Letter to the Community: End of Year Report

Posted on August 21, 2018 by Meredith Woo

August 20, 2018

Dear members of the Sweet Briar community,

As our students arrive on campus for a new academic year, I wanted to give you an update on the year that has just ended. It was also my first year as president of Sweet Briar College. In spite of the challenges before us, we have accomplished much together, and I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart for your perseverance and faith.

I am pleased to report that we have 126 new students joining us in the fall. This marks a 32 percent increase from last year, with an improved mean grade point average of 3.51 (from 3.34) and a mean combined SAT of 1100 (from 1071). Our students now come from 31 states and the District of Columbia, and nine foreign countries: Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Mongolia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine.

Our fundraising target of $13 million in unrestricted gifts and grants is surpassed. The result is $18.4 million, with $13.1 million in unrestricted gifts for FY 2018 and another $6.3 million committed for future years. The fundraising requirement for FY 2019 in unrestricted gifts and grants is expected to be $10 million.

We always knew that the burden of fundraising would be great in the years immediately following 2015; and also, that this burden must be brought down rapidly as we increase enrollment. In FY 2016, fundraising accounted for 82 percent of total expenditure of the College. In FY 2017 it was 73 percent, and in FY 2018 it was 55 percent. In FY 2019, we project that it will be 39 percent. Sweet Briar is now on a financially sustainable path.

The budget for FY 2018 was balanced after a modest planned deficit of $700,000, reserved for one-time costs associated with workforce realignment. The budget for FY 2019, which was approved by the board of the College in June, is balanced, with no planned deficit. The main drivers for this are the increase in enrollment and the reduction of $3.1 million in recurring payroll expenditures.

When I arrived on campus, it was clear that Sweet Briar needed an academic curriculum with which it can distinguish itself. Its business model had to be re-thought, preferably with a new tuition pricing strategy. Recurring expenditures, mostly payroll, had to be curtailed drastically. These imperatives constituted three main components of a comprehensive restructuring that was announced in September and successfully carried out by December 2017.

Working with the faculty, we jettisoned the general education program with its byzantine requirements that proliferated academic offerings and replaced it with a simple and distinctive program of a “leadership core.” We reduced academic programs from 40-plus majors to 17, eliminating more than 200 course offerings out of 600 on the books for the coming year, and rewrote the curriculum in an academic restructuring document that exceeded over 400 pages. The faculty also voted to create three centers of excellence, around which the remaining majors will coalesce: engineering and science, sustainability, and the arts. Along with the “core,” they will be the foci of Sweet Briar’s unique interdisciplinary liberal arts education.

At the same time, we conducted a careful analysis of our pricing strategy and decided to reduce the tuition from $36,000 to $21,000 and decrease the comprehensive discount rate from nearly 70 percent to half that level. Some of the nation’s best financial minds worked on this project pro bono, for months on end. The process went smoothly and we continue to receive calls for advice from small colleges around the country. There is little doubt that the tuition reset played a significant part in the increase in new enrollment this fall.

The leadership team is new, with the exception of Mary Pope Hutson ’83, vice president for alumnae relations and development (AR&D). The newly constituted leadership team has acted quickly to bring managerial discipline to their units and implement new strategies. This is a strong and cohesive team, and deeply committed to the long-term success of Sweet Briar.

On the academic side, effort continued through the spring to execute the curricular changes. To meet the needs of students whose majors and minors were affected, the dean of the College met with every student to work out plans to enable her to graduate on time, and hired adjunct faculty as needed to meet the requirements.

The College has signed a collaboration agreement with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), which will bring in the Sweet Briar-VCCA fellows for spring 2019. Meanwhile, the Honors Program was updated and revised for high-performing students; and for struggling students, the College implemented a revised structure for consultations, alerts and warnings and, in general, ramped up greatly our support for academic advising.

One of the most notable changes in the structure of the College is the merger of the offices of communications and admissions. This merged operation has been responsible for the rollout of the new “FIERCE” brand, involving regional and national advertising campaigns which resulted in more than 16 million digital impressions, awareness to 1.4 million weekly radio listeners and visibility to 4 million airport travelers, 350 million premium mall shoppers, and more than one million magazine readers.

Relying entirely on its internal resources, this merged operation designed a strategy for the curriculum and tuition reset (“Excellent. Relevant. Affordable.”), which garnered positive national attention for Sweet Briar College as a new model for private liberal arts institutions, increased total applications by 25 percent and new enrollment by 32 percent, and expanded brand awareness to millions.

AR&D and the Alumnae Alliance worked with the communications and admissions operation to reignite the Admissions Ambassador program to expand the reach of recruitment efforts, mobilizing 375 volunteers to staff more than 200 college fairs, generating nearly 2,000 inquiries.

The main strategy of AR&D for the FY 2018 fundraising was enhanced by the communication of our academic vision through the presidential tour. With the AR&D leadership team I travelled to more than 30 cities to meet with alumnae in gatherings large and small, and whenever possible, to visit national and family foundations as well as independent schools that can serve as sources of new students for us.

