President's Blog

Archive for October 2010

New Video: Cardboard Boat Regatta

Sweet Briar House IS Haunted


Or at least it was last night, when campus children came around forTrick-or-Treating, escorted by the Chung Mungs! 

Me and some of the older goblins

“Guest” speaker

Recently, several Sweet Briar anthropology students talked with the author of one of the books they’ve been studying in class.

Nothing all that unusual there: Sweet Briar is regularly visited by leading scholars in many fields. But this one didn’t exactly visit. Rather, she logged on to Skype from her office at Georgetown University and met with our students via videoconferencing.

No need for the expert to spend a day in travel, no expense to the College, just an exchange between Sweet Briar students and an internationally recognized scholar.

I’ve been thinking recently about the educational implications of this kind of increasingly-common experience. Today’s students will need to be as good at interacting via videoconferencing as they are in person, in writing, and on the telephone. They will likely be interviewed for jobs, collaborate with colleagues, and give professional  presentations via what’s often called “telepresence.” Certainly our alumnae tell us these tools are increasingly important in their own work, volunteer, and family lives.

How can we make sure Sweet Briar is educating women to work effectively in this medium, just as in person and in print? Whatever the ultimate answer to that question is, it’s clear that a first step is simply incorporating this experience into the ongoing work of the College, as Professor Adams was doing last week. Which is, I think, very cool.

New Video, Homecoming 2010

Dinner with the Psych Department

Image from the Psychology page on sbc.edu

Last night I enjoyed sushi and conversation with the members of Sweet Briar’s psych department.

(The wits in my office inquired solicitously this morning whether they had been able to help me at all. . . .)

We talked about, among other things, parking lot behavior. What, psychologically speaking, differentiates those who circle and circle seeking the closest spot from those who immediately take the first spot they see, however distant it is, and those who lurk impatiently behind people who appear to be about to pull out of occupied spaces?

And what might those differences tell us about individual resource-seeking behaviors in general?

And what about cases where individual resource-seeking behavior jeopardizes the stability of a social group? (Violent fighting over parking spots, for example.) What psychological mechanisms have evolved to help us navigate that dilemma?

How do all these issues look from the perspective of a Buddhist philosophy of mind? And how might they appear in the context of distinctions between the Baby Boomer, Generation X, GenY, Gen Next, and now Millenial cohorts?

More questions than answers, sure, but a wonderfully interesting evening.

I also learned about the research projects Sweet Briar students are doing, about the patterns of interest the faculty have seen in recent years (forensic psychology is hot right now), about the ways psychology students combine their interest in psych with business, education, biology, dance, and many other fields, and about the quantitative skills needed to do statistical analyses.

And we spent some time on the psycho-social mechanisms at work in the Sweet Briar phenomenon of the Faculty Show! Which I will experience for the first time very soon now. . .

Thoughts on Families’ Weekend

Last weekend was Families’ Weekend. It was, as usual, great fun to meet so many students’ relatives, see them enjoying campus activities, and hear their stories about Sweet Briar’s impact on their daughters/granddaughters/nieces/sisters.

Once it was over, I found myself reflecting on the relationship between family and education. It’s profound and complicated. Higher education is, on the one hand, an intensely individual pursuit. Good colleges encourage students to follow their own ambitions and passions, chart their own courses, deepen and extend their own talents, no matter what others — sometimes even parents — advise. Families occasionally sense that a college education might carry  their children into a world, and a future, where they can’t follow. As a mother and stepmother and aunt, I know that feeling!

At the same time, families invest enormous resources in education. (“Families,” of course, refers to all those people who demonstrate a lifelong commitment to a young person’s development — whether related by blood or marriage, or simply by love.) And I don’t mean only financial resources. Families invest hope, aspirations, confidence, and ambition. Families count on education to create security and meaning for future generations. They do this because they know, as my dad used to say, that “an education is the one thing I can give you that no one can ever take away.”

And families instill the values that inspire educational achievement. At dinner tables children are asked why they think what they think, or what they make of something in today’s news, or why they like a particular song. On vacations children are encouraged to enter new situations with curiosity and explore the unfamiliar. Weekend activities model interest in how to design a doghouse, or in the life cycles of the bugs and plants in the back yard, or in how to take a good photograph: family jokes encourage verbal play, family support encourages risk-taking, family meetings develop problem solving skills.

So, when I talk with families on campus, I appreciate the opportunity to thank them. Their commitment to Sweet Briar deeply honors the College. Their investment shows that education ranks high among their values. I thank them for their vote of confidence and for all they have done to raise the wonderful young women we have the joy of educating.

And as I walk back to Sweet Briar House, I think about all the family members who invested in my education — Grandpa Leon and Grandma Lucy, Mom and Dad, my sister and cousins, and my son (who, poor thing, had a graduate student mother in his infancy) — and I thank them too.

Introducing Indy!

Deans Green and Steele, Indiana, and Me

Our Vixen mascot received a proper name this weekend! By popular vote, she has been dubbed “Indiana” and, for short, “Indy.” (Or, perhaps, “Indie.” I’m not sure which will end up being the preferred spelling.)

