in its heralding of the future — as it should be for 18-year-old students.

A few weeks before their arrival, though, the campus also housed over one hundred remarkable alumnae of Sweet Briar. Together with staff and faculty, they prepared the campus for the new and returning students. Grammer, Meta Glass, Carson and Manson now have new and gleaming wood floors in place of decades old carpet. Over two hundred rooms and halls were cleaned and brightened with fresh paint. The vast grounds on campus were weeded, pruned, raked and mulched. The inscriptions on the wall and the balustrades along Benedict were pressure-washed to shine the light on the architecture on campus. This architecture, dignified and elegant, has defined for many generations the sensibilities of the women at Sweet Briar.

When they departed — just as the students were pouring in — I felt the sadness of separation. They are professionals: doctors, professors, accountants, and lawyers. They are also daughters, mothers, wives, sisters, and increasingly care-givers for their elderly parents. They came to retrieve the past when they were coming of age and to make it meaningful for the young women who will come after them.

The incoming class is brilliant: energetic, eager, and diverse. When you have been a teacher for as long as I have, you don’t need the data to tell you whether you have a great class or not. You can look them in the eyes, watch their movements and feel the energy in the air. Our new incoming students represent 23 states; 16 percent self-identified as minorities; 19 percent are first generation college students; 14 percent are Sweet Briar legacies; and 31 percent are student-athletes.

With the new class at 95 students, consisting of 81 first years and 14 transfers, the on-campus enrollment is roughly 300 this fall — about half of where we were when the campus was emptied of students only two years ago. As a new president coming in, unencumbered in large measure by the expectations of the past two years, this student body provides a good foundation on which to build our future.

As the smaller classes of 2018 and 2019 graduate in the next two years, we will grow in size and we will always endeavor to protect our academic integrity as we have done successfully with this incoming class. The College has a multi-year financial plan that is clear-eyed and conservative. Small as we may be — and Sweet Briar has always been a small school — we will continue to provide one of the finest educations obtainable anywhere in the world.

During last week’s convocation, I discussed with the faculty and students what distinguishes education at Sweet Briar, one that is only possible in a small, intimate setting. This kind of liberal arts education is centered on students (not instructors), on learning (not information delivery), on thinking (not memorization), and on doing (not just theorizing). It is also a very American style of education — something the rest of the world envies and seeks to emulate.

The faculty leaders at Sweet Briar worked hard over the summer to produce guiding principles for what they call a core curriculum, which they hope to implement in the Fall of 2018. The new core will replace the General Education program. It is a set of a dozen courses that are integrated along a theme and easy to navigate. The theme that defines education at Sweet Briar has coalesced around the notion of leadership, one that takes into consideration the requirements of the time and place and anticipates the future.

The world that our students will enter is one remarkably different than the one I or the faculty encountered at that same point in our lives. It will be more diverse, more fragmented, more transitory, faster-paced, and with power and influence more decentralized and multitudinous. It will have more new technologies and industries, all churning with faster cycles of creative destruction, and not all of them favorably inclined to women. Meanwhile, the age-old questions of morality, accountability and commitment will continue to press on, with greater urgency than ever before.

Our core curriculum on leadership will grapple with these environmental issues — with a focus on this agency: women leaders. In the proposed core curriculum, the students will acquire through instruction and experience what it means to be primus inter pares, first among equals. They will learn the best of collegial leadership, the ability to lead through example. It is a kind of leadership unknown except in democratic polity. I also believe, as do the faculty, that this is the type of leadership that women provide so well, and our society desperately needs.

This, then, is the aim of our core curriculum. As in other liberal arts curricula, we focus on the education of the whole person — but in our case, it is the whole woman, who takes the complex reality of today’s womanhood to remake the world in her image, with all the intelligence, skills, and courage she can muster. “Women of consequence” is how the faculty prefers to refer to this ideal-type. There is a ring to it that I like, and I hope you do, too.

The faculty is also developing three Centers of Excellence around which their intellectual energy may coalesce. These centers are important because they will be the reasons, along with the core curriculum, why the students will want to attend Sweet Briar rather than other liberal arts schools. The centers will be destination places defined by excellence and will be responsible for producing courses for the core curriculum.

