Letter to the Community: Update on Curricular Realignment and Core

Posted on December 19, 2017 by Meredith Woo

December 15, 2017

Dear Members of the Sweet Briar Community,

We have successfully completed the fall term, as we have done year after year, for over one hundred years. This was also my first semester at Sweet Briar, bookended by two meaningful sets of events.

The fall started with an announcement of academic restructuring, including the decision to create a core curriculum in lieu of general education; establish three “centers of excellence” to distinguish Sweet Briar from other colleges; and streamline our majors. We also reset our tuition to price Sweet Briar’s education nearly at par with flagship state institutions.

The fall ended with real results. Last week, the faculty at Sweet Briar unveiled the details of the new core curriculum focused on women’s leadership. This core curriculum consists of ten courses. The most basic course is called “design thinking,” which is about strategies of problem-solving. The other courses include science of decision-making (like statistics); argument and persuasion; ethics; women and leadership; sustainable systems; arts; science and technology in society; and two practicums on leadership.

This “integrated core” reflects months of hard work by our faculty. I believe it is nearly unprecedented for the faculty to overhaul the curriculum as effectively as they have done at Sweet Briar. The core invites our students to look squarely upon the problems our world faces, and craft the solutions in an inclusive and collegial environment.

The issue of majors is long standing. Currently there are thirty-five majors at Sweet Briar, and some do not have declared majors. Therefore, our academic programs will be restructured, evenly spread out across the sciences, humanities, and social sciences — each consisting of five majors — and an integrated major in “performing arts.”

Humanities: (1) English and creative writing (2) modern languages (3) philosophy (4) classics and archaeology (5) art and art history.

Sciences: (6) engineering and physics (7) computational sciences including math (8) biology and bio-chemistry (9) psychology (10) environmental sciences.

Social sciences: (11) history (12) government and international affairs (13) Liberal studies and Master of Arts in teaching (14) economics (15) business.

Finally, the performing arts major will include tracks in music, theatre and dance. At the same time, we will increase our support for pre-med, pre-vet, and pre-law programs, as well as “self-designed” majors.

Excellence requires focused investment. To ensure that the new core curriculum and the streamlined majors are of the highest quality, we will make five new faculty hires within the next two years. The exact positions will be decided by the faculty based on what they deem strategic to support the curriculum, but may include investment in economics, history and modern languages.

Considered a critical field for contemporary study, modern languages will be restructured to add important languages of the future and to focus squarely on language proficiency. English instruction will focus on creative and persuasive writing in line with the new core. Chemistry will better support engineering, biology and pre-med. The majors for which there are few or no declared majors will be sunset, and the small number of affected students will have pathways to complete their majors. All curriculum changes are effective beginning with the 2018-19 academic year.

We will intensify our focus on students. In 2018 we will be rolling out new student life initiatives, including living-learning communities, a formalized team approach to advising (faculty, career, alumnae) and career planning from year one.

We also reaffirm our commitment to sustainability and stewardship of the campus’s resources, both natural and built. The College is working with the local community and passionate alumnae on multiple projects in the areas of renewable energy, land conservation and preservation of its historic assets. Twenty-one buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Finally, I am pleased to inform you that this week, Standard and Poor upgraded Sweet Briar’s bond ratings to “B+” from “B,” with an outlook of “stable.” The report specifically named Sweet Briar’s overhaul of strategic initiatives and developing related objectives to address the College’s immediate and intermediate priorities that include curriculum restructuring; reexamination of the tuition policy; implementation of multi-year planning; continued elevated fundraising support; and astute financial management and budgeting practices.

I am enormously proud that we are able to work closely together to bring about important changes — and all of this, under the watchful eyes of the nation. I feel exceptionally privileged to be leading the College at this time, and most thankful for your hard work.


Meredith Woo

President, Sweet Briar College