President's Blog

Archive for July 2009

Nice, but unsurprising, recognition

Applauding emoticonI just saw a press release about how Sweet Briar fared in this year’s Princeton Review survey.  #2 for “most accessible professors” and “most beautiful campus,” #3 for “professors get high marks,” #8 for “best career services,” and #10 for “class discussions encouraged.” Go us!

Can’t say, though, that this news will surprise any readers of this blog.  Here are a few quotes from responses to my recent question about “What Makes Sweet Briar Sweet Briar:”

  • “The faculty and staff genuinely cared about my future.  They supported me in opportunities that would help me succeed (in my case, particularly research and conferences).”
  • “At Sweet Briar I look to my professors as my mentors. It’s wonderful to know that they care enough about each student, to see that they live up to their full potential.”
  • “Although I was never a SWEBOP girl, every day I appreciated the beauty that our college had.”

Many readers wrote similar comments, praising the dedication of our faculty to your success, the way a Sweet Briar education prepared you for an interesting career, the beauty of the campus, and lots of other things — like campus traditions and student community — that didn’t show up in the Princeton survey results.

So, basically, the Princeton Review is finding out what Sweet Briar women have known for generations!  Thanks to all of you who help get the word out about our wonderful college every day.

Can Cats See Ghosts?

A couple of folks have asked about the Parker/Manasa cats, since I mentioned them in a previous post.  Here is First Feline Bob, who as you can see is an easygoing sort.  (Kia and Ballou were less willing to cooperate with this afternoon’s photo op, but may appear in future posts.)

Bob At Rest

Bob At Rest

By now, I’ve heard from several people about the ghosts haunting campus — including Sweet Briar House.  (See this 2005 newspaper article if you haven’t heard about them!) I’m glad to report that no spectral presence has appeared to welcome me personally, at least not yet. Folklore suggests that cats can see ghosts:  perhaps Bob has seen Daisy? If so, he’s not telling.

Just last week I was going over the fall calendar of events at the House.  Of course, I plan to continue the tradition of “ghost tours” or “Daisy tours” this October.  Dates aren’t yet set, but I hope that many of you who are on campus will be able to participate.  In the mean time, I’ll try to get Bob to let me know if he spots anything, ah, ectoplasmic.

A Cloud of Responses

Blog Responses July

This is an image of a word cloud made from the letters I’ve received in the last week from young alums responding to the question  “What Makes Sweet Briar Sweet Briar?” It’s a fun way to summarize what they’ve been telling me. (I’ve also received wonderful notes from parents and staff members, but in making this image I only used messages from younger alums.)

A couple of things pop out:  notice how prominently “students,” “women,” “community,” “friends,” “history,” and “place” emerge? Do these look like the words you would use in describing your sense of Sweet Briar? What might you say about Sweet Briar that isn’t represented here?  Send me your thoughts and I’ll add them to the mix!

ArtBots and Digital Garments

This afternoon I attended the closing session of a program for high school students interested in engineering.  Here’s me, watching a demonstration of an “artbot” project.

Presiding over ArtBots

Presiding over ArtBots

Sweet Briar Engineering Program Professors Hank Yochum and Scott Pierce ran Exploring Engineering Design, with the assistance of students Maxine Emerich, Mary Anne Haslow Hall, and Sarah James.  Students created projects in two categories.  “Artbots” were robots designed to create art.  (Robots tend to be abstract expressionists, I now realize.) “Wearable computing”  garments were designed to respond to conditions in the environment.  (Several of us were particularly impressed by a headband with a tilt sensor.  If you nod off while wearing it, it vibrates and buzzes you awake. Useful in so many contexts!)

The students weren’t always in labs — for example, they got a tour of the new Fitness and Athletic Center, where construction is just finishing up, for a presentation on how the engineers and contractors had solved real life problems in designing and building it.

Sweet Briar, to my mind, is all about preparing women to achieve and accomplish.  As I watched the students today demonstrate their projects, I reflected that engineering is precisely about making things happen in the world. Educating women in engineering empowers women to make the things they dream real.  Sweet Briar engineers solve problems and improve life for others:  check out this story for an inspiring example.  This is engineering with a mission!

Max Emerich helping a program student

Max Emerich helping a program student

Moving Update

In the last week several folks have kindly asked how the move is going, so I thought I’d post an update.

Empties on the Front Porch

Empties on the Front Porch

The empties are piling up, as you can see — of course they will be recycled or reused as soon as possible! Rick has done the yeoman’s work of unpacking and settling our things in, and our cats Bob, Ballou, and Kia have taken up residence with their customary feline aplomb. It’s  great fun to imagine the events that will be held here very soon.  Everything is on track for welcoming new students to the house when they arrive in what is now less than a month.  (Can that really be possible?)