One such center focuses on human and environmental sustainability. The issues and challenges around the sustainability issues are well known to our faculty from fields like archaeology, anthropology, history, biology, environmental sciences, and engineering. The key is to bring together their intellectual energy to pose the old questions in new ways, understand new problems and find solutions — with our students.

Another center is focused on science and technology. One can envision a situation where faculty from the Art Barn might teach with engineers in Guion — in a course, it is suggested, called Engineering Art. I have also read a proposal for this center which envisions deep collaboration with technology firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to imagine the shape of the next generation of media (or “next media”). To invent the next Facebook or Instagam is something that perhaps only the eighteen to twenty-two year olds can do best.

Finally, there will be another center, premised on deep collaboration across Highway 29, with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. This collaboration will be greatly facilitated through the revised academic calendar to go into effect for Fall 2018. The new calendar will allow students and faculty to immerse themselves in three-week intensive courses, thus to allow artists and practitioners from various fields to come to Sweet Briar to partake in the joyful business of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing. In addition to 3 week courses, there will also be more traditional courses spanning 12 weeks (but not 15 weeks!); and the possibility of graduating in three years in an all-year round campus, with a fourth-year to obtain a Master’s degree.

As I shared at Convocation last week, the centers are still being developed with the faculty. The concepts and progress were also presented at Board of Director’s meetings that took place over this weekend. In addition to the discussion on enrollment and academics, the directors also discussed fundraising, finance, campus stewardship and other matters that are summarized as follows.

Mary Pope Hutson, Vice President for Alumnae Relations and Development, reported the fundraising results for 2016-2017. The total was over $20 million, consisting of $14 million in gifts and grants for the year, as well as $6.8 million in future pledges. This spectacular result is by far the greatest achievement in giving in Sweet Briar’s history. (For many years prior to 2015, $2 million in annual unrestricted giving was a reach goal.) Mary Pope Hutson reviewed with the Board the possibility of a formal capital campaign over the next few years and the steps required to research, plan, develop and launch it. She also provided an update on special presidential initiatives including residence hall refurbishment and Living with Art initiative, where each student will have an original piece of art from Sweet Briar’s collection hung in their room.

At the Alumnae Committee, the same Mary Pope Hutson gave a briefing on alumnae engagement in 2016-17, which continues its remarkable run, and shared priorities for 2017-18. Starting September 6 in Richmond, she has planned for a 17-city presidential tour where I will share more details on the academic enhancements forthcoming.

The Finance Committee reviewed the revised budget for FY18 along with the audit schedule. Early information on employees electing to participate in the Voluntary Early Retirement plan was shared. Rocky Query, Vice President for Finance, delivered a summary on Parkhurst Dining officially managing the College’s dining services effective August 13, explaining that Parkhurst is a good partner for Sweet Briar because we are both small operations, allowing us to be flexible to best meet the nutritional needs of our students. It was noted that Parkhurst’s local sourcing practice supports Sweet Briar’s commitment to sustainability. Finally, the firm that manages the College’s endowment portfolio presented an annual review of our fund management. The College’s endowment value stood at $73.9 million as of June 30, 2017.

The Directors Committee recommended appointing Liza Lee and Gillian Munson to the Board, and the Board unanimously approved. After seeking nominations, the committee put forward the following slate of officers: Teresa Pike Tomlinson ’87, chair; Georgene Vairo ’72, vice chair; and Bernie Neimeier, secretary. The Board unanimously approved the slate.

Other board committees reported to include the Buildings and Grounds Committee discussion of future campus systems upgrades and best practices land management and the Inauguration Committee discussion of the upcoming September 22nd festivities and the broad outreach to Sweet Briar constituency groups.

With the new year successfully launched, I look forward to vigorous discussions on campus on all matters of importance — for the College, for the country and the world, and above all, for you. Welcome to a spectacular year ahead.

Very sincerely yours,

Meredith Woo

President, Sweet Briar College