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President's Blog

Archive for August 2010

Convocation: ROSE Awards

I mentioned last week that the ROSE awards were given at Convocation this year. (ROSE stands for Recognition of Staff Excellence.)

Faculty Arriving for Convocation

Conferring these awards is one of the highlights of my year. Staff across the campus work diligently, creatively, and cheerfully to make everything that needs to happen on campus happen. Often what they do takes place behind the scenes; being able to shine a spotlight on them once or twice a year is therefore a special pleasure.

This year’s winners, and the accomplishments for which they were recognized:

Excellence as a Team Member: Sara Jacobs.

Sara Jacobs, Pitching In As Usual

Sara Jacobs has been called both the heart and the backbone of Dining Services. Colleagues note her willingness to jump in wherever she is needed, whether it’s changing tablecloths or packing lunches for sick students. A co-worker put it best: “Sara makes life better for everyone in the dining hall.”


Excellence in Service Award: Randy Cash.

Randy Cash

When he began at Sweet Briar 27 years ago, Randy was a fireman on the coal boiler and a plumber’s helper.  We now know him as a master plumber, an excellent backhoe operator and frankly an accomplished jack-of-all-trades.  On many occasions, Randy has had to perform tasks that are not for the faint of heart.  He has spent countless nights on campus during harsh, unpleasant, and challenging conditions, attending to whatever needs to attention.



Cindy Ponton

Bright Idea Award: Cindy Ponton.

Cindy Ponton is a purchasing guru.  She is recognized this year for a copier replacement program which acquired machines that are more functional, sustainable, and efficient at great cost savings to the College. Cindy’s cost-consciousness is rivaled only by her sustainability awareness. Cindy, thank you for reminding us that there are always more efficient and greener ways of operating, while providing great customer service and reducing costs.


Convocation Remarks

I usually try to avoid posting long texts here, but I’ve just come from opening Convocation where I delivered a brief State of the College report. It’s an important message, so I’m sharing the gist of it here with all of you. (We also present student and staff honors and awards at Convocation. I’ll post information about the winners of this year’s prizes soon.)

“I realize, of course, that the calendar year actually begins in January, but I have to admit that what really feels like New Year’s to me is the first day of school. The exhilarating feeling of fresh starts, expanded potential, renewed energy, and momentum belongs to the beginning of the school year, and for me at least it still smells vaguely like pencil shavings and fresh paper. As we gather today, I have a bit of that excited and optimistic feeling that a new lunch box always used to give me, and I hope that you do too.

It is good, very good, to see you all together here. This year, we have changed the calendar of opening ceremonies in order to create a true convocation, one in which all faculty, staff, and students assemble to celebrate our shared commitment to Sweet Briar and to each other. Following this ceremony, we will have our first true all-campus picnic, which is being provided by a catering firm so that all employees may enjoy it. Here, today, we together are the College. Welcome, all, to the 2010-11 academic year!

As we open the year, it is my privilege to offer you a brief report on the state of the college. There is much good news to share. On Saturday, we welcomed the class of 2014, 197 strong.  This year’s entering class is approximately 10% larger than last year’s, which is especially impressive given the continued economic challenges facing the nation. It is also gratifying to tell you of the increasing diversity among entering students; 18% of our new students identify themselves as other than white, which is a significant increase over last year’s 14%. And, in addition to welcoming a robust and diverse class of new students, we welcome a number of new faculty and staff to campus this fall.

Over the summer, while students were enjoying internships, travel, employment, study, and maybe even a little vacation, faculty submitted grant proposals, edited journals, finished books, conducted field work, and prepared for this year’s classes. Back on campus, Strategic Planning study groups continued the important work of analyzing the present so as to envision the future. Director of Institutional Research Christy Cole provided large comparative data sets to support the work of each study group, and each group has articulated interesting ideas and possibilities that arise from their consideration of that information. The strategic planning blog contains updates about their summer’s work; I encourage you to catch up on the progress the study groups have made there. Throughout this semester, the strategic planning teams will be sharing their findings and inviting your ideas, questions, and comments. Please respond to these invitations; I believe firmly in the tech-world adage that “all of us are smarter than any of us,” and the more you contribute to the process the better the ultimate plan will be.

But we are not waiting to complete the strategic planning process to move important initiatives forward. There are several important pilot projects underway this semester, many related to strategic planning. First, this fall 15 faculty members and 30 entering students will be participating in an iPad pilot project. These faculty member and students have agreed to dedicate time and thought to exploring whether and how iPads might enhance learning and teaching in a variety of disciplines. These innovators will be sharing what they learn as part of a strategic effort to ensure that Sweet Briar is providing a digitally sophisticated education to all students. Of course, what is meaningful in this pilot is not the iPads themselves: they are simply one opportunity to examine the ways in which digital tools can – or can not – enhance pedagogy. In other words, this pilot project is about teaching, not about devices.

