President's Blog

Archive for March 2010

Admitted Students are visiting

Yesterday and today I had the pleasure of meeting with lots of admitted students and their families, here for a “Taste of Sweet Briar” visit.

Thought you might like to see this excerpt from the Twitter feed admissions set up. This is two of our admissions counselors, posting updates about how the weekend is going. You’ll get a sense of the fun and energy our visitors experience!

  1. GALadmiss

    Suiting up (day two #SBOH1 is always serious business (;) about 6 hours ago via TweetDeck

  2. Grace Loughhead GALadmiss

    Heading to bed, but excited to see what day two of #SBOH1 brings! about 16 hours ago via TweetDeck

  3. Mary Dance mdance07

    Second to move-in day, accepted applicants’ weekends are my favorite event of the year. <3 #SBOH1. Can I go back to SBC all over again? about 16 hours ago via web

  4. Mary Dance mdance07

    Students matched up with hostesses! Woohoo! Now time for H-SC’s Acousticals at the FAC! #SBOH1 about 18 hours ago via UberTwitter

  5. Grace Loughhead GALadmiss

    RT @JasonLoughhead: @GALadmiss the raquetball court is the best…along with the ipod deck at the ping pong table. about 21 hours ago via TweetDeck

  6. Grace Loughhead GALadmiss

    It’s so neat to see the FAC in full use :) #SBOH1 about 21 hours ago via TweetDeck

  7. Mary Dance mdance07

    <3 listening to our fabulous students talk about the wonderfulness of SBC. #SBOH1 about 21 hours ago via UberTwitter

Academic Recognition Banquet, 2010

Last night was the academic achievement recognition banquet. Prothro looked lovely, decorated with forsythia picked from the grounds. 

I told the students that each and every one of them has some important academic achievement to celebrate. Every one has mastered a problem that at first seemed insoluble, made sense of an experiment that at first was enigmatic, or nailed down a musical passage that at first was elusive. I asked each student there to reflect on everything she knows now that she didn’t know when she arrived — and I admitted my own list in that regard is pretty long!

My special pleasure last night was to award the Presidential Medal for 2010. This medal recognizes a senior whose achievements reflect the educational values that make Sweet Briar Sweet Briar. Here is this year’s winner, Laura Jett, with me immediately after the ceremony. I don’t know if Laura was as proud to receive her medal last night as I was to receive mine at Inauguration, but my impression is that she was. 

Laura’s accomplishments are too many to enumerate here. She’ll graduate in May with a major in Math and a minor in Business Management and Statistics. Captain of the volleyball team, class treasurer of SGA, president of our chapter of the national greek society for business students, Laura is a scholar, athlete, and citizen who represents our College with distinction.

Halla halla, Laura Jett, and all Sweet Briar students recognized last night for outstanding academic performance.

(I’ve invited all freshmen, sophomores, and juniors with outstanding GPAs to come in and have coffee with me sometime this spring. I want to ask them what has helped them be successful here at Sweet Briar, what advice they have for me, and what could be even better here for young scholars.)

Dr. Eleanor Salotto

With great sadness, I must tell you that her family has confirmed that a recently-discovered body is that of Dr. Eleanor Salotto, Associate Professor of English, who has been missing since early February. I have been in touch with Eleanor’s family, who wish you all to know how much Sweet Briar and especially her students meant to her.

The College’s official statement can be found here.

I had the good fortune to know Eleanor long ago, before we had any idea that we might reconnect again at Sweet Briar. Eleanor was a grad student at Bryn Mawr during my days on the faculty and in the Dean’s Office there. We shared a passionate interest in 19th-Century literature and in teaching. When I realized she was on the faculty at Sweet Briar, it was a joy to think we would once again be colleagues! She approached me after my first faculty interview with her usual grace and generosity of spirit, offering words of support and encouragement to a nervous job candidate. I also recall a day this winter, when Eleanor and I were both at the hair salon shortly after my mother passed away. Eleanor jumped to her feet, still wearing a plastic cape with her hair streaming wet, to hold both my hands and offer her condolences on my loss. I know many of you have similar memories of the thoughtful kindness of our friend and colleague. We will miss her sorely; how lucky we were to know her!

