President's Blog

Archive for November 2009

Article on InsiderHigherEd.com

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter from insidehighered.com. The article appears today.

Here’s one quote: “Jo Ellen Parker, president of the college, said that the cuts were designed to show the commitment to going back to full spending on retirement accounts, salaries and so forth. Had the college simply reduced its pay levels, she said, a signal would have been sent that perhaps the college was scaling back — which she said is not the intent. And the top administrators are working without pay rather than taking furloughs because the college needs to save money and they need to do their jobs.”

I think the article does a nice job of framing an important strategic question for many small liberal arts colleges, which is how to manage the “discount rate.” On the one hand, allowing the discount rate to rise disproportionately creates obvious financial risks for an institution. On the other, failing to relax the discount rate judiciously can lead to other financial risks. Every campus I’m familiar with struggles to navigate this particular Scylla and Charybdis.

As the reporter notes in the article, at Sweet Briar we are actively researching and discussing this issue as we consider our approach to managing the discount rate going forward. Our goal to make sure that Sweet Briar is affordable to families of qualified students while we look to the long term financial health of the college: that is, to make sure that our discount rate policies support both access and sustainability.


Some of you may remember that from the time of my first interview with the Alumnae Magazine I’ve been saying Rick and I were thinking of looking for a dog.

Well, now we think we found one. Actually, two. Coco (oddly, the black one, not the cocoa-colored one) and Taz.

On the Back Stairs

On the Back Stairs

On My Lap

On My Lap

They’re up for adoption at the Amherst County Humane Society and we were allowed to foster them at Sweet Briar House over the Thanksgiving holiday to see how they would do with the cats — or more precisely, how the cats would do with them! Since Bob, Ballou, and Kia have seniority they got veto power. We also needed to see how both dogs would do with the realities of life in Sweet Briar House; lots of guests, people in and out, and so on.

They passed with flying colors, so tomorrow we’re applying to officially adopt them.

I’m sure many of you who are on campus will get to meet them when you see us on dog walks. Coco, at 8 pounds, weighs less than any of the cats, is bright as a button and full of energy. Taz is a gentler, wiser fellow. Both of them are friendly and sweet at heart.

Because they’re fully mature and know their names, they’ll remain “Coco” and “Taz.” If they were puppies of course they’d get Sweet Briar names, like former First Dog Daisy Muhlenfeld. But these little guys have had enough change to cope with in their 3 1/2 years: no need to throw them one more curve ball by re-naming them.

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving may be my favorite of all holidays. Thankgiving

This year, personally, I will be giving thanks:

For the students. Holla, holla. ‘Nuff said!

For the faculty, whose passion, dedication, accomplishment, and wisdom make a Sweet Briar education the wonderful journey that it is.

For the staff, who have accepted many challenges in the last few weeks with open minds and open hearts.

For the alums, who have welcomed me as an honorary member of the Sweet Briar family.

For the Directors, whose commitment, standards, and generosity are unflagging.

And to the Sweet Briar community, generally, for giving me and Rick the opportunity to serve this wonderful college.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

On the Road AGAIN!

travelWonderful visits this week to alums in D.C., Baltimore, and Warrenton VA.

  • Alums from the class of ’44, telling stories about what it was like being part of a wartime class at Sweet Briar and celebrating 65 years of friendship with one another.
  • Alums from the 70s, reflecting on what it was like attending a women’s college at a time when role expectations and assumptions about gender were being turned on their heads.
  • Alums from ’08 and ’09, sharing the challenges of what is IS like graduating from college and looking for work in an economy in turmoil.

And all of them, from ’44 to ’09, paying tribute to their alma mater for giving them the skills, persistence, and resilience to cope with whatever comes their way.

What fun it is for Rick and me to meet these women!

Holla Holla, Creative Writers

BookTwo pieces of news about Sweet Briar creative writers — Carrie Brown‘s story “Bomb” has been recognized by Glimmer Train, taking first place in the September Open Fiction competition. It will be published in August, 2010, in the Fall 2010 issue of Glimmer Train Stories. (There’s a YouTube video of Carrie Brown, and her husband and fellow Sweet Briar faculty member John Gregory Brown reading as part of the Colgate University Living Writers series here, if you’re interested.)

