President's Blog

Archive for May 2010

Professor Morrissey on the Oil Spill

Yesterday WSET news here in Lynchburg featured Professor John Morrissey commenting on the implications of the oil spill for the species of sharks he studies. The story and video are here.

I’ve also just learned that research scientist Craig Downs has been invited by NOAA to research the impact of the oil spill on corals. (Here‘s an interesting piece about another project Dr. Downs is involved in in Great Britain.) He’ll be taking one of our summer research program students down to the site to assist with sample collection very soon.

I’m always proud to see our faculty addressing the public on important issues and applying their expertise to current developments. While the primary responsibility of an academic institution is, of course, to educate its students, colleges and universities also have a real and important responsibility to educate the non-academic public and to advance public understanding of urgent topics.

Sometimes our students, jokingly and affectionately, talk about being on campus as being “in the pink bubble,” and I know exactly what they mean when they say that! But of course, in truth Sweet Briar isn’t in a bubble at all: the College is part of an active cultural and intellectual community. Our programs and our faculty address audiences across the region, state, and nation. Our faculty are responding to the oil spill in the Gulf, contributing their expertise to addressing the problem and educating the public about its implications: good scientists, good teachers, and good citizens.


Reunion was this weekend and the campus was hopping! It’s wonderful to see generations of Sweet Briar women reconnecting with each other and the College. For me, it was a wonderful culmination of a year full of events at which I got to meet alumnae and listen to their stories. (Not counting Reunion, in the ten months I’ve been at Sweet Briar I’ve gone to 29 alumnae events attended by 829 alumnae — that’s almost three events and 83 alumnae each month!)

On Saturday, I gave a college update. It’s available here in case you’d like to read the text from which I spoke. Here are the first few words:

“At reunions I often think about how colleges are a complicated mix of the timeless and the timely. I hope that during this reunion you will see around you many of the truly timeless elements of Sweet Briar – the incredible beauty of the land, the friendships between women of energy and talent, the high value placed on interpretation, expression, creation, research, and discipline as essential components of liberal education, the commitment to developing the abilities of women as whole persons, the mentoring relationships between faculty and students.

But this is an update, which means that I will mostly be talking to you about what is timely at Sweet Briar, what is happening in the present and for the future. . . “

By the power invested in me. . . .

The graduation of the class of 2010 was glorious. Perfect weather, happy families, graduates to be proud of! The Lynchburg paper ran a nice story, which you can find here.

Photo courtesy Amanda Samford, '10 amandasamford.com

The ritual words felt very weighty to me as I spoke them. “By the power invested in me. . . .” A president conferring degrees is simply a conduit, a vessel, for a noble and proud tradition. My hope is that each and every graduate will reflect thoughtfully on what it means to be “admitted to the company of educated women,” about the privilege and responsibility that has been passed on to her, about the uses to which she will put all that she has received.

To my delight, the graduates of the class of 2010 made me an honorary member of their class! How fitting it is that the class of 2010 should give this honor to Sweet Briar’s 10th president. And they presented me with a class ring to boot. I’ll admit it was a special pleasure, shaking each of their hands with a Sweet Briar ring on my own right hand. My ring will remind me always that the meaning of Sweet Briar is in what it makes possible for its students. It is my special responsibility as president always to listen to them and to advocate for their benefit.

Here’s a picture. It’s not my actual ring (a loaner was used for the ceremony since mine hasn’t arrived yet) but I wanted you to see it. I hope my new “classmates” fully appreciate how much this gracious gesture of welcome and support means to me.

Preparations are afoot!

Well, this week has been dedicated to preparing for Commencement, my first as Sweet Briar’s president.

Chaplain Rehearsing Processional

As you can see, we’re facing iffy weather: the Chaplain appeared at Baccalaureate rehearsal this morning sheltered by his daughter’s small, ruffled, pink umbrella. We all have our fingers crossed for sunny weather on Saturday — wherever you are, please perform whatever good weather rituals you think might help! Yesterday, I’m glad to report, thundershowers didn’t prevent 95 students from showing up at Sweet Briar House for their Senior Toast.

This week inevitably has me thinking about rituals, weather related and otherwise. Today, at Baccalaureate rehearsal, students in jeans and tees and wellies were joking, laughing, giving me high fives as they passed down the aisle. But I know, and they know, something transformative will happen when we do it “for real.” They will be wearing their robes, receiving their roses, and in those symbols will be true magic. In the performance of transition, and in the symbols of transition, transition actually occurs. That’s the difference between rehearsal and for real.