It was a special pleasure for us to unpack a sculpture that is a particular favorite. This piece holds powerful meaning for me:  it’s called The Gift, and it represents a Buddhist monk holding an empty space between his hands. The space he offers to the viewer — the gift he carries — is pure potential.  As he presides now over the upper hallway in Sweet Briar House, he reminds me daily of what a wonderful gift it is to be part of the community this house represents and how much potential there is for the College in the years to come. Here’s a picture of The Gift on moving day.  I think it fits right in!

A Favorite Sculpture:  The Gift

A Favorite Sculpture: The Gift

An Open Invitation

j0442124Today, an invitation.  If you’re reading this blog, whoever you are — alum or student, parent or friend, faculty or staff member, neighbor — you’re presumably interested in Sweet Briar.

And I’m interested in learning about the College from you.  So I invite you to send me an email, offering your thoughts on this question:

What makes Sweet Briar Sweet Briar?

Since I don’t know how many responses I’ll receive, I can’t promise to respond to every one.  But I’ll read them all, collect them, and post here about what I’m learning.  And I do promise that your responses will be confidential;  I won’t use them in any way that could reveal your identity.

Please do take a minute to share your thoughts with me!

Send them to jparker@sbc.edu.

Harvard School for New Presidents

Tonight I’m writing at the end of the first full day of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents.  (And I do mean full day: we started with an early breakfast session and had our final class after dinner!) It’s a great privilege to  start my presidency with this experience:  new presidents from across the country spend five days with Seminar faculty and with each other on topics ranging from time management to leadership styles to governance to media relations.  It feels a little bit like freshman orientation on steroids, but I can’t imagine anything more appropriate than to prepare for the new academic year and my new responsibilities with a period of intensive study.

So far I’ve particularly appreciated a presentation on college finance by Kent Chabotar. A former chief finance officer and current college president, Chabotar makes topics like debt ratios and fund accounting compelling. Of course, any discussion of college finance today raises the question of financial strategy in a downturn. Chabotar’s recent article on mistakes to avoid summarizes some of the ideas we discussed this evening. Tomorrow we’ll continue working on how to make sure that financial responses to economic turmoil are strategic and not merely tactical — a crucial topic for Sweet Briar, as for all institutions.

On a Sweet Briar specific note, I’m pleased to report that one of my classmates here is Hampden-Sydney’s new president, Chris Howard. I think Chris and I agree that it’s terrific to have another new president as a near neighbor.  I’m going to enjoy working with him.

Moving Into Sweet Briar House

Today I moved into Sweet Briar House.  Here I am, with housekeeper extraordinaire Pat Trout, trying to figure out what’s in this box and whether it will make it up the stairs.   (It did.)

Mystery Carton

Mystery Carton

It’s hard to capture in a few words the sense of heritage and community this house conveys.   All day I was profoundly aware that here I will be sharing space that Sweet Briar women have graced, across the decades, with their wit, their achievements, their energy, and their generosity.   My gratitude for the opportunity to join the line of women who have met and talked and laughed in this house is immense.

I’m eager to welcome all friends of Sweet Briar to the House.  New students will be offered tours of the House during orientation and in their first weeks on campus will be invited for “Pizza with Parker” evenings.   Faculty will be invited to join me here for discussions of the College’s mission and direction, and alums who visit campus will find welcome and refreshment here.

In short, Sweet Briar House is being readied to greet a new academic year as a lively and friendly center for campus life!  But first, I have to unpack. . . . Boxes

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Facts We’re Proud To Share

Sweet Briar professor Steve Bragaw pointed out this article on “facts colleges hate to share” yesterday.

It’s the kind of article that appears with some frequency.   Indeed, a few of its points echo comments I heard at a recent meeting of corporate leaders.

It’s also the kind of article that educators find, well,  frustrating.  Campuses dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to collecting and reporting precisely the information that we’re accused of trying to hide.  Take a look, for example, at the Department of Education’s College Navigator, or at U-CAN (the University and College Accountability Network.)  Many commercial sources, including U. S. News and Peterson’s and others, publish similar information.  Which leads to the question — why, as more and better information is actually available about higher education generally and about individual colleges, is there so strong a public perception that students and families are unable to learn what they need to know to assess their options?

If you’re interested in how Sweet Briar performs on some of the specific points mentioned in the article, check out our page at U-CAN.

I take the larger issue very seriously.  Sweet Briar, like all colleges and universities, needs to understand the questions and concerns of the public and to address them in meaningful ways.  In forwarding the article to me Professor Bragaw noted that,  as the College begins a new cycle of assessment and planning, we need to be aware of and responsive to the public interest in clear, specific, and accessible information.  I couldn’t agree more; we are educators, after all, and educating the public with regard to our institutions and our successes is essential to our mission.