President's Blog

Archive for July 2010

A Short Break

Tomorrow morning, well before sunup, Rick and I will be heading off on a brief vacation.

I have a wallet full of theater tickets — Soulpepper in Toronto, the Stratford Festival in Ontario — and a calendar full of dinner reservations. (Flamenco and tapas for our wedding anniversary!) And I have a couple of books to read, including The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, our common reading on campus this fall.

I’m leaving the College in good hands and will have my iPhone and iPad at the ready in case I’m needed of course. But if you all can excuse me for about 10 days, I think I’ll take a short break from blogging. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to tell you about when I get back!

Assets and Access

Recently I had a chance to speak to a large group of librarians involved in  a collaborative network here in Virginia to help institutions share collections through inter-library loan.

As I acknowledged in welcoming them, I may be a bit unusual in thinking inter-library loan is a fascinating and important topic. But I do, and here’s why:

Inter-library loan is a great example of the way technology transforms the way we do business, often without our really noticing it. Just imagine, for example, what it might have been like to try to organize inter-library loan in the 1920s or 30s. A number of the technologies enabling ILL either didn’t exist or were in their infancy, including things like motorized transportation, a good system of roadways, and universal telephone connections. With subsequent developments — fax machines! computers! — moving information and books between libraries became easier and more transparent. Today virtually every library user in the United States assumes she has the ability to readily and conveniently borrow materials from remote libraries, but this is only possible because of a combination of technologies ranging from motorized vehicles to shared databases. In that sense inter-library loan is a great emblem of the potential impact of technologies on colleges and universities.

I also told the librarians that their work has defined one of the most important conceptual shifts underway in higher education. That is the shift from “assets” thinking to “access” thinking. In the past, libraries focused exclusively on the  assets they held, because those were the only resources practically available to their users. Today, libraries still focus on their holdings, of course, but they increasingly focus also on how to make sure their users have access to the holdings of others. Inter-library loan has been a leading example of this shift.

Digital technologies will only accelerate the shift from “assets” thinking to “access” thinking, and poses lots of interesting questions for inter-library loan. I encouraged the librarians at the conference to think about their work not only in terms of sharing physical books, but to use their experience with collaboration and information exchange to facilitate the sharing of information and materials in other media.

Librarians from across Virginia gather at Sweet Briar

More faculty summer updates

From time to time I get wonderful email messages from faculty members telling me what they’re up to. I thought you might be interested in excerpts from a couple of messages that recently appeared in my in-box. They have a common theme — technology, and the kind of sophisticated and border-crossing work that technology makes possible.

Professor Claudia Chang (anthropology) wrote from her dig in Kazakhstan: “We use flip cameras to shoot short videos of both Perry and me explaining what we are excavating, as we show the various features (fire pits, excavation
squares).  These will replace or supplement our notes taken traditionally in notebooks.  . . the talking notebook records what we are doing and our explanations of it…so we are going to download these videoclips . . . years from now archaeologists trying to access my site information, will not only know how the dig was conducted, but what was in my mind as I did the research.”

And yesterday, Professor Tracy Hamilton (art history) wrote about how she’s using the iPad she got as part of the pilot project I wrote about a while ago: ” . . . it may really change the way I can access information and cause me to rethink my definition of ‘the classroom.’ For instance, Holley Ledbetter, who had a long weekend break from the Oxford Program, went to Sicily, and just sent me images of the 12th century churches and their mosaics that she had written about in her Romanesque Art&Archeology paper for me this spring (the thesis of which partly sprang from the scholarship of Laura Reinert in the English department).  I wrote back and told her to look at it from a different angle and we ended up having a conversation between Sicily and VA with her sending me images and us asking questions back and forth.”

This kind of work is exactly what I mean when I talk about a digitally sophisticated liberal education! And if you’ve ever wondered what faculty do during their summer time “off,” well, this is it.

A Visit with Buck Edwards

Yesterday Buck Edwards (pictured here at his 90th birthday party last year) joined me for lunch at Sweet Briar House. Although I’ve met Mr. Edwards on several occasions since I arrived, I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and visit with him at leisure.

He told me he arrived at Sweet Briar in 1927, when his father assumed a faculty position. Clearly, this was a heavenly place to be a child; Buck attributed his interest in biology and specifically in birds to the hours he spent roaming the campus.

