President's Blog

Archive for November 2010

You’ve GOT to watch this one!

And we’re back. . .

Students in the FAC

From a wonderful Thanksgiving break.  All morning, as I’ve moved around campus, I’ve been asking students what they did over the holiday. Here’s what I’m hearing —

  • laid on the couch with my (dog) (cat)
  • at my mom’s terrific (stuffing) (sweet potato pie) (lasagna)
  • did homework, wrote papers, tried to catch up
  • saw Harry Potter 7A, at least once

We all came back to something new on campus: Daisy’s Cafe is now serving Starbucks coffee and a new line of bagels from New York! They were just setting up this morning, and I had one of the first cups they brewed; for a serious coffee addict like me, this is going to be a mixed blessing, I can tell. . . .

Giving Thanks

What a wonderful thing it is to dedicate a national holiday to the spirit of gratitude!

The world challenges us daily, but in the midst of difficulties the human spirit finds much to greet with thanks and praise. This year, we know that too many of our fellow citizens lack sufficient employment, our troops remain at war, friends and loved ones grow ill and pass away.

And yet, and yet; in my family’s home, the traditional holiday grace at meal times was to give thanks for “good work to do and good people to do it.” And we, as a nation and a college, are rich in both.

Today, at Sweet Briar, I’m thankful for:

  • the students whose cheerful greetings (on the walks, in Prothro, on facebook) add a grace note to my every day and who are the reason for each day’s work
  • the faculty whose thoughtful and creative dedication to those students shows in every interaction, every day, and whose work it is an honor to support
  • the alumnae whose faces light up when I ask them to tell me their own personal favorite Sweet Briar stories
  • the staff, who wake up daily thinking about how they can make one little thing on campus better for our students and our faculty.

At a more personal level, this being Thanksgiving, I’m especially grateful for Rick and for John. They represent all the sons, husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles, boyfriends, and partners who support the aspirations and the work of the women in their lives. Being the son of a single working mother or the spouse of a college president isn’t always an unmitigated joy, yet they both have given me unmitigated support.

An Evening with the Inklings

Our student literary society is called The Inklings, after a distinguished Oxford society of the same name. Every year the members invite students, faculty, and staff to come together to share favorite readings. Last year participants read from their favorite poetry, and this year everyone was asked to bring a favorite a page or two of prose.

The invitation itself raises an intriguing issue for me. What to choose, what to choose? I thought, initially, that I should choose something edifying, uplifting, weighty — in short, something presidential. But nothing that I could think of in that vein seemed just right.

And then, three sentences came spontaneously to mind and I realized that I’ve always taken profound pleasure in prose that captures quirky, distinctive, and witty American voices. Here are the sentences that swam up from my memory — one is from Ring Lardner, one from James Thurber, and one from Eudora Welty. Each is in its own way inimitable as a single sentence, and each is from an inimitable work of short fiction:

“I know you never seed a midget ketched, and you prob’ly never even seed one throwed.”

“Do you think it wise to disport with ketchup in Stella-Rondo’s flesh-colored kimono?”

And, perhaps one of my favorite sentences of all time, “Shut up he explained.”

And so I pondered whether to read from “You Could Look It Up,” or from “The Young Immigrunts,” or from “Why I Live At The P.O.” I decided to invite Miss Welty to join me at the Inklings meeting, as a woman and a Southerner, and because it gave me the opportunity not only to re-read “Why I Live at the P.O.” but also to enjoy “The Petrified Man” again, since you can’t open a volume of Eudora Welty stories and read only one of them. . .

And the BEFORE picture

Welcome to Benedict 101

Last Friday there was a celebration and demonstration of the renovated Benedict 101! Bet it doesn’t look much like most of you remember it.

There isn’t nearly enough space here for me to list all the features — the projection capabilities and flat screen monitors, the audio, the ability to use Skype or other videoconferencing systems, the “huddle boards” that encourage group work, the chairs and tables that can be reconfigured for different teaching purposes with almost no effort, the sustainable bamboo flooring and environmentally sensitive paint (the color: Spice Cookie.)

What I love most about this room, however, is that fact that our wonderful faculty designed it. The faculty Instructional Technology envisioned the kind of space they want to teach in and students want to learn in, and with able assistance from our Physical Plant and Information Services staffs we re-did Benedict 101 to match their vision.

Over the coming months many faculty will use it for classes and we will use it for staff and committee meetings as well. All users will give their feedback and we will assess what we got right and what we can do better next time. We’ll tweak the model, and then start planning to renovate rooms across the campus to accommodate the full range of teaching and learning activities.

Federal Aid and Private Colleges

In this 24-hour period I’ll be attending meetings of the Women’s College Coalition, NAICU, and the Annapolis Group, all held in conjunction with one another in DC. One of the discussions earlier today concerned the impact of federal financial aid policy on private colleges. This is a timely topic, as  Congress is currently debating proposed changes to federal aid programs.

I realized I didn’t really know how federal aid currently benefits Sweet Briar students, so I checked.

