President's Blog

Archive for December 2010

A Week’s Vacation

Tomorrow morning I’m headed off on week’s vacation, during which time I’ll have only intermittent internet access. Please don’t expect new posts until I return on the 4th!

I have a significant reading list for the coming week: two books about Cleopatra (one by Stacy Schiff and one by Adrian Goldsworthy, the latter recommended to me by classics professor Eric Casey.) I also have a couple of books related to higher education; I’m planning to re-read Derek Bok’s Our Underperfoming Colleges (which a number of faculty are reading over break, too, in preparation for a faculty retreat we’re having right before the second semester begins) and to read for the first time Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year. Those are all on my iPad; I’m also taking one “regular” book, a copy of The Hemingses of Monticello.

In a previous post I mentioned that I was trying to finish Dancing To The Precipice by Christmas day, which I did, just. And precisely in the fashion I had hoped to, steaming coffee, lapdogs and all. The depiction of the political gyrations of France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from the point of view of one family is fascinating. And clearly Lucie de la Tour du Pin was a formidable character, bearing children in hiding, watching family members go the guillotine, and escapting to America (where she established a farm in upstate New York!) while just barely older than the typical Sweet Briar student.

One Last Campus Holiday Celebration

The last holiday celebration of the season was the annual oyster-and-shrimp feast at Physical Plant on Thursday.

I wasn’t able to get down there, but Rick was eager to volunteer to go in my place to say happy holidays to the team and thank them for another year of outstanding work (and, of course, to eat what seems to have been a significant quantity of fried oysters!) He took these pictures.

I’ve been struck again and again since we arrived at the prevalence of oysters in Virginia cuisine. Driving along the highways here you see numerous gas stations selling oysters. Ask people about their stuffing recipes and they mostly involve oysters. Theresa McNabb in the business office tells me that her family’s custom is to have oyster stew for breakfast on Christmas day. At the Physical Plant feast they coat the oysters in corn meal and flour and fry them until they’re crispy. . .

We haven’t incorporated oysters yet into our own personal holiday food traditions, which include my mother’s cornbread stuffing, what we call “Rick’s Christmas hummus” (extra thick, extra garlic), and for breakfast the scrapple that my son grew up with during our Philadelphia years. And, of course, as I shared with you last year, my grandmother’s  hoppin’ john for New Year’s! But I suspect that by next year I will have found an oyster recipe for the holidays that I want to try and that might well find a permanent place in our family’s traditions.

What a lovely thing it is, that places have distinctive food traditions, and what a lovely thing it is that as we move from place to place we can both  carry them with us and acquire new ones along the way. Whatever holidays you are celebrating, whatever midwinter traditions mark the turning of the year for you, whatever people and places you honor in your celebrations, enjoy!

When the students aren’t here — ?

I’ve been asked what goes on on campus when the students aren’t here — and specifically, what I do when the students aren’t here! So, here’s a sampling from the last few days since exams ended. I’ve:

  • worked with Development Office to finish up and submit a couple of grant proposals
  • reviewed end-of-semester reports from Strategic Planning Study Groups
  • taken two extra exercise classes!
  • met with members of the Environmental Studies department and the Arts Management program to talk about their plans
  • caught up with our wonderful Athletic Director, Kelly Morrison, about a number of issues related to  facilities, teams, and NCAA policy
  • reviewed how our new videos and visit book are being received with the marketing and recruitment team (the new video has had more than 9,000 views this month!)
  • put the final touches on planning for alumnae events in Phoenix, Mobile, Jackson, and other cities right after the New Year. (If you’re in one of those places, please do plan to come!)
  • sent thank-you letters to the wonderful supporters from whom we have received end-of-year annual fund contributions
  • gone through old cookbooks to select a couple of recipes to cook with and for my son, who arrives this evening to spend Christmas with Rick and me at Sweet Briar House

And so, when the campus empties out, it’s a little too quiet — but it’s good to have a few days to take a deep breath, try to clear my desk and in-box, and make sure that nothing too important has fallen through the cracks in the rush of the semester.

And, of course, I can keep up with the students on Facebook!

Fall 2010: It’s a Wrap!

Today we’re wrapping up the fall semester. Most students have headed home, the rest are finishing their last exams. Faculty and staff are preparing for their holiday travels or for a celebratory season at home.

Oddly, this semester ended with a snowfall, just as first semester last year did, although this year we don’t expect the travel disruptions we experienced last year! When I walked the dogs this morning around 7:30, it was 17 degrees and looked like this outside the House.

It’s been an extremely busy and productive semester. Since school started this year, we’ve accomplished several important things. First, we now have Starbucks and real bagels in Daisy’s Cafe! The Strategic Planning Study Groups have completed phase one of their work with impressive thoroughness and dedication. We have a new “come visit” video on YouTube that’s receiving a lot of attention and an updated web site that is cleaner, clearer, and crisper in design. We’ve successfully recruited our top choice candidate for Vice-President of Finance and Administration, the Engineering program has been reviewed for accreditation by ABET, Benedict 101 has been renovated as a model “21st century classroom,” and the search for the next Vice-President of Academic Affairs/Dean of the Faculty is underway. The former Bistro has been returned to use as student space — for parties in the evenings and study/social space during the day. And, of course, throughout, our students have continued to do outstanding work side by side with our remarkable faculty. (Some examples are here and here and here and here.)