No reader of this blog will need an explanation: Indiana’s name honors the founder of Sweet Briar, Indiana Fletcher Williams.

I think it’s terrific. As a nickname, “Indie” conjures independence, speed, agility, and creativity — all qualities we’re proud of in our college, our athletes, and our students generally.

#10 and #10

Indiana’s team jersey number is 10, because she earned her name in 2010. I think this creates a special affinity between us, however, as I am Sweet Briar’s 10th president. . .

Things People Have Discussed With Me This Week

When I feel like I have the best job in America, which, frankly, I very often do, I am generally thinking about the wonderful conversations I get to have as president of Sweet Briar.

Here’s a quick sampling from this week:

(with faculty from Arts Management) — Interest in arts/cultural organization management is growing, and we have a distinguished group of alumnae working in the field. When you stop and think about it, scientists, performing artists, studio artists, historians, archeologists, anthropologists, educators, art historians, classicists ALL have some relationship with the world of museums, exhibits, or performance. How can we extend our current program to engage all these perspectives?

(with alumnae from the class of 1944) — The world of financial aid and how families pay for higher education has changed radically in the last half-century. Expanded access to selective private higher education has been a wonderful thing for our country but has also created challenges for institutions. How is Sweet Briar reaching out and supporting students who would not have come here in their day?

(with students from SGA) — Student clubs are pursuing all kinds of wonderful community service projects, but in some cases they might be duplicating their efforts. How might students coordinate so as to spread their volunteer hours and energies more effectively across the many causes they care about?

(with the Strategic Planning Steering Committee) — The iPad/common reading pilot is demonstrating clearly how much learning goes on when the use of relevant digital tools is incorporated into coursework in a pervasive and organic way. What are our best opportunities to extend this benefit to more students? And what are the implications for how we structure our curriculum and deliver IT support?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Life in an academic environment is a continual invitation into wide ranging, important, and interesting conversations, and Sweet Briar is full of terrific conversation partners.

A President’s Sunday

A while back, when I asked readers whether they would be interested in my continuing to blog my second year at Sweet Briar, a few people mentioned that they enjoy having a sense of what a president actually DOES. So, I thought that from time to time I might do a simple “day in the life” posting. Today, a president’s Sunday.

It was utterly gorgeous this morning. When we’re on campus, the first thing Rick and I do every Sunday is walk the dogs down to the Inn, which is where the Sunday New York Times and Washington Post deliveries are dropped off. Here are Rick, Tazz, and Coco, waiting for me to put down my cell phone and get my walking shoes on!

Rick, Tazz, Coco

This morning, we saw lots of rabbits but no deer, and although we often run into fellow news junkies getting their papers today we didn’t. But it was pretty early. . .

After a quick run through the headlines, it was time for the field hockey game. I couldn’t help remembering that it is just over a year ago now that we dedicated our new Thayer Field. One of the parents I chatted with on the sidelines was talking about how well maintained it is and how his daughter loves playing on it, and the soccer coach admitted to me that although he loves his soccer field, its view can’t really compare to the view from Thayer Field. I had to leave before the game was over; although Sweet Briar was behind, I had seen some smart and aggressive plays made by our team, which always delights me! 

I had to leave the game to get over to the Chapel and speak to prospective students and their families who are on campus for Open House day. (All the while giving thanks for the weather — we could not have ordered up a more beautiful day to show our campus to good advantage.) The Chapel was full — here are some families arriving.

I talked to the prospective students about knowing what they want in a college, which may not be the same things their friends, neighbors, or classmates want! Their own hopes and dreams are the most important yardstick to measure Sweet Briar against. I also told them that, just a little more than 18 months ago, I was looking for a college that fulfilled my own personal wish list and how I found it at Sweet Briar — a college “where women learn together in a lively community, full of fun and friendship, where the faculty take their students seriously and do everything in their power to help each and every one succeed, a place where as President I can go down to the dining hall and eat lunch with students and hear directly from them about the impact Sweet Briar is having on their lives. . . ”

And now, I’m back at Sweet Briar House, with some good local organic lamb I plan to cook Syrian style for dinner tonight.

Strategic Planning Update

A summary update has just been posted to our strategic planning blog. If you’re interested, please check it out, and remember that you can post comments. And lots of people DO post: for example, Anthropology professor Debbie Durham just contributed some important insights about the experience of transfer students on campus.

Here’s an excerpt, from the “Expanding Whom We Serve” study group:

“The study group has identified both large and small initiatives, all centered on three basic themes:

  • Land (interest in sustainability/environment; interest in service learning; interest in outdoor education/recreation; home-schooled; and high school students interested in summer outdoor programs).
  • Experiential/Hands-on/Apprenticeship Learning (riders; interest in engineering; interest in creative writing/the arts; and high school students interest in summer arts/engineering/service learning programs).
  • Diversity (ethnic/racial/religious diversity; transfer; local non-residential; home-schooled; and high school students interest in programs e.g. transition or home students to college).”

So many faculty, staff, students, alumnae, and neighbors are actively engaged in this process, and they are doing so much good and detailed work to help Sweet Briar chart a course for the next few years! I can truly say that I have never seen so inspiring and focused a planning process, on any campus. . .