President's Blog

Archive for December 2009

Making Hoppin’ John

Today is the day for making what my grandmother called hopjohn but is called Hoppin’ John by most folks.

It was an article of faith in my house that the first bite of food taken in the New Year needs to be hopjohn to insure good luck. Once we were old enough to stay up til midnight, a spoonful of hopjohn was the equivalent of a toast for my sister and me. (Before we were old enough to stay up that late, a spoonful of hopjohn started breakfast on New Year’s Day.) I’ve made a pot every year of my adult life, and Rick, whose Lebanese-American family oddly avoided disaster for generations without any hopjohn mojo whatsoever, graciously accepts the custom as part of our family tradition now.

A couple of people have asked about the recipe, and I’m sure there are recipes out there — like this one, and this — but hopjohn isn’t really a recipe sort of thing.

Here’s what grandma taught me, pretty much as she would have said it:

“Don’t use canned field peas. Ever. They get mushy. Use dried. Soak ’em overnight, but you have to change the water three times. Throw away any of the ones that float to the top.

Next day, take out the big pot you use for beans. Cover the bottom with bacon grease, or else fry up enough fatback to grease it up. Throw in some onions and maybe, if you have it, some celery. Some people put some carrot in but we don’t. Once all that’s soft but before it gets brown, throw in some ham. Or bacon. Or any other smoked meat you have. Let that get brown and a little crusty. Put your beans in then, and add some water — but not the water you soaked the beans in — or potato water just to cover up the beans. Some people use tomatoes but we don’t. Let it boil up and then put your heat as low as you can get it. Chop up some greens, mustard or beet, maybe chard, but I like to slice mine in ribbons, and add that. Leave it to simmer for a long time, but check back to see if it needs more liquid every so often.

When it’s done, spoon some of the beans into a bowl and mash ’em up with a fork. Put ’em back in the pot, turn it up til it boils again, and let it cook for a few more minutes.¬† That’ll thicken the liquid. Some people serve it over rice, but we use cornbread.”

Hopjohn advice, courtesy of my grandmother Lucy Sybil.

In the years since she taught me, I’ve taken liberties. One year the smoked meat was duck breast and things like cumin and vegetable stock have made their appearance. I’ve served it over polenta rather than cornbread. But I still can’t bring myself to use carrots, or tomatoes.

Holiday Weekend Indulgences

Rick and I have been total movie hogs this week. So far we’ve seen Avatar (in 3-D, of course!) and the new Sherlock Holmes movie, as well as Up In The Air and It’s Complicated. Far too much popcorn has been consumed already and we still want to see Invictus and maybe Young Victoria (if we find ourselves in Charlottesville where it’s playing.) What a delight to have a few quiet days at Sweet Briar House and time for some movies dates . . .

I’m also making progress on the book pile. Have started “The Ascent of Money,” which I am so far finding fascinating if at some points challenging. I never took economics as an undergrad and wish I had.

Finally, I’m enjoying following our students’ holiday adventures on Facebook. Many are posting about their joy in seeing family and friends, returning to their home towns or visiting new places on their travels. Several have posted rhapsodically about the meals they’ve been enjoying and helping to prepare. I’m glad to know they’re having such good holidays — but I wonder if they know how empty the campus feels without them and how much they’re missed?

The Holiday Lunch to Beat

Oh, man. I just went down to share holiday lunch with the Physical Plant staff. Boiled shrimp, fried oysters, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, red velvet cake. . . They sure know how to eat.

Physical Plant has been doing yeoman’s duty with this snowfall, clearing the roads and pathways, checking for snow-related damage to buildings and trees, and so on. We are safe and warm and able to get around because of everything they do and I speak for everyone in saying thank you.

I can’t help but note that back in Michigan we had a lot more snow and a lot fewer oysters. Christmas in Virginia is looking pretty good!

Let it snow, let it . . . well, you know

The storm that has been pummeling our region has made this a memorable end-of-semester!

Close to 40 students were unable to leave campus when College “closed” as they had planned because their trains and planes were canceled and the roads not yet cleared. They’ve been allowed to stay in their residence halls until today, when those who are still with us will be moved into the Guest House, the Garden Cottage, or other accommodations until we can see them safely off.

In theory Dining Services closed on Friday, but of course they went above and beyond the call to provide meals to the stranded students on Saturday. (Receiving a Holla Holla from grateful students after dinner last night, I understand!) Today several staff members, led by Dean Cheryl Steele, will be making and serving omelettes for brunch at Red Top; Dean Steele will be hosting dinner there this evening as well.

I hear that Steve Bailey and others from Physical Plant have been personally shovelling snow off student cars that were plowed in. Anybody with four wheel drive has been making runs for supplies or to get students where they need to go.

Of course, the students are frustrated at not being able to get home for the holidays. But I suspect that in a year or two for the students who were “lucky” enough to be stranded will have a treasured memory of the way the Sweet Briar community pulled together around them during this perhaps-too-white Christmas season.

(Rick and I share their frustration. We’ve been trying to get back to Virginia from Kansas for two days now. Last night the closure of the highways over the mountains in West Virginia left us stuck again; we hope to get across and home this afternoon. I had so much hoped to get home so that I could join in the omelette party this morning!)

