Letter to the Community: June Update

Posted on July 14, 2020 by Meredith Woo

Dear Colleagues,

FY2020 ended in a good place. We met our target of 150 new students for the fall, in a year when most colleges are reporting a drop in enrollment. We also met our fundraising target of $6 million for unrestricted annual funds and $500,000 in restricted funds, again in the context of a significant drop in philanthropy across the country. While we cannot know how many students will return for the fall, we remain hopeful that the positive retention trajectory established before COVID-19 will continue.

We were also able to reduce expenditures for FY2020 to $26.6 million from the projected $28.5 million. This action created a savings of almost $2 million. The projection for FY2021 further brings down expenditures by approximately $3 million to $23.8 million. We were able to accomplish this without resorting to significant layoffs or reducing the offerings in the academic area. This budget is sustainable as we grow the student body to 500 without incurring additional costs.

I am grateful for all that we have accomplished together. The following report is in three parts. The first part looks back on a handful of noteworthy accomplishments in 2019-2020. The second part describes three things I would like to see us accomplish as a community in 2020-2021. The final component is the usual detailed update I write you on the college’s operations, which covers the month of June.

(1) Accomplishments in FY2020

The way we handled the COVID-19 crisis is one. COVID-19 appeared like a caesura, breaking the rhythm of life that the college has known for over a hundred years. Faculty quickly acclimated themselves with synchronous online instruction. Teresa Garrett, Marcia Thom-Kaley and Jodi Canfield, working closely with the faculty, ensured the students stayed connected, and accommodated them in every possible way, as best they could. My leadership team managed the finances of the COVID-19 responsibly, successfully applied for federal and state funding and the support of private foundations. We carefully planned all aspects of the fall opening, including in academic, student life and health service areas, under the leadership of Jodi Canfield, whom we have come to call the “czarina of COVID-19.” This planning has led to the opening of a campus health center on the Chapel’s lower level. The center will provide health care in partnership with Centra Health. It will provide efficient and effective care via on-campus registered nurses hired through and under the supervision of Centra Health, the local Centra facility during its regular hours and urgent care services elsewhere, and 24/7 telemedicine. Located amid the student living area, it should serve as an essential reminder that Sweet Briar cares above all for its students’ health and well-being.

The transformation of the campus landscape, most recently through the addition of a magnificent greenhouse, is a statement that we are intellectually and ethically committed to sustainability. Rather than a discreet discipline or program, sustainability at Sweet Briar is a Gestalt – an organized whole that is more than its parts.

The equestrian center’s renovation may be seen in this light – as part of the organized whole. It is a statement that nestled in our rural landscape is a century-old, excellent equestrian program, essential to our “brand.” With some push in recruitment this year, the number of deposited riders doubled. We believe there is more room for enrollment growth in this area in the coming year.

Our greenhouse is designed to impress. In the coming year, our community will “own” the greenhouse operation, growing our produce, teaching our students, and bringing our neighbors together through community-supported agriculture (CSA) while experimenting with commercial production.

Management of the college has become more stable. Given the past volatility in critical positions in finance, academic affairs and enrollment management, we created a team structure in those three areas to avoid “single points of failure.” This way, personnel departure in these areas won’t necessarily threaten the operation of the college.

The finance team of Luther Griffith, Jenni Sauer and Gary Canfield (with Luther Griffith serving as primus inter pares – first among equals) is collaborative and expert. It covers all areas from finance, operations, auxiliaries, construction, and special projects, including changes necessitated by COVID-19. Each of the three has interlocking responsibilities and understandings of each other’s portfolios and a good overview.

Likewise, the academic/student affairs team of Teresa Garrett, Jodi Canfield and Marcia Thom-Kaley (with Teresa Garret as primus inter pares) has successfully managed all aspects of student academic and residential life. The fall-to-spring retention rate of 93 percent, highest in decades, is a testament to its effectiveness. The team is also shepherding all our students through all COVID-19 related changes.

Transition in enrollment management also led to creating a ballast for that operation. During the months searching for the new VP, my leadership team and I dived headlong into the weeds of enrollment management. As a result, we have developed a solid understanding of our enrollment operation to provide Aaron Basko, the new VP for enrollment management, with appropriate support and partnership. The three “outward-facing” units – admissions, communications and alumnae relations and development – are now coordinated, meeting every Tuesday to discuss all aspects of student recruitment.

AR&D and communications are now under one umbrella, with Mary Pope Hutson continuing to exercise extraordinary leadership. In taking over communications, which were not her “comfort zone,” she still met the challenge of keeping the college constituencies well-informed and spreading the word wide about the college.

Public advocacy for Sweet Briar took on great urgency starting March. Nearly overnight, we created a public relations infrastructure handling government relations, higher education advocacy, applications for COVID-related loans, private philanthropy and media.

To avail ourselves of stimulus funding, we established regular channels of communication with local elected officials and state and national officials. The alumnae also placed calls to their elected officials around the nation.

We coordinated our effort with higher education advocacy groups, such as the Council of Independent Colleges of Virginia (CICV), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), and the American Council on Education (ACE).

We received a forgivable loan of $2.5 million in paycheck protection through the Small Business Administration and are working on various loans from the USDA.

I visited in person and virtually with the editorial team or reporters for The Washington Post, US News and World Report, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, The Virginian-Pilot, Diverse Issues in Education, The News and Advance, WIQO-NPR and WSET-ABC.

Our “safe, spacious, and ready for all” campaign has generated much media coverage in The Washington Post. Susan Svrluga wrote the article (“This college is tiny and isolated. For some students during the pandemic, that sounds perfect.”) that occupied nearly a whole page in the paper’s metro section, with four photographs of our beautiful campus.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published my op-ed (“The ties that bind rural America”) advocating for government support of rural colleges that provide economic, cultural and social moorings for their communities. The Washington Examiner published another op-ed (“A one-size-fits-all solution to coronavirus could be fatal to US colleges”), making a case for small liberal arts colleges in pandemic times.