In 2009-10, $565,800 came into the College to support recipients of Pell Grants (123 students), Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (71 students), and Work Study (65 students).  $250,000 supported 117 recipients of Perkins Loans. Another $5,458,798 came from federal subsidized, unsubsidized, and PLUS loan programs. That’s a grand total of $6,574,598 in support for Sweet Briar students. (All these figures were supplied by NAICU.)

To put this in perspective, it would take something like $131,500,000 in endowed funds to replace this federal aid to our students (assuming a 5% spending rate.)

It can be easy to underestimate the impact of federal policy on private institutions. After all, because we have endowments and annual funds that enable us to support much of the financial aid we award from institutional resources, we can overlook the importance of federal and state aid programs to our students. But there are literally hundreds of students who rely on federal support to help finance their Sweet Briar educations every year.

If we, as a society, want to expand access to higher education and to make sure that all students can choose the colleges that are truly best for them, federal aid programs that allow students to choose public or private institutions, in their home states or elsewhere, are essential. Student-centered federal financial aid helps sustain a lively and diverse marketplace off institutions and increases student options. Sweet Briar, and Sweet Briar students, would be much worse off without these important expressions of our national commitment to higher education and educational choice.

Board of Directors meeting and update

Last weekend was the fall Board of Directors meeting. As is my custom, I’ve shared a brief summary report with the campus community and any interested readers of this blog.

As I was drafting the summary, it occurred to me that many folks probably don’t have a very clear sense of what a Board of Directors actually DOES. It’s all well and good to say that they carry ultimate responsibility for the educational mission and fiscal integrity of the College, but it isn’t always clear exactly what that means.

So, for example, in this meeting the Board:

  • Reviewed plans for renovations to the library to ensure that they will both achieve our programmatic goals and fit within out budget.
  • Worked with a consultant from the Association of Governing Boards to discuss the structure and focus of its own work.
  • Listened to reports from the campus Strategic Planning Study Groups, posed questions, and offered comments.
  • Had dinner in Prothro with any students who were interested in talking with Directors.
  • Reviewed the products of the Media and Marketing group’s new focus on video and images as a way to tell the Sweet Briar story to today’s high school students and their families.
  • Attended the Waxter Forum lecture by Amanda Little and the Fall Dance Concert in Babcock.
  • Reviewed the College’s performance against budget now that we’re halfway through the fiscal year.

(Among other things — those are just some of the highlights.)

Academic governance is a complicated and delicate matter. It’s a well-recognized reality that the perspectives of Boards, faculties, students and administrations differ, and I would say appropriately so. All these constituencies share a passionate commitment to Sweet Briar’s success. Their different situations and points of view create the healthy and sometimes challenging dialogue that leads to the best decisions for the College.

In this governance mix, the Board’s role is to be the steward of the institution’s mission over the long term.  The Board must ensure that Sweet Briar is fulfilling the trust placed in it by its donors and by the public authorities which have granted its charter and awarded it non-profit status. In a sense, the Board’s charge is to hold the institution accountable to the claims of its mission, of society, and of the future.

Waxter Forum, 2010

Amanda Little was this year’s Waxter Forum speaker. Here’s a terrible picture I took with my iPhone.

If you want to see more, you easily can: this year for the first time we tried streaming the talk on the internet, live!

Ms. Little was speaking on the issues she raises in her book, Power Trip. She made two or three points that really struck home with me:

First, she pointed out how male-dominated the field of energy is, in both its research and business functions. Her encouragement of young women in engineering, business, and environmental studies to pursue energy questions was inspiring. And from the way our students were responding to her, I think they felt the same way.

Then, she drew a direct connection between America’s historical leadership in energy production and industrialization and our potential leadership in green energy and jobs production. For her, a green energy future and a petroleum-based past are continuous expressions of American excellence in technology, entrepreneurship, and economic development. I had never seen things in quite that way before, and I found it fascinating.


College presidents find themselves in a slightly complicated position with regard to electoral politics. It is, in my view, clearly inappropriate for presidents to consistently advantage or disadvantage those who express the views of any one party. Ensuring that multiple positions are represented in campus dialogue enlivens the exchange of ideas and enriches intellectual life. This year, for example, I’ve represented the College at an event featuring Justice Scalia and collaborated with a Democratic women’s group to bring an event to campus. On both occasions I received some comments suggesting that the president of Sweet Briar “should not” identify the College with any particular party on any occasion: my response is generally that the College should identify itself with active political discussion and debate, and that balance and openness across time is the standard.

What is also crystal clear to me is this: while a president should not advocate any party line, she should and indeed must advocate for political engagement.

One of the most fundamental rationales for liberal education is its importance to democracy. The ability to critically examine the positions espoused by candidates, to assess evidence on issues of public import, to understand statistics and trends, to articulate positions clearly and persuasively — these are all abilities developed through education and essential to engaged citizenship.

Sweet Briar women should be at their polling places today, giving their best thought to choosing the candidates who will shape our nation and its laws. Get out and vote, and take your education with you into the polling place! Examine your political options with the same intellectual skills you bring to your academic, professional, and service activities. Be the kind of educated voter on which a healthy democracy depends.