September Community Update

Posted on October 13, 2020 by Meredith Woo

Dear Colleagues,

The fall semester opened on an optimistic note. Despite the pandemic, the College hit all its targets in enrollment, retention, and fundraising. With great alacrity and foresight, it also raised additional financial resources to protect our students from COVID-19 and keep the campus open and, above all, safe. I am pleased to report that campus is clear, as of today, of known positive cases of COVID-19.

The September 25 meeting of the Board of Directors of Sweet Briar reflected the optimism. Two deep sentiments ran through the sessions: the desire to build on the momentum of the past year, and to maintain stability, both at the board and the college administration level, to stay on the positive trajectory.

Our student enrollment goal for the next fall is 180. We have some headroom in enrollment of equestrians and legacy students. We are making a concerted effort to add more students who are interested in “sustainability,” broadly defined as biology, environmental studies, engineering, and pre-vet. That strategy, combined with high-touch out-reach at every step of recruitment, should get us to the goal, pandemic or no.

Nowhere was the momentum more exciting than in student retention. Before COVID-19 kept students at home after spring break, we recorded an unprecedented 93 percent retention rate for first-year students from fall to spring. Even with COVID-19, 78.6 percent of the first-years returned to campus in the fall – a 16-year high – and we expect that some students who sat out the fall semester will return in the spring. We hope to increase retention to 80 percent or higher, which is within reach.

I also shared the preliminary report on racial relations with the board, presented by the Presidential Taskforce on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I will report it in full when the task force is ready with a final version in early November. But this much I can say: I am already impressed by it. The report is thoughtful about improving campus climate and contextualizing and deepening our understanding of Sweet Briar’s racial history. “The wound is the place where the light enters you,” said the poet Rumi. The wound is everywhere in history, at Sweet Briar as elsewhere, which is why we must benefit from the light it sheds.

The board elected new officers for the coming year, with stability in mind. Georgene Vairo ’72, who served as chair for the last two years, was re-elected. Fred “Buzzy” Griffin is in the on-deck circle as vice-chair, with Sally Mott Freeman ’76 as secretary. Holly Prothro Philbin ’95 was elected to serve on the executive committee as an at-large member, alongside other members who serve simultaneously as chairpersons of board committees.

Simultaneously, the board voted to offer me another five-year term to follow the current one that ends in 2022. Underlying the board’s action is the belief that historic transformation is a survival necessity in Sweet Briar’s case, and it requires a leadership commitment of long duration. The universities and colleges that experienced a significant upward leap over the last half or quarter-century – University of Southern California, New York University, and many others – all had this in common: stable leadership that presided over large-scale change. I am deeply humbled by the confidence that the board has placed in me to lead Sweet Briar’s growth and look forward to working with all of you to build an indispensable college that prepares women to lead our society into a truly sustainable future.

On a more personal note, I want to let you know that I learned in the course of a routine check last month that I had colon cancer. I had surgery that was so successful that I was back at work in four days. In the coming months I will receive chemotherapy. The doctors all agree that my prognosis is excellent, and are optimistic that I will be completely cured. I expect to be at work throughout this time. My leadership team at Sweet Briar is strong and will pick up any slack in my calendar, should there be any.

Let me close with a remark by an alumna, Anne Taylor Doolittle ’78, after she visited the campus last month for the opening of her art exhibition at the Pannell Gallery, “One observation I felt while at Sweet Briar was the degree of difference among such a small population. In a larger school, groups would cohere around similarities. Not Sweet Briar. You have to get to know and get along. What a great advantage!”

It is an advantage. I am proud that our women are shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other through the pandemic, and maintaining a healthy learning environment. I look forward to the next five weeks of school, greeting our women on campus, their bright and curious eyes peering over their masks!

Meredith Woo