I am keenly aware that on Saturday, when I put on my academic gown and my wonderful Sweet Briar medal, I too will be making a transition. Sweet Briar has honored me with the astonishing privilege of representing the College, its traditions, its standards, and its values in conferring its degrees. I will stand before our faculty, our graduates, and their families and friends as the representative of the College that is beloved and admired by them all.

It’s funny. As wonderful as my Inauguration was (and it was FABULOUS), I feel as though this Commencement will be a kind of graduation for me, too. For the first time, I will represent the enduring and essential meaning of the College by conferring degrees upon its graduates.

I may get just a little verklempt. Whether it rains or not. . . .

Lantern Bearing Last Night!

Lantern Bearing last night! Here’s the class of 2010.

Tough Times and Tough Decisions

If you’re a reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education, you know that it is now featuring a blog called “Campus Cuts” summarizing news of staff and program cuts at academic institutions across the country. (N.B., the Chronicle is a subscription site; only some of its content is freely available.)

What a mixed bag of emotions reading that blog creates! On the one hand, there’s some comfort in recognizing that all of higher education is feeling the full force of larger economic pressures. It’s very clear that Sweet Briar is not alone in facing budgetary challenges, and that’s reassuring. On the other hand, there’s great concern for American higher education; it must systematically re-think some of its fundamental assumptions and do so expeditiously, and it’s not exactly known for being good at rapid change. And, if I’m allowed to imagine a third hand for myself, there’s sometimes an embarrassing schadenfreude as I scan the list and realize that many, many institutions are facing far greater challenges than Sweet Briar. We are so much better off than so many!

There’s no avoiding the fact that tough times require tough decisions. One recent evening I was talking with the Chaplain about the difficulty of balancing competing goods, which for me is pretty much the definition of a tough decision. In times of needful retrenchment, not everything that is good is possible and the question is not whether a particular expenditure is good but rather which goods should take priority now.

As we put together next year’s budget for Sweet Briar we have had to make some tough decisions. Specifically, next year there will be no salary increases. The employer’s contribution to retirement savings will be reduced to 5%. Hours at the Inn and Conference Center will be reduced. And the Campus School will be closing this summer. (My update to the community on next year’s budget is here if you’d like more detail.)

I return to reading the Chronicle, running my eyes down the long list; faculty positions cut, sports teams eliminated, furloughs, extensive layoffs. I’m feeling concern for higher education and appreciation for Sweet Briar’s relatively strong position. But mostly I’m grateful for the Sweet Briar community, which is actively charting a course to a financially sustainable future through the strategic planning process. I’d like to remind all readers that the strategic planning blog offers a way to keep in touch with the discussions and to contribute to them.

In technology circles there’s a saying: “All of us are smarter than any of us.” Strategic planning and the future it envisions is, and needs to be, all of us. And I can’t imagine a better group of colleagues to tackle the tough decisions ahead of us with than Sweet Briar’s students, faculty, and staff.

Faculty — Sweet!

At last week’s faculty meeting I had the great pleasure of recognizing some outstanding faculty.

Professors Cathy Gutierrez and Tim Loboschefski have been promoted to the rank of full professor, and Professor John Gregory Brown has been awarded a Cameron Fellowship.

Sometimes people who don’t work as academics wonder what tenured professors actually do. Sometimes people even ask me how teaching a few small classes for 28 weeks out of the year counts as a full time job! But here’s the thing: in addition to teaching those classes (and teaching them very well indeed: both Cathy and Tim have been recipients of teaching awards), Professor Gutierrez has maintained a level of publication in her field that the Faculty Personnel Committee described as “awe-inspiring.” Professor Loboschefski has attracted many grants to campus in support of his research on adolescent psychology. Professor Brown has published three highly-regarded and prize-winning novels.

But, as they say on TV, wait, there’s more! All three currently serve as faculty senators. John Gregory is head of the Creative Writing Program and has led the development of our Quality Enhancement Plan initiative. Cathy maintains a fascinating blog as well as an active presence on Facebook, and serves as a liaison from the Faculty Senate to the junior faculty. Tim is widely admired as a collaborator who has published or presented with colleagues in math, physics, chemistry, and other fields. And I could go on.

But the real beauty of it is that these three distinguished colleagues are actually pretty typical. Here at Sweet Briar, faculty members like these three are the rule and not the exception.