Particularly worth noting in the remarkable success of the Sweet Briar Fund are the March Days of Giving. A challenge gift provided by an alumna had a buoying effect that eventually netted over $2 million in ten days. We also launched a new Parents Council within AR&D that engaged parents with student recruitment and retention, athletics, marketing and student life.

The quality of residential life was greatly enhanced through the introduction in January of Meriwether Godsey, a local dining service that now provides superlative meals for our community with an emphasis on farm-to-table dining. The management on campus is directed by an alumna, Marlene Delledera ’82, who handles the complex operation that includes catering with sophistication and good humor. The dining area was redesigned and redecorated to make it more welcoming, adding community farm tables, new art works, class banners and national flags representing the countries our students hail from.

All rooms in four residence halls, more than 200 of them, were freshly painted last summer by the Sweet Work Weeks volunteers, and two more dormitories — Reid and Randolph — were painted in the last three weeks. Through the Living with Art Initiative, hundreds of prints in our museum collection were framed and hung in student rooms. Additionally, 400 pieces of student art, constituting the finest selections from the last four decades, were framed and displayed in various buildings throughout the campus.

There is also a new proctored study hall, which helps students manage their study time. Other activities include a partnership with the Student Government Association to create a Day of Thanks; providing joint training of resident advisors with campus security; revising the judiciary committee; and instituting a community service project and other activities with Hampden-Sydney College as well as VMI. The Outdoor Program has been revitalized in partnership with the University of Lynchburg.

After an extensive study, the College has also entered into partnership with Horizon Mental Health and Blue Ridge Medical Center to offer our students more options for on-campus health care.

With our core curriculum centered around leadership, the College is again intensely focused on our athletes. To make sure there is greater coordination between athletics, riding and academics, and to signal the importance of athletics in leadership training, the reporting line for athletics was moved directly to my office. In February, a detailed external review of athletics was conducted, then a national search was soon underway for a new director. Jodi Canfield joined us a few weeks ago from St. Lawrence University, where she served as assistant athletics director. Having already participated in recruiting our replacement coaches for soccer and cross-country, she is currently leading the search for a swimming coach.

This is an exciting time for Vixen Athletics, led by a seasoned and respected leader with in-depth Division III experience. The new coaches also come with requisite experience and expertise, and they are ready for a great year. The leadership of ODAC has been most supportive, and we look forward to a successful recruitment season.

Another important change was in finance and administration, which oversees the business office, facilities, campus safety, the Book Shop, The Florence Elston Inn and Conference Center, technology services and the post office. Before the arrival in April of the new vice president, Lori Husein, this post was successively occupied by short-term appointments. In short time, Lori Husein has made sure that the performance of the business office and other outfit was rapidly improved. Three important priorities for the College in this portfolio included the following.

First, the College produced a zero-based budget that is balanced for FY 2019. At the request of the chairwoman of our board’s Finance Committee, our endowment assets were also carefully reviewed and reclassified to allow for a more strategic deployment of resources.

Second, the College produced a financial model that would allow for a number of scholarships to positively impact student profile and increase enrollment. It will be the mainstay of restricted fundraising in FY 2019. We have modeled first-year recruiting figures to create our target for FY 2022, when my first term as president will be completed, and walked backward to create a multiyear plan. Working with consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, we will utilize these models to determine the best approach for awarding financial aid for FY 2020.

Third, the exploration of auxiliary enterprises was accelerated, especially around sustainable agriculture. An apiary is being installed with 20 bee hives, which will benefit students in biology, ecology and environmental sciences. It is situated in the northwestern part of the butterfly field, and adjacent to the apiary will be a 20-acre wildflower meadow. Under discussion are plans for the on-campus production of the food we consume in Prothro, and a number of other possibilities.

The discussion on sustainable agriculture was a central discussion at the board of directors’ meeting, which took place Aug. 10-11. There was an extensive discussion on the history of agriculture at Sweet Briar, as well as a comprehensive study on future prospects. The board has asked us to continue working with students, faculty, staff and outside experts to fully explore the potential.

Finally, this board meeting also saw an important leadership transition. Teresa Pike Tomlinson ’87 concluded her service after three remarkable years as chairwoman of the board of Sweet Briar College, and passed the torch to Georgene Vairo, the vice chairwoman. An icon of the movement to save Sweet Briar, Teresa Tomlinson gave a rousing commencement speech in 2015 in which she spoke powerfully of the need for accountability in leadership. For the next three years, she showed through example how to create that accountability, by increasing transparency in governance and improving communication with college constituencies. With President Phil Stone who preceded me, and later myself, she led numerous town hall meetings to update the community on the College. She also worked tirelessly to increase Sweet Briar’s visibility, attending college fairs where she could, and organizing in one instance a group of prospective students from Georgia to visit campus.

I am personally indebted to Teresa Tomlinson in that she led the search that brought me to Sweet Briar. I still remember as if it were yesterday the passion she showed for her alma mater, and her extraordinary talent for leadership. Sweet Briar is truly fortunate to have her as one of its greatest advocates.

With all the best wishes,

Meredith Woo