He has known all but the first two presidents of Sweet Briar; that is, all my predecessors since Meta Glass. (He told me with a chuckle that I am clearly the tallest of the group, with the exception of Harold Whiteman.) Best story about Meta Class: Buck recalls dancing the Virginia Reel with her in the far parlor at Sweet Briar House! Somehow, in all my imagining about what Meta Glass might have been like, her dancing the Virginia Reel never once occurred to me.  (Here she is, with Cordell Hull.)

Best tip I got: according to Mr. Edwards, now that we’re haying again in some of our fields, we are likely to be re-creating favorable habitat for the grasshopper sparrow. If I keep my eyes out on the tops of fence posts near the hay fields, I might be able to see them, although I am unlikely to hear them — those of us with older ears have a hard time discerning their light, high song.

Wonderful Alumnae (and students!) in Massachusetts

Rick and I have just returned from a visit to New England and the annual picnic given on her beautiful farm by Joanne Holbrook Patton, ’52. Below is a picture of me with Joanne, who is on the far left, and some of her classmates. (Thanks to Michelle Badger, ’06, for the image.)

I had a chance to catch up with several current students who were there, including the soon-to-be President of the Senior Class, a junior who is on her way to Spain for a year abroad, another student who is on her way to D.C. for an internship, yet another who was off to an equestrian competition the next day, and a soon-to-be first year student who came with her just-graduated elder sister.

And as always, I heard lots of great stories. Mrs. Patton told me one that I loved so much I asked her for permission to share it with all of you.

When she was an undergraduate, Joannie Holbrook (as she was then) served as editor of the Briar Patch, a responsibility she undertook with seriousness and some trepidation. She wanted very much to make sure that under her leadership the yearbook would be a great success and a fitting record of the time she and her classmates had spent at Sweet Briar. At that time, the advisor to the yearbook was Professor Jessie Fraser. At the beginning of the year, Joanne recalls that she went to Professor Fraser for advice and got a surprising answer. Professor Fraser told her to go sit, quietly, in the dell for a good long period of time and to pay attention to all that surrounded her. Everything important and permanent about Sweet Briar would then be within reach, she assured Joanne.

As Mrs. Patton tells the story, she was unsure about this, having had in mind something more like advice about editing photos, but she dutifully went and did as advised. And as she sat there, indeed, she found that everything she loved about the College came into focus. And with her vision refreshed, she got up, brushed herself off, and went to work.

I intend to remember this story during the inevitably hectic interludes of the coming year and to treat myself to a spell of dell-sitting when I need to regain perspective.

Classmates from 1952 at Green Meadows Farm

Provocative article

If you read The Atlantic, you might have seen its recent article on “The End of Men.” It’s available on line here. (Thanks to Professor Kay Brimijoin, who was the first person to point it out to me.)

I mention it not because I agree with all of its arguments or conclusions, but because some of the data it cites raises a very important and challenging question for women’s colleges. Here’s one salient quote:

“Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.”

The question is an obvious one. If women (most of whom attend co-ed colleges) are outperforming men in the academic sphere, what is the rationale for single-sex education for women?

I’m thinking about this a lot — and it’s far too complex a topic to address in a quick blog post! But my thinking starts here: the question assumes that the rationale for women’s institutions is to redress formerly-denied opportunities. If those opportunities are now readily available, the rationale no longer holds.

Redress may well in fact have been the foundational rationale for many women’s institutions. (Or, for that matter, for HBCUs, tribal colleges, or other institutions founded to serve underserved populations.) But I would certainly not say that redress is the primary rationale for women’s institutions today.

Our rationale, here at Sweet Briar, is quite simply that education on a women’s campus provides the greatest opportunity for each individual student to maximize her potential. Sure, women have lots of opportunities in coeducational settings, and sure, women are outperforming men academic according to a number of measures. But for an individual woman to pursue her education in an environment entirely dedicated to her success, as she defines it: that remains a rare and valuable benefit, and a powerful rationale for single sex institutions for women.

I also refuse to believe that academic success for one gender comes, inevitably, at the expense of the other. Has women’s success in the academy “pushed out” success for men? I don’t think so. And yet, of course, society will be stronger if men and women both achieve the highest possible level of education.

Hence the fascinating question posed by the article: are we now, nationally, in need of educational programs providing educational redress for men?

Very Cool Strategic Planning Update

One of the criteria I established for the current strategic planning process is that it be based in research and data. Christy Cole has just posted an update to the strategic planning blog that shows exactly what that means! An impressive amount of information has been gathered and is being studied by faculty and staff across the campus.