Poet John Casteen gave a reading at Lynchburg’s Riverviews Artspace this week. An interesting interview with him appeared in the Lynchburg News and Advance. I was struck by one quote from that interview. John writes not only poetry but also opinion pieces on matters of policy. He described the difference between the two kinds of writing this way: “The editorials are for things I’m convinced about,” he said, “and the poems are about things I’m uncertain about.”

Liberal education seems to me to be essentially about pushing students to explore the things they’re uncertain about, in the lab, in the library, in the studios. But the role of fine and performing arts in provoking thought and creating discussion about the things that we are all, by virtue of our humanity, uncertain about is irreplaceable. The artists, and the supporters of the arts, who enrich us in this particular way are inspiring to me.

Last week I visited my mother in assisted living. Next to her bed were two novels, one by John Gregory Brown (which Mom had finished) and one by Carrie Brown (which she had just begun.) Mom’s comment on the two novels was “Family’s a funny thing, isn’t it? People have such different experiences” which led her to raise a series of questions about her own early life as a daughter and sister. Thanks, John and Carrie; your work provided an occasion for me to have a wonderful and unusual conversation with my Mom.

News Story re: Budget

Today a newspaper story appeared in the Lynchburg News and Advance about the budgetary issues I’ve written about in previous posts.

All in all I think the story does a good job of balancing two equally true and equally important points: Sweet Briar is, relatively speaking, in quite  good shape and at the same time Sweet Briar is not (and could not expect to be) immune from the larger economic forces that are challenging colleges and universities across the country. Making the sacrifices we need to now, in order to live within our means in the present, is the surest course to continued strength and future growth.

Comments and questions about this year’s budget and the college’s plans are welcome.

Recognition for a Sweet Briar librarian

Lisa Johnston of Sweet Briar’s Cochran library has been recognized by ACRL (the Association of College and Research Libraries) as “Member of the Week.” Check out the profile here. To give you a sense of who Lisa is, here’s one sample quote:  “It is energizing and endlessly interesting working with intellectually engaged people, particularly during this time of great technological change.”

It’s great to see Sweet Briar featured on the website of the nation’s leading organization for academic libraries.

Students in Service

Yesterday Sweet Briar students teamed up with students from neighboring colleges to help package 20,000 meals for people and families suffering from hunger. This news article describes the project. Unfortunately, Rick and I were unable to join them as we had hoped to do — perhaps next year we can lend our hands as well as our encouragement.

As Thanksgiving approaches (unbelievable how quickly it has arrrived!) and Americans as a nation celebrate abundance, these students not only thought of others who are in need but also acted to address that need. Go Sweet!

On the Road Again

Just landed in New York after a quite rainy and bumpy trip. (Believe me, it wasn’t nearly as bright and perky as the image might suggest!)  But I’m looking forward, once the airsickness has passed, to meeting several alums on this visit. In addition to seeing travelindividuals I’ll be attending a Friends of Art meeting this weekend.

Friends groups are a terrific asset to the College. People with expertise and interest join forces to help the College advance in specific areas. Friends of Art works on building a collection of visual art that supports teaching and learning on campus and making sure that Sweet Briar is enriched, both as a college and a community, by an active and vital engagement with the arts. The Friends of Art have been supporting Sweet Briar since 1937 and in that time have purchased 88 works for our galleries. As importantly, they have provided essential perspective and advice on facilities and program.

As a special treat, member of the Board of Directors and winner of the 2004 Distinguished Alumna Award Anne Poulet, Director of the Frick Collection, is hosting a special tour of the collection tomorrow evening. Anne is just one example of the leadership Sweet Briar women have given in the arts, and I am honored to have the opportunity to visit the collection in her company.


Diversity has turned out to be a theme of my day today. Earlier I met with the faculty diversity committee for an excellent discussion of priorities and commitments. And shortly I’m headed out to have dinner with Unity — that’s the student organization for women of color formerly called Onyx.

I don’t know the history of the name change, but I have to say I love it. Student unity is a wonderful thing and the source of the caring and respectful community that is Sweet Briar.

And here’s where diversity comes in. Unity does not require uniformity. In fact, unity in the face of difference is the hallmark of a strong community. What we strive for, here on campus, is unity of purpose and mutual respect, not uniformity of identity, opinion, taste, or perspective. I deeply appreciate the members of the campus community who express their differences — differences of opinion, differences of identity, differences of belief. (Yes, even when they differ with me!) They make us stronger.

Respect across differences, unity in our diversity, true community.