Sweet Briar technology featured

This article on CampusTechnology.com was written for an audience interested in technology and some of the details may not be of general interest — but it explains one of the innovative and cost-saving features of our new campus network installation. To quote from the article: “Sweet Briar College, a small, 108-year-old women’s college in Virginia with a nine-to-one student-faculty ratio, got around the controller issue completely by going with a wireless 802.11n network scheme in which the controllers are located off campus, or “in the cloud.””

This example is a good illustration of how small and nimble institutions (like us!) can lead the way in implementing innovative campus IT solutions.

Holiday Greetings

Well, tomorrow is the last day of finals. Students are wrapping things up and headed off for their various holiday adventures. Faculty are feverishly grading and looking forward to some very well deserved time with family and friends. I can hardly believe that my first semester at Sweet Briar is drawing to a close: this afternoon is the holiday reception at Sweet Briar House for faculty and staff.

DSC00896Rick and I won’t be able to be there in person, as we’re still in Kansas, but we will certainly be there in spirit! Let us take this occasion to wish all readers of this blog safe travels and much joy, whatever holidays you celebrate, wherever and however you celebrate them.

I’ll be posting throughout the break. There’s a big stack of books I’m hoping to read at least one or two of and there are lots of issues I’ve been thinking about. . .

Justine Johnson, 1928 – 2009

My mother, Justine, passed away a few days ago after a mercifully short final illness.

DSC00891Here we are together the evening before my inauguration in September. Mom had a wonderful time¬† visiting campus and meeting so many faculty, staff, alums, and students. Since then she mentioned to her friends in Kansas that during that weekend she had met a “real composer” — Dean Jonathan Green –and four “published authors” (John Gregory Brown, Carrie Brown, Dave Griffith, and John Casteen) all in one day! She was pretty impressed and very proud that Sweet Briar had chosen her daughter. And the was humming “Scotland the Brave” for weeks after hearing those marvelous bagpipes . . .

My family and I will always be able to remember what a joyous occasion Mom’s last trip was, thanks to the warm welcome that the Sweet Briar community offered her and all our relatives. I want to thank everyone who was so gracious and generous in assisting her during her visit.

Sweet Biodiesel

The dining hall in Prothro disposes of something like 50 gallons of used cooking oil each month.

Two Sweet Briar engineering students decided that, for their senior project, they would figure out how to make biodiesel from it. Today I heard their presentation — they’ve designed a process that will yield about $120 worth of biodiesel each month from cooking oil they “harvest” from Prothro. (They will have recouped their start up costs after four months.) They’re setting up a small processing unit in the Physical Plant facility and the fuel they produce will be used to power some of our off-road vehicles.

How cool is that?

Holla Holla, Chamber Orchestra

j0429803Last night Rick and I very much enjoyed the Chamber Orchestra concert in the Chapel. It was a cold, dark evening but the Chapel was warm and bright, with a tree decorated all in white for the holidays. The Chamber Orchestra is largely made up of students, but not exclusively: there were first year students and retirees, neighbors, and friends among the performers.

Delightful to sit in community, listening to music made by people who love it for people who love it.

There did seem to be some confusion about whether the Hallelujah chorus was intended to be a sing-along or not. Rick and I briefly considered whether we should just make it one by plunging in and belting out our “Hallelujah”s but for fear of alarming our pew-neighbors we held back. . .

What will the “new normal” look like?

travelToday I’m in Atlanta. Sunday and Monday I’ve been attending the annual meeting of SACS — the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Sweet Briar’s regional accrediting body. We’re in the early stages of our “reaffirmation” cycle, which extends over a couple of years and involves many useful institutional reviews and projects. You’ll be hearing more about this in future updates. It was extremely useful for me to attend this meeting. In previous positions I’ve worked with accrediting bodies in other regions so I was eager to get to learn about the Southern organization.

Monday there were a series of sessions specifically for presidents, all of which I attended. The theme was “leadership in times of economic challenge.” As you’d imagine, over the coffeepots and in the hallways there was extensive talk about furloughs, layoffs, deferred projects, and in some cases even cancelled academic programs. One SACS member institution has announced that it is closing. It’s clear that if you take a broad view of higher education across institutional types and missions, circumstances remain very challenging indeed.

Personally, I’m leaving this conference with confidence that Sweet Briar is taking the right steps to move briskly through its current difficulties and toward a “new normal.” But make no mistake; higher education will need to define a new normal; it’s not realistic to think that institutions will weather the current tempest only to return to business as usual. The strategic planning process starting in January is Sweet Briar’s opportunity to define an appropriate and promising “new normal” for itself and frankly I think it’s going to be the most interesting and important work we could possibly undertake. I look forward to joining the faculty, students, staff, alums, and friends of Sweet Briar in articulating our shared aspirations.

One of the presenters here was Kent John Chabotar. I’d like to recommend a recently published article of his, which you can find here.

Oh, and I had dinner with Betsy Muhlenfeld on Sunday evening. She says “Hi, everybody!”

Oh, and on my way out of town I will get to have tea with a group of Atlanta alums. Every time I meet a new group of alums it gives me a shot in the arm; their love for the Briar is infectious!