A related pilot project is the result of the work of the faculty technology committee. In late summer, representatives of that committee came to see me to present the results of a faculty survey they had conducted. This survey had identified those technology and classroom upgrades that faculty respondents believed had most potential value. After reviewing the results, the faculty IT committee developed a design for a classroom prototype or model that they dubbed the “pilot classroom.” This prototype represents the faculty IT committee’s vision of a teaching and learning space for a liberal arts college of today.

Well, if you’ve walked past Benedict 101 lately, you know that we are in the process of installing that faculty-designed pilot classroom. (And thanks are due to the physical plant and technology staff members who are essential to making this happen.) This project will create an environment in which faculty can experiment with teaching in a new classroom design and technology configuration, providing feedback to the faculty IT committee as they go. Ultimately, the goal is to refine the initial design based on pilot experience and to remodel multiple classrooms across campus in light of what we’ve learned. When the pilot room is finished, we are planning a small celebration, dedication, and demonstration; I hope you will come by then to see a new kind of learning and teaching space in action.

There is yet another and very important pilot project underway this semester, to which I would also like to draw your attention. This year, Sweet Briar enters into the active phase of its regular reaffirmation of accreditation process. As part of this stage, we are undertaking a project called the QEP, or Quality Enhancement Plan. Sweet Briar’s QEP has been designed by a committee of faculty and staff: its focus is on creating a shared intellectual experience that entering students will undertake early in their time on campus. This experience is constructed to emphasize the active and collaborative learning that is at the core of academic engagement at Sweet Briar and to help students develop the attitudes and skills that will make them truly engaged learners at the outset of their academic careers.

In our QEP pilot, two sections of English 104 students will be doing additional reading and assignments related to this year’s common reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Which they will be reading on, yes, iPads.) This text provides a wonderful core for the project; I think all students, faculty, and staff will find it an interesting and provocative book and if you haven’t read it yet I encourage you to do so.  It places ethical reflections on medical research in the context of the history of race in America and the collective biography of one family.  Reaching into science, ethics, sociology, history, public policy, economics, and other disciplines, it exemplifies the fundamental way in which the liberal arts and interdisciplinarity can illuminate complex controversies; it models the liberally educated intellectual engagement at the heart of a Sweet Briar education.

As with the pilot classroom, the pilot QEP is intended to be a learning experience for all of us. The team involved will be gathering data on the impact of the experience on student engagement; this assessment will lead to modifications in the model, and a revised program will be rolled out across campus next year.

You will find much else new on campus this fall. You may not have noticed, but the web site has a new design! The Honors program has been revised and strengthened. The curriculum of the Business major has been revised to focus on social entrepreneurship. The minor program in Communications has also been revised: it is now a minor in Journalism, New Media, and Communication. And there is a new and exciting interdisciplinary minor in Medieval and Renaissance studies. This summer we signed an agreement making the Endstation Theater Company an official theater company in residence at Sweet Briar for the next several years, and henceforth we will be promoting the Blue Ridge Summer Theater Festival as a joint Endstation/Sweet Briar project.  There are new items on the menu in Prothro (last week, sushi and gyros, believe it or not!).  And, of course, there is a new and independently-operated day care center on campus, which replaces the former Campus School and which for the first time provides infant care as well as toddler and pre-school programs.

Whew. I think I’ll stop now. But I won’t yield the podium until I say, in addition to welcome back, thank you all. Everything I have mentioned is the work of the community assembled here. Your daily efforts, whether you are a student, a faculty member, or a member of staff, are the beating heart of this wonderful college. Its energy is your energy, and its imagination is your imagination. I look forward to the wonderful year that I know we will create together.” 

2014 arrives

The Vixen at the Check Point

I’ve just returned from Babcock and the official welcome to new students! So far, 197 students are present and accounted for. They, and their families, took a break from moving in to enjoy a picnic at Prothro.

Families relaxing at the picnic

(They don’t have to move in unassisted. Sweet Briar hires a local football team to lend families a hand.)

Football Players At The Ready

Some 2014 class trivia: cumulatively, new students have traveled 115,912 miles to get to campus today. They come from 153 different high schools. 4 of them were home schooled. 16 have relatives who attended Sweet Briar. 41 are only children, one has eight siblings, and there are two sets of twins. The most common name in the class is Sarah (6), followed by variant spellings of Alexandra, Jessica, Megan, Rachel, and Catherine, each of which is represented by five students.

