November Community Update

Posted on December 09, 2020 by William Alexander

Dear Members of the Sweet Briar Community,

With the Commonwealth of Virginia reporting over 4,000 new COVID-19 cases today, the health crisis is closer to home. Jodi Canfield informed me early this morning of another positive case, for a total of two positive cases within the staff. As we wish them swift recovery, we want to recognize the commitment all of you have shown to our students and to one another through the semester.

And in this holiday season, the College particularly wants to express its gratitude to our “Sweet Heroes” – the employees in housekeeping, campus safety, equestrian work, and grounds-keeping, many of whom had to come to campus every day as their roles could only be carried out in-person. In recognition of their work, the “Sweet Heroes” will be receiving a bonus next week. Our gratitude to them is immense, not only for the fine work they have done this past semester, but for all the work they are doing to prepare the campus for the next. Please join me in thanking them for all they have done, at great sacrifice.

Now I want to share with you College updates for the month of November.


In the last two weeks, we added another one hundred completed applications, to keep us 51 percent ahead of last year in completed applications, and 48 percent ahead in admits. Deposits stand at 62, as against 22 last year. My op-ed piece for the Roanoke Times on the management of the pandemic – by women presidents, prime ministers, and students at Sweet Briar alike – has been sent to all those who inquired about Sweet Briar, and to current prospects and their parents. It is important that the world learns how our students handled themselves with great dignity and intelligence amid the crisis and looked out for each other.

Admissions, in partnership with Communications, launched a digital advertising campaign to drive visits and applications. Our ads are “popping up” on the websites and social media platforms visited by targeted prospective students. From early through late November, 80,000 impressions were served, resulting in 502 click-throughs, for an average click-through rate of 0.63% – more than 6 times the national average – and a resultant spike in web traffic. We also launched a “drip campaign” of email communications to school counselors. Not surprisingly, the riding message has had the most response, with 270 page views in one day.

In spite of the pandemic, the November open house brought 39 families to campus, our largest since the start of COVID. Campus visits are the most critical component of our enrollment strategy. Given the escalation in COVID-19, however, we will move away from in-person open houses to virtual gatherings. I want to thank in advance the faculty members who will be interacting with our prospective students and their families.

Academics, Athletics, Student Life

Pandemic or no, traditions continued: the “Bum Bazaar,” Vespers, and Riding Council Tree Lighting capped off a successful semester of student engagement. Then there were some new events, which I hope will become a tradition in time: the first pop-up farmer’s market on campus where our greenhouse-grown Swiss chard, cucumbers, green beans, cherry tomatoes, zucchinis, and more, were sold.

The Dean’s Office in Fletcher is razor focused on finishing up spring enrollment for continuing students, and welcoming new spring matriculants. Then there were three important staggered searches. The search for a new library director is successfully completed, the search for the residence life manager is wrapping up, and the on-campus interviews for Dean of Student Life are scheduled for the week of December 14. We plan to make the official announcement of all three hires in early January.

Then there is the long and exquisitely detailed work on our SACSCOC reaffirmation, which will come to an end one year from now. The feedback on our compliance report came in mid-November, and we are now at work drafting a “focused report” on each of the areas for which we need to provide greater documentation. The “focused report” will be submitted in late February, and we will host a virtual visit with the SACSCOC “on-site” committee in April. If the visit results in the need for more documentation, we will continue to work on them until the process comes to an end.

Finance, Operations & Auxiliaries

The highlight of November was the completion of the Consolidated Financial Statements audit. I am most pleased to report that the result was an “unmodified opinion” – the highest level of assurance you can receive – and with “no significant deficiencies or material weaknesses.” It was the first time anybody can remember a result at this level. Thanks to all in the finance office who have worked laboriously since March.

In the second half of November, we had an opportunity from the Commonwealth of Virginia to apply for additional funding from the CARES Act. This was an instance of “preparation meets opportunity,” and we were able to assemble all the required information in the one-week response time! It is highly probable that we will receive over $787,000 to reimburse the college for PPE expenses, some IT costs, health clinic construction costs, and other allowable operating expenses that occurred in the last four months.

As part of the historic structures’ assessment project, we removed several trees and plants that impact the building’s foundations, among them the “Grammar Slammer” right outside Grammar’s front door on the Upper Quad. The wood is being salvaged for other historical and marketing purposes.

The usual operations issues – preventive maintenance, repair of equipment, a tree falling on a building, and general servicing – continued. The Thanksgiving break was a welcome respite for all after the intense fall semester.

Alumnae Relations, Development & Communications

The alumnae engagement has been virtual since March of 2020, and so were the Sweet Briar Days this month which featured faculty members Lisa Powell, John Gregory Brown, Linda Fink, Jessica Salvatore, Melora Kordos and Cheryl Warnock. I was able to introduce two of the faculty members and enjoyed the discussions immensely. I look forward already to next year’s discussions!

The alumnae magazine rolled off the press. It is an elegant book you can hold in your hands, and it is of course offered in a digital version as well. The contents include the COVID leadership of our students, our agricultural enterprises and riding center renovation, and it also features the legacy of President Emily McVea. It is a good read, and I highly recommend it.

AR & D burns the midnight oil in November and December. Following the one-day Giving Tuesday campaign on December 1, which resulted in more than $171,000 in contributions from 350 donors, that office gets jumping with pledge reminders, major gifts cultivations, requests for reunion challenge donors and the class challenges. What we aim for is a wave of giving that starts in early December and continues unabated through January; then we bring it up a notch with the March Days of Giving.

To date we have raised $3.6 million toward a $5 million goal for unrestricted gifts. We continue to tap every possible government and grant funding source for COVID relief. Our “restricted funding” goal is $500,000, and we are at $300,000. The goal for giving participation is 30 percent, and at the moment, we are at 7%.

We continue to raise resources for the outstanding $936,000 in the renovation of the two stables and the Bailey Room.

We have been in an all-out push to refresh the website, expand our marketing plan for admissions, reach out to the alumnae and the donor base with various videos and written materials, and also promote ourselves through the national and regional media.

Finally, let me end this monthly report with a big thought. It is important that we do not forget, no matter how pressing the quotidian events, one of the greatest sources of our self-regard as an institution. The core of our campus is the National Register Historic District, and it is our joyful burden to preserve it. The preservation of our natural and built environment is at the fundamental core of how we prepare women to lead our society into a more sustainable future, built on bedrock of our respect for the past – in all its complexity, good and bad.

Toward that end, there is an effort underway to find the best way to replace the unreliable and old steam plant with more sustainable energy. We are analyzing possible sites for bore fields for geothermal energy and expect final recommendations from Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker and 2RW Consultants no later than early February. Much of this will be discussed this afternoon during the meeting of the “historic preservation task force.” Other issues they will discuss include the conservation of the original Ralph Adams Cram drawings that we discovered, cultural landscape design, and partnerships with the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as the National Park Service.

Let me close with my best wishes to you for the holiday season. In the Sweet Briar House is a very small Christmas tree this year, only 4 feet high as compared to the 9 feet one I had last year. Like mine, your holidays will likely be low-key but I hope the spirit remains the same as ever and joyous. Stay safe and be well.

Meredith Woo
Sweet Briar College