The family will let us know their wishes about the memorial service and gestures of remembrance once they have had time to make arrangements.


I’ve been remiss about posting this week. Rick and I have been traveling in Texas to meet with alumnae, prospective students, families, and other friends of Sweet Briar. (I always like to make these trips when students are away from campus, so Spring Break is a great opportunity.)

We’ve had events this week in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. I’m amazed, actually, at how strong the contingent of Texan Sweet Briar women has been for many decades. The Houston Bistro in the new FAC is just one example of the leadership Texas has provided. Here’s another: incoming SGA president Sara Buttine, who was home for Spring Break with some of her friends from college and who joined us for the event in Dallas.  

Although many Texas alumnae completed their degrees at Sweet Briar, a great many others attended for only two years. For several years, Texas families expected their daughters to return home after the sophomore year to complete their educations — and to find marriage partners — in Texas.

What astonishes me is that so many of these women, who attended Sweet Briar for only two years, still talk about Sweet Briar as a profoundly influential and empowering experience. They may have graduated from other institutions, but their college is Sweet Briar, where they started out and learned so much. I’ve heard alumnae in several Texas cities talk about how, after two years at the Briar, they were more than prepared for advanced work and how close they have remained to their Sweet Briar friends. Listening to these stories has made this a particularly gratifying and inspiring trip.

That, and the tamales. Texas is a land of great tamales.

Salamander Night

Photo Courtesy Linda Fink

About 8:45 on Thursday night I got an email message from a student of Professor Linda Fink saying that the salamanders were on the march!

I pulled on my tramping-through-mud boots and hurried down to Guion pond, where biology and ecology students were intercepting salamanders as they moved from the woods where they live to the Guion pond and the upper Boathouse lake to breed. Each salamander was inspected for markings applied by previous students, sexed, weighed, and logged before being released into the pond.

The students are learning lots of things about salamanders. Professor Fink tells me the census this year revealed a smaller number of salamanders than in the last couple of years, although she doesn’t know why. And salamanders seem to visit either pond, rather than always returning to the same one; salamanders marked at the upper Boathouse are found in the Guion pond and vice versa.

Here’s something I learned about the salamander population. The first few hours they are in the water, they have to come up to the surface periodically to gulp some air. This makes the water roil and is an amazing thing to see. Even more amazingly, after a period of time, each salamander develops the ability to absorb oxygen through the skin so it no longer needs to break the surface to breathe. Astonishing.

Photo Courtesy Linda Fink

Standing out in the dark, in the rain and mud, under a tarp, weighing salamanders by flashlight with Professors Fink and Janet Steven, our students weren’t studying science but doing science. And I thought about adaptation, and how salamanders can adjust to an aquatic environment in just a few hours, and how quickly students adapt to their professor’s expectations at a place like Sweet Briar. High school students turn into practicing field scientists before our very eyes — or for that matter, into practicing poets, entrepreneurs, engineers, and activists. That’s astonishing too, and every time I see it happening my pride in our faculty and students rises to a new level.

Rounding the Circle

Earlier this week, Celeste Delgado-Librero, the wonderful Director of our Junior Year in Spain program, sent me a reminder that it’s time to update the president’s welcome message that will appear in next year’s program brochure.

To you, this will seem like an unremarkable piece of routine business, but to me it was a moment of astonishment and reflection. Because this is one of the first things I am doing at Sweet Briar for the second time. Last year, before I came on board, Celeste asked me for a welcome message to use in this year’s brochure. That was one of the first actual tasks I performed as president-elect, and I remember sitting at my desk in Michigan drafting it with a sense of gratitude and the slightly uncomfortable realization that I would be making many first impressions on my new Sweet Briar colleagues, students, and friends in the coming months.

Now, it’s just about twelve months from that day. Many of those first impressions have been made, many of those first experiences enjoyed, and I am beginning to see the cycle repeating.

There are many more firsts to come this spring, I know — my first Commencement and first Reunion as President not least among them. But signing the message for the JYS brochure was my first “second.” The day when I will no longer be a freshman president, but will become a sophomore, is in sight!

Dancing in Cochran

I mentioned recently that a dance was being held in the Reading Room of Cochran. For you disbelievers, here are a couple of images.