Between now and the arrival of returning students in a few days, the new students will get to know each other and the College. They’ll have sessions on academic advising and the Honor Code, they’ll enjoy Learning on the Land and signing up for clubs and activities, they’ll figure out where everything goes in their rooms and negotiate ground rules with their roommates.

It’s hard to say who will have more fun and learn more — the new members of the class of 2014, or all of us who now have a chance to get to know them and to see the College anew through their eyes.

Laura Stamen and current students taking a break from welcome duties

Let the Welcomes Begin

Campus is beginning to fill up! Last night there was a dinner at Red Top for student leaders who have returned to campus early for training and preparation. There was also a picnic at the FAC for athletes who arrived yesterday to begin getting ready for fall season sports. And, holla holla, on Saturday the class of 2014 will be here for orientation.

While it’s lovely and peaceful on campus in the summer — except perhaps for those weeks when there are several high school marching bands in residence — the return of the students brings everything to more vivid life. The energy of the new school year is gathering and anticipation runs high; it’s almost like those moments in the theater when the audience falls silent, stops rustling, and waits attentively for the curtain to rise and reveal the first scene.

I am delighted to see the students back and having fun hearing about their summer work, play, travels, adventures, and reflections. I’ve missed them!

Welcome Picnic at the FAC

Rankings Season

Well, it’s the time of year when various publications issue their annual “best of colleges” lists.

In the last few days, Sweet Briar has again appeared as one of America’s top 100 colleges and universities (#87, to be precise) on the Forbes.com list of “America’s Best Colleges.” And the Princeton Review rankings have also just been published. Sweet Briar was ranked as #3 for “most accessible professors,” #4 for “professors get high marks,” #6 for “most beautiful campus,” #8 for both “best classroom experience” and “best career services,” and #11 for “class discussions encouraged.”

I will confess to regarding these lists with deeply mixed emotions. On the one hand, when Sweet Briar is recognized year after year in key categories, it’s a wonderful affirmation of our genuine strengths and a source of legitimate pride.  The fact that our campus is regularly recognized for its beauty or our faculty for their dedication to students reflects an undeniable reality!

On the other hand, the methodologies used by these publications vary and any uni-dimensional ranking system is inevitably reductive. For example, last year our campus was ranked #2 for “most beautiful.” This year it is ranked at #6. . . and yet, as any visitor can testify, the campus looks exactly the same this year as it did last year. Has our campus become so much less beautiful in just one year? Or other campuses so much more beautiful? Hard to imagine.

Similarly, rankings lists can produce strange conjunctions. On the Forbes.com list this year #87 is Sweet Briar, and #88 is Johns Hopkins University. While I have no doubt that Forbes’ methodology genuinely produced these results, it strikes me that these two excellent institutions are so different in nature and situation that their appearance side by side is almost startling. Comparing Johns Hopkins and Sweet Briar overall is rather like comparing, well, a laptop and an autoclave. Both might be highly rated, but they’re far from interchangeable.

I’d much rather talk about actual assessment data than the ranking schemes devised by general-interest publications. And our National Survey of Student Engagement results just came in too — so look for a post about them very soon!

Thank you, Susie

Yesterday the College community gathered in Prothro to celebrate the retirement of Susan Kitchen, who is retiring after 42 years of service. Susie first served meals to Sweet Briar students at the Refectory in 1968 and hasn’t skipped a beat since then! I guesstimate that she has served more than 10,000 alumnae and students in the course of that 42 years.

Susie’s dedication and loyalty are remarkable. It certainly won’t be the same around here without her.

Back Home!

Rick and I have just returned from a terrific ten days of vacation in Ontario. Here he is, on the tall ship Kajama in the harbor at Toronto, where we also saw a remarkable exhibit at the ROM on the terra cotta army of the First Emperor.

Quick summary:

Plays seen included: A Month in the Country, The Tempest, Winter’s Tale, For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, As You Like It, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Kiss Me Kate, Dangerous Liaisons. (If you find yourself near the Stratford festival during the remainder of the season, don’t miss Christopher Plummer’s Prospero if you can help it.)

Books read (by me) included Contested Will, a very interesting history of the Shakespeare authorship controversies by James Shapiro, whose A Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare: 1599 I also recently enjoyed. After that, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is this year’s common reading on campus. (The link will take you to a page listing several colleges that are using the book this way, along with comments from professors about why it’s important.) Rick caught up on some of the science fiction he’s been meaning to get to, and we both actually got up to date with The New Yorker for the first time in a while!

Meals eaten included tapas (with flamenco!), Indian, sushi, Italian, Thai, and fish-and-chips, almost all followed by some form of chocolate. And many wonderful cappucinos at a favorite coffee shop fueled my mornings of reading. . .