Letter to the Community: April Update

Posted on April 26, 2019 by Meredith Woo

April 25, 2019

Dear members of the Sweet Briar community,

Last Friday, I was walking on campus with a job candidate — a fine economist, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University — when I noticed Nathan Kluger, our director of agricultural enterprises, on his hands and knees, digging into the earth at the roundabout west of Fletcher. By his side was Paul Munn, our new horticulturist, who has become a ubiquitous presence, including during early hours when along with his grounds crew he is seen weeding flower beds, trimming plants and mulching. That morning, Nathan and Paul were planting different varieties of day lilies, Japanese irises, sedums, daisies and hyssop. Such care of one of the nation’s most iconic campuses has been a long time coming, as we put in place a long-term plan for deer management and finally, the possibility of effective landscaping.

On April 30, Sweet Briar House will be showcased as part of the Historic Garden Week in Virginia, often known as “America’s Largest Open House.” Weather cooperating, we expect hundreds of visitors to come through the historical Sweet Briar House, which dates back to the 1790s, and its gardens. The College will never look better — with dogwoods, both cultivated hybrids and native, service berries, redbuds and crabapple trees. Soon we will see the blooming of black cherries, yellow tulip tree poplars, and Southern grandiflora magnolia. Daisy’s Garden now has historical as well as culinary herbs, like basil, thyme, chives, oregano and rosemary. Before long we should be on our way to beginning the heirloom historical vegetable garden, in the style of the historical Monticello gardens.

Deposits for fall enrollment continue strong, up 21% from this time last year, and on target to meet our goals. Given our history and the national trend for late deposits, we are told by experts to look toward the second week of June for the best confidence of where we will land. I spent the last couple of weekends calling accepted students who have been named Presidential Scholars, our most prestigious merit scholarship award. They are among the highest academic achievers, and the yield rate among them — the percentage of admitted students who enroll — is as high as 67%. I like their enthusiasm as well as their appreciation of Sweet Briar and what we have to offer. These students excel in the classroom as in life outside of it. Students matter most here, and we will always try to do right by them.

The Board of Directors of Sweet Briar College had its spring meeting on April 12 and 13. The three important agenda items were the FY2020 budget; the campaign for Sweet Briar’s priorities; and streamlining board governance.

The proposed and approved budget for FY2020 is balanced. As enrollment goes up as proportion of the total revenue, in a seesaw-like manner, the proportion of the unrestricted funds should come down. As the latter comes down, we will be ramping up our capital campaign, which had been two years in the planning, for the important priorities for our future.

The first important priority is the enrollment, larger and better, of the next generation of Sweet Briar women. A key component is fundraising for the Presidential Scholar Program, for which we have set a goal to raise $25 million over the next five years. I am most pleased to tell you that we received last week our first significant commitment toward that goal. Second, but no less urgent, is academic innovation, supporting the centers of excellence, core facilities (particularly Babcock and Guion), faculty positions and curriculum development, for a total of $67 million; and improving student and residence life, including investment in athletic and equestrian facilities which account for another $10 million. Finally, we are focused on the stewardship of our natural and built environment. The inheritance of ours — 3,250 acres in the rolling Piedmont — is, not to put too fine a point on it, a burden. But it is also a joyful burden. We estimate another $19 million to bring back, and improve upon, the campus that used to be counted among the five most beautiful in the land.

The board also took an action that is most unusual because it is difficult. It proceeded to remake itself, taking seriously the dictum that Dan Jordan, an old friend of the College who has been working closely with the board, believes in: “the capacity of the board determines the capacity of the College.” The mission of the board is to protect the College, and to enhance its prestige. As the terms of the members of the post-2015 “settlement board” expire, and their important work is transitioning from saving to strengthening, there has been a steady influx of new members with national influence, with genuine interest in the mission of the College. The new board voted to reform its own cumbersome governance structure, reducing the number of its committees by half, so as to focus its attention on supporting the College’s priorities.

Last but not the least, our equestrian team came home with another medal — this time the equestrian championship of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC). And for the fourth time in her career, Sweet Briar’s own Mimi Wroten ’93 was named ODAC Coach of the Year. What an incredible accomplishment on top of making the quarterfinals at the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) national championship in Waco, where Emily Schlosberg ’19 and Maggie Fraley ’22 posted record scores over fences. Soon our Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) team heads to nationals in Syracuse. Kudos to our riders and the faculty and staff who support them!


Meredith Woo