Check out her full post if you’re interested. Here’s a quick excerpt to give you a sense:

“For example, I recently created a database of the 241 private, four-year, liberal arts colleges containing enrollment levels (i.e. overall and by ethnicity, age, and full-or part time status), as well as institutional characteristics such as program offerings and size of campus. I presented the information to the Expand Whom We Serve group on June 23. After reviewing the initial data, the group developed a list of five specific data queries. One of the requests is to provide them with a list of the schools that are classified as rural, are a similar size (enrollment) to Sweet Briar, and have a significant percentage of minority populations, international students, and/or adult learners.

For the Competitive Advantage study group, I created a database listing the campus acreage for each of the 241 private, four-year, liberal arts colleges. After reviewing this information, the committee is working on researching each of the institution’s web sites to examine how other colleges and universities utilize large parcels of land.”

Why does this kind of work matter? And why do I, a former Victorianist, get so excited about databases? It’s easy, especially in small communities with strong traditions, to assume that we already know most of what we need to know. I’ll cheerfully acknowledge, personally, that my own knowledge can date very fast. A campus I learned a lot about four years ago may, since then, have instituted new programs, re-focused its mission, or changed its marketing significantly. Data points I remember from two years ago may no longer be true. So, it’s essential to keep looking outward and updating what we know — and think we know — about Sweet Briar’s competition and peer institutions.

Which is not to say we don’t also need to look inward. That is where we will find our core strengths, our distinctive traditions, and our educational values. Strategic planning requires a complex double movement — looking in and looking out, looking back to our founding purpose and forward to our future.

Fourth of July

Balloon Festival in Lexington

A Day in Lynchburg

Last week, Rick and I made time to spend a day visiting historical sites in Lynchburg — things we’ve been planning to get to for a year now! We decided it was time to dig a little deeper into the history of the area.

I think most people in the area are familiar with the Old City Cemetery. Here’s a picture of the Confederate section, along with the old retaining wall. The Old City Cemetery is really an outdoor museum of Lynchburg history. A tour through it is an opportunity to learn about prominent citizens, important eras in the city’s history, and to enjoy spectacular views and a lovely collection of antique roses. Rick was especially taken with an exhibit illustrating a 19th century “pest house.” The schoolchildren right behind us agreed it was “gross.”

Later that afternoon, we visited the Anne Spencer House and Garden. Here I was able to feel a (perhaps illusory) sense of discovery: lots of people had told me about the Old City Cemetery, but at the Anne Spencer House I felt I was discovering a hidden gem. I’m ashamed to admit that until my visit, I was unaware of the work of Anne Spencer, a noted poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Her granddaughter, Shaun Spencer Hester, graciously spent the afternoon with us and gave us rich perspective on her grandmother’s life. The rooms we stood in had once welcomed guests “from George Washington Carver to Martin Luther King, Jr.; from Mary McLeod Bethune to W. E. B. DuBois; from Adam Clayton Powell to Thurgood Marshall.” And I was standing where they had all stood! Behind the house is Anne Spencer’s garden, lovingly restored and believed to be the only restored garden designed by an African American in the country.

Lynchburg, with all its riches of history, is less than 30 minutes away from campus. Rick and I find ourselves there for one reason or other at least once a week. But it was wonderful to take a day and play tourist and get to know the city’s history just a little bit better.

Jane White (garden restorer) and Shaun Spencer Hester (gracious tour guide)

Endstation Theatre Company, In The House

This afternoon I gave an ice cream social at Sweet Briar House for members of the Endstation Theatre Company, which is in the middle of its annual residency on campus. Here they are, taking a quick break from their rehearsal schedule. (Right now, it’s Alice in Wonderland in Babcock, but Hamlet at the Dairy Barn is just around the corner!) 

It would be hard for me to overstate how proud we are to have Endstation on campus. Take a look at this wonderful feature piece from today’s Washington Post. Endstation is doing innovative live theater, theater that is not just in a place but of that place . . . showing us a Confederate Hamlet, working out his fate outside a Virginia barn, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.

Colleges and universities should be places where the arts are alive. I mean something very specific by that: colleges should be places where art is created, adapted, changed, developed, and made new every day — not places where art is treated too reverentially or metaphorically trapped in amber. A company like Endstation brings living art to Sweet Briar and to the Amherst and Lynchburg communities, creating opportunities for all of us to explore. Students get to work with them and explore new dimensions of what it means to “do” theater. Meanwhile, old theatergoers like me get to explore what Hamlet means for audiences at this moment in time, in this specific place. If you’re going to be near campus during the rest of the season, do consider catching a performance. The schedule is here.

Company Members Enjoying the Garden