Miss Meta Glass joins in the masquerade

The Examined Life and Happiness

This afternoon I went to a philosophy lecture. There were students and faculty from philosophy as well as history, English, classics, religion, Spanish, and creative writing, and a couple of librarians to boot. The topic was Rousseau, specifically Rousseau’s attitude toward philosophy. The question: does philosophy make us happier, or does it, by revealing the flaws of what we think and believe, “undermine” us?

“Philosophy” in this sense is the habit of mind that leads us to ask “why” and “what if it were otherwise” and “how do I know?” In other words, it’s the fundamental habit of mind that a Sweet Briar education — like an education at any fine liberal arts college — promotes, a habit of mind that questions assumptions, challenges received wisdom, and interrogates common sense. And Rousseau and many other philosophers have asked whether, all things considered, that kind of thinking might do more harm than good.

All of in the room, I think, could tell stories about moments when education had in fact destabilized or confounded us; moments when we discovered that what we took for granted had been rejected by minds much more brilliant than ours, that what we had always believed to be true clearly wasn’t. At moments like that, we’ve all felt as if the ground has been cut out from under our feet, as if we’ve literally been undermined.

And yet, I’ll bet that not a person in the Browsing Room believed that a philosophical habit of mind is inimical to happiness. We were gathered there precisely because we’re committed to the expansion of possibility, the awakening of insight, and the deeper understanding of humanity that can follow from those moments of intellectual disequilibrium.

I left the lecture thinking that this may be why community seems so essential to liberal education. It would be possible to encounter those questions and experience that disequilibrium alone. But in a community of fellow philosophers, other people seeking truth and understanding in a spirit of mutual respect, it’s much harder to lose yourself. With guides and fellow travelers, moments of disorientation are much less troubling, and it’s more likely that all will find what they’re seeking.

Spring Miscellany

Spring is clearly on its way — there are a few piles of snow that haven’t melted yet, but mostly the ground is clear and green shoots are popping up all over the place. Yesterday when I walked the dogs there were geese in both the upper and lower Boat House lakes.

Tonight the students are having a masquerade ball. It’s being held in the wonderful Reading Room of Cochran Library; how cool is that?

Yesterday the riding team won against Hollins. A good play will be coming to Babcock next week and Rick and I have tickets. A week ago, some of the most talented undergraduate writers around came to a workshop led by Sweet Briar’s creative writers: I attended Dave Griffith’s lecture on genre and learned a lot. Tomorrow there is a conference on Creativity, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and the Liberal Arts over at the Elston; tonight I get to have dinner with the student organizers and guest speakers and talk about how to make change happen. Tuesday Rick and I celebrated Dr. Seuss’ birthday by reading One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to the children at the Campus School. (I got to pick my favorite Dr. Seuss and was rewarded for my reading with an enormous group hug!) Wednesday evening I attended a fascinating anthropology lecture on fashion and veiling among Muslims in Niger.

Not much to say today, really, except that here at the Briar life is pretty good! Hope it is where you are too.

It’s Philanthropy Week

It’s Philanthropy Week, 2010. Most of you probably know about Philanthropy Week already. Its purpose is to educate students about the importance of philanthropy, particularly women’s philanthropy, to raise a little money for the annual fund, and to have fun.

Philanthropy week is timed to mark the point in the year when tuition revenues have been spent. The remainder of the academic year is made possible by philanthropy — income from the endowment, gifts to the Annual Fund, and grants. It’s a very clear way to recognize the centrality of philanthropic support to Sweet Briar’s activities.

We hope, of course, that folks who participate will come to appreciate the importance of giving to Sweet Briar, but we also hope that students will learn how important it is that they become philanthropists whatever causes or institutions they choose to support. Philanthropists put their money to work making the world the way they would like it to be. They fund the change they’d like to see in the world; that’s a very rewarding power to exercise.

Click on this link to learn how you can participate, even if you’re off campus. There’s a silent auction with lots of good items you can bid for: Rick is offering an hour of cocktail music, and he and I will take up to four people out on our pontoon boat for an afternoon on Smith Mountain Lake. . . . (Rick wants me to note that the picture on the Silent Auction link isn’t really of him!)