(2) Hopes for next year:

“We are still knee-deep in the first wave” of the coronavirus outbreak, said Dr. Anthony Fauci. We are also knee-deep in the first wave of a tsunami that will challenge the model of higher education in every possible way: pedagogic, infrastructural and in employment. If we remain frozen with fear or move in the same direction as large universities’ multitudes, we will be washed away in the tsunami.

In this time of unprecedented crisis, we might live by the precept “too small to fail.” That means continuously building our “brand” that is authentic and long-standing, investing in innovative academic programs that distinguish us, and developing a culture of collaboration and unity that is truly unique to small institutions. They constitute three goals that I would like to accomplish with you in the coming year.

First, I hope we will together strengthen the ties between our leadership core, and other curricular and co-curricular activities. For instance, the success of our equestrian recruitment this year reminds us that it can be encouraged in the context of women’s leadership, agricultural initiatives, and as part of the whole that form the afore-mentioned Gestalt of sustainability that provides the sense of the college.

Second, our academic repositioning, which was underway in 2018, is showing results and certainly helped us meet our target in enrolling new students. Among those students who have deposited for the fall, a significant percentage indicated an interest in STEM programs, including biology, engineering, environmental science, pre-vet and psychology. Students also continue to express interest in other areas of the liberal arts – humanities, performing arts, social sciences. We are very encouraged by what we are seeing and will want to stay the course and continue our investment – both academic and infrastructural – in these areas.

Third – and quite possibly most critical – is the need to build greater trust and unity across the college. The brilliance of a small college – one that is too small to fail – is predicated on the culture of collaboration, innovation, and shared commitment, and a firm understanding that this culture is built upon shared values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we transition from the post-2015 crisis to a period of normalcy and stability, we will need to work together to create a governance structure that works for all and a campus environment that welcomes and supports everyone.

(3) What we did in June:


The team led by Aaron Baskow continues to minimize “melts” and add new deposits, while it works with ten deposited international students to get them ashore.

The Washington Post article on Sweet Briar was emailed to roughly 200,000 students, parents and guidance counselors in our database. Throughout the coming year and beyond, we will continue to promote the college as a smart and safe choice.

The application for admission is now open for the Class of 2025, one month earlier than last year. We have already received the first application. We are in the thick of converting junior “inquiries” into senior “applications” through emails, postcards, and texts. We have also purchased nearly 50,000 additional names of seniors.

Academics, Athletics, Student Life

Teresa Garrett has been meeting with each faculty member to work through their teaching needs. The needs vary, depending on the subject matter, the size of the class, and the faculty and students’ circumstances. The logistics are complicated, but she is handling each case with patience, compassion and wisdom.

The good news is that 125 first-year students have registered for the fall. The faculty has done a terrific job advising students, and letting us know of non-responsive students, so the admissions and student life teams can help bring them on board.

The first part of the “Alumnae College” was held on June 27, and the second part last Saturday, with six faculty members who teach in the leadership core.

Students continue to be engaged. A group of students working in conjunction with the college’s COVID-19 task force has developed a community pledge and established protocols for students in the fall. Student government association meetings are held at regular intervals. The “big’s” and “little’s” are meeting virtually, and all are looking forward to returning to the college.

On happier notes, our swimming team was named Scholar All America team by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA). Kudos to our women! Casey Grogan, our sports information director, has been profiling student-athletes throughout the summer in “Sweet Spotlights.”

Jim Kirkwood, professor of mathematics, is retiring after four decades at Sweet Briar. He has authored numerous mathematics textbooks – most recently in 2017 – and received several National Science Foundation grants and awards from the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC) and State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV).

Two dance professors – Ella and Mark Magruders – will also be retiring after 35 years on faculty. Most beloved for their generosity and commitment to our students, they have inspired many to pursue their dreams as dancers and teachers. The Magruder Award for Excellence in Dance is established in recognition of their contribution.

Finance, Operation and Auxiliaries

We completed the greenhouse, sans minor details on the punch list. It is magnificent. Lisa Powell, associate professor of environmental science, and her crew are working around the clock, learning how to operate this state-of-the-art contraption, with all its marvels, quirks, and exciting temperament. Peeking out of earth are the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, beets and others that will feed our students as they return in early August. We have been donating produce to Neighbors Helping Neighbors and the food bank for the Monacan Indian Nation.

The renovation of the stables is coming along nicely. The overall structure is the same – but everything else new and beautiful. The doors to the stables are big and stunning, signaling the historical significance of our equestrian program. The Bayley Room, which connects the two stables, is being re-made, with panoramic viewing windows into the arena. Other improvements include a new bathroom, a new team room and a break room – plus air-conditioning!

The new health center in the lower level of the Chapel broke ground in June. It is on a fast track to be open by the first week of August. There are four examination rooms and supporting facilities; and additional areas for mental and behavioral health. Our healthcare partner, Centra Health, has been involved in every aspect of designing this health center. One physician who came out to inspect it said, “I wish I could work here!”

We completed the sale of VCCA, and the proceeds are now invested in our endowment. The News and Advance carried the story.

Alumnae Relations, Development, Communications

I opened this update on the fundraising record, which speaks for itself. As we work to grow our enrollment, contributions from alumnae, friends, grants and other sources play a vital role in supporting the college’s operations and will continue to help us invest in ongoing priorities and new initiatives.

Finally, I want to close by thanking all of you for your hard work and dedication to Sweet Briar. I hope you will enjoy what remains of the summer!

Meredith Woo

July 14, 2020