Letter to the Community: March Update

Posted on March 04, 2019 by Meredith Woo

March 4, 2019

In many cultures and religions, the month of March, which begins the spring, also begins the new year. It was so in the very old Roman calendar as well, with the name itself deriving from the Roman god of war, Mars; after the winter months, the idea goes, war again resumes.

In the same spirit of readiness, allow me to open with an update that will get your competitive juices flowing. One of the smallest colleges in the nation, Sweet Briar competes with the mammoth Division I universities in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), the equivalent of the NCAA for the equestrian sport. We were the first Division III school to be invited to compete at this highest level, and we remain one of only two. We are nationally ranked No. 6 over fences, ahead of Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Baylor and other large universities known for great equestrian programs. We are also nationally ranked No. 9 on the flat.

How a tiny women’s college in rural Virginia competes with the largest and the greatest equestrian programs in the nation may be a puzzle that defies mathematics, but it is not a fluke because our bench is deep: Our Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) team secured Zone 4 and will compete in the regional championship in April.

For a college that has thrown down its gauntlet for a core program on leadership, athletics is extremely important. Athletics exemplifies both the spirit and the habits of leaders — the determination to strive for the best, as well as perseverance against the odds and the ability to work just as well with teammates as against adversaries. I am most pleased to report that our swim team tied for 8th in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) championships, ahead of much larger schools, including Virginia Wesleyan, Guilford and Greensboro. Our cross-country team was honored with a 2018 NCAA Division III All-Academic Award, meeting a minimum team GPA of 3.0.

Tennis, golf and lacrosse all began practice and competition a couple of weeks ago, and as the March “season of war” resumes in the calendar, we will look forward to more excellent news from Vixen athletics.

In the last meeting of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors, which took place on campus on February 22-23, I discussed the College’s strategies and best estimates for success. There are three key variables on which we are focused.

The first is enrollment. In three years — that is, by Fall 2021 — we aim for the size of the student body to be restored to approximately 624, higher than the status quo ante before 2015. These students should be the right fit for Sweet Briar — smart, talented and committed, who join us for the right reasons, and when they graduate, they will carry the torch forward as the world beaters that are Sweet Briar women.

The growth of the student body to 412 in Fall 2019, and to 514 in Fall 2020, and 624 in Fall 2021 requires that we grow by 30 percent this coming fall, then 25 percent, and dropping to 21 percent — and to level off at a single digit in 2024. Is that doable? We think so. The class that will graduate this May has fewer than 30 students, and the incoming class we estimate will be between 155 and 175. The math works in our favor.

If we meet this target by the fall of 2021, our budget will be in balance with a modest surplus, even with significantly reduced unrestricted dollars.

By Fall 2023, we hope to have inched toward 800, a number never before attained in Sweet Briar’s history. At this size, when we begin to benefit from the economy of scale, we will be at “financial equilibrium” as our annual revenue becomes more predictable, the drawdown on our endowment continues to be conservative, the assumptions underlying our expenditures are defensible, and we can begin to reinvest in a meaningful way in faculty and staff as we address, more rigorously, the deferred issue of maintenance.

The second is the continuous recalibration of our budget. The cost of operating our college is mainly labor. In the last 18 months we have restructured our budget by rationalizing our academic offerings and the support structure. It was an extremely difficult undertaking but inevitable to ensure our survival. We will need to continue our disciplined approach to budgeting, and make sure we do not slide back. We will continue to practice zero-based budgeting, with a select focus this year on the Offices of Technology Services and Human Resources.

The third is the judicious management across various forms of capital. Without sounding overly impersonal, it is probably fair to say that the greatest capital we have is “human capital,” one that is excellent as it is appropriate for the College that means to define its liberal arts program through its emphasis on women’s leadership. On the administrative and academic support side, the transformation has been nearly complete at the top level, and it has moved down through the capillaries of the system. On the faculty side there were excellent hires last year, and more hires are happening this year with five positions being posted nationally. We aim to create a professoriate of academics and practitioners that is stable and committed as well as fitting for a liberal arts curriculum that is multidisciplinary and oriented toward problem-solving.

The stewardship of our financial capital — our endowment — has taken three forms: (1) Rather than relying on an index fund as we have done for many years past, we have now chosen an outsourced chief investment officer (OCIO) approach to manage the investment of our endowment. With some of the finest intelligences in endowment management helping us in the selection process, we are pleased with the outcome. (2) Our responsible draw policy, which has not deviated from 5 percent in recent years, will continue to protect and grow the corpus of the endowment; and (3) Our fundraising strategy includes a mix of unrestricted and restricted annual funds and significant additions to our endowment.

Our physical capital consists famously of 3,200 acres of spectacular land, with the campus core that is designated as a National Register Historic District — and with one of the largest collections of Ralph Adams Cram architecture in the nation. In the last 12 months we have completed inventories of all campus facilities and, with the help of an architectural firm in Charlottesville, finished a preliminary study to renovate Guion and Babcock, and in a more limited way, Pannell and Benedict.

The greatest — and most visual — transformation underway is in our farm and land. The 20 acres of wildflower meadow will soon light up the area west of the butterfly garden and up to the Green Barn, as the first crop of honey will be harvested from the apiary in June. Vineyard construction is in the design phase. After a prolonged period of anxiety over rain, we used a few days of long and bright sun to start the installation of deer fencing, trellis and planting. Also in the design stage is the 27,000-square-foot greenhouse at the old lower tennis courts, which I am told will be ready to produce by mid-summer, giving us a sustainable food source which will also generate auxiliary revenues.

Another type of physical capital that we possess but rarely discuss is the art collection — 4,432 pieces in total, many of which have been collected by the Friends of Art. Highlights from the collection are on display in Pannell Gallery, with weekly discussions offered by Professor Annie Labatt, director of galleries and museums. Professor Labatt’s team is currently at work digitizing the collection in order to move the information to a web kiosk.

In my presentation to the board, I also discussed the contingency plan in the event that we miss our target for either enrollment or fundraising, or we are faced with a precipitous drop in the stock market that will affect our endowment. We are fortunate to have the funds that the Attorney General released in 2015, to be used while we grow our enrollment but which have stayed largely intact.

The College also presented a fundraising plan that ramps up our investment on priorities to support growth and innovation while reducing our reliance on annual funds. Currently, unrestricted annual funds make up 41 percent of our revenue while tuition makes up 33 percent. This ratio will change in a seesaw manner — as the unrestricted fundraising goes down as the percentage of revenue, tuition revenue will go up. The detail that underlies the hard work by Vice President Mary Pope Hutson and her team, working with faculty and staff, was deeply appreciated by the board.

Finally, the board engaged in a self-reflective discussion on the role of governance at a time when private residential colleges are going through profound transformations. Dr. Dan Jordan, who had led the transformation of Monticello’s board, facilitated the discussion.

There is no gainsaying of the challenges ahead of us — as there are for all liberal arts colleges save the truly privileged ones. But what we don’t have in the way of resources as yet, we have in spirit, in abundance. Sweet Briar commands the respect and admiration of the nation for its scrappy, can-do spirit. Our collective work is tiring, and I am deeply grateful for the faculty and staff on the ground for their commitment to our students, and maintaining unity and optimism in these challenging times. Along with the thousands of our alumnae and friends who have supported us, they have worked true wonders.