Whew. No matter we’re all ready for the break! Personally, Rick and I are looking forward to a few days with son John next week. And I firmly intend to finish the book I’m halfway through right now — Dancing to the Precipice — before Christmas Day, preferably while curled up on a sofa with a steaming mug of coffee and two small dogs in my lap.

Management Lab

In Management Lab, Sweet Briar students work in teams of three to carry out a series of projects they’ve developed. One student serves as the accountant for each project, one as the event planner, and one as the marketing director. Each year all Management Lab projects are for the benefit of a particular cause: this year, it’s the Alzheimer’s Association.

The projects students in the Lab have pulled off this semester include a Powder Puff football game, a consignment sale, a “Memory Walk,” a day of fasting, and a Sweet Briar calendar for 2011. (Good entrepreneurs that they are, I’m sure they would want me to let readers know that they can be contacted by email by anyone who would like to purchase one!)

What’s notable about this approach, I think, is the way it encourages students to break through assumptions they might have about the relationship of business and the non-profit sector. The understandings and skills business students develop can and will certainly pay off in the for-profit world, if that is where they choose to apply themselves. But those same understandings and skills can be used to advance the missions of non-profit organizations and initiatives.

This convergence of business savvy and non-profit mission is reflected in a number of new models, including “venture philanthropy” and “social entrepreneurship,” among others. These models, whatever they are called, share a perspective: understanding management, markets, finance, and other “business” topics can help non-profits operate with greater impact and greater stability. The essential difference between the sectors is the nature of the value that is created: in for-profit business, the value that is pursued is monetary, while in non-profit organizations the value pursued is a social good.

I’m delighted that Management Lab shows our students that they can develop as entrepreneurial business thinkers while supporting the causes that are meaningful to them. This will make them more socially aware as business leaders, more financially effective as non-profit leaders, and real powerhouses as volunteers!

Brunch with the Cooking Club

The Cooking

Today the Cooking Club came to Sweet Briar House to prepare — and eat — brunch.

I remember how, when I was an undergraduate, I missed hanging out in a family kitchen. Nothing is homier than the smell of food cooking, especially when shared with others gathering around the stove, chopping something, stirring something else, chatting away, maybe a little music playing. . . .

So I was delighted to invite the students in the cooking club to come over this morning. I hope they all went off to their finals and papers fortifying by a good breakfast and even better company!


The early part of this week I, along with Institutional Research Director Christy Cole, attended the annual meeting of SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and specifically of the Commission on Colleges.

Sweet Briar is in the thick of the regular process of reaffirmation of accreditation required of all colleges and universities: SACS is the regional accrediting body in the Southeast. As I moved through the program of sessions on various standards, documentation requirements, developments in assessment, and so on, I reflected on the nature of the American process of academic accreditation and how little understood it generally is.

(And understandably so, I hasten to add: it’s complicated!)

What is sometimes missed is the way in which the accreditation process is built on regional self-regulation. While the federal Department of Education certainly upholds certainly standards and requirements, in the U.S. there is no single, central, federal accreditation authority. Instead, there are regional agencies, the members of which collectively determine the criteria institutions must meet to award degrees and the process by which they can demonstrate they’ve met them. The teams of reviewers who determine whether standards have been met are drawn from accredited institutions, and are deans, librarians, faculty members, presidents, and other educational experts rather than government bureaucrats. (Of course, several Sweet Briar people have participated on review teams in their time.)

On the one hand, of course, that’s comforting and as it should be! Higher education institutions collaborating in self-regulating communities to ensure that students and the public are well served: makes perfect sense. On the other hand, of course, in reality it’s rather uncomfortable. Opening up your beloved institution, warts and all, to folks who know higher education inside and out and who are your neighbors, partners, and competitors requires both a little  courage and a lot of trust.

So far, mid way through the process, I’ll tell you this. As a relatively new president, I’m finding the experience enormously enlightening, despite — well, actually, because of — the tremendous amount of data-gathering and document-reviewing it requires. First, and above all, it’s an occasion to be reminded of and celebrate all the wonderful things that happen on  our campus. Second, and equally important, it’s an opportunity to become aware of areas where improvement and growth are possible and would make a significant difference for our students.

A year from now, when the process is complete, I expect Sweet Briar to come out with a lot more than “just” a simple reaffirmation. I expect us to emerge from the process with renewed imagination about how we can use what we’ve learned toward greater excellence.

Biology Poster Presentations

Last Friday afternoon, biology students held a research poster fair in Heuer Auditorium.

Each poster reflected the work of a team of students. Last Friday, each team had one presenter stationed at its poster to answer questions and respond to comments from other students, biology professors and a few folks — including me, History Professor Gerry Berg, Julie Hemstreet from the Honors Program, and some others — who were the “guinea pig” audience. Next week, they’ll repeat the fair with other team members taking the role of presenter. If you’re on campus on Friday afternoon at 1:30, go by — you’ll learn about some interesting work!

Here’s what struck me as I moved around the room. There’s nothing like presenting your work to an actual audience to sharpen your thinking. It’s one thing to talk about your academic work with your professor and fellow students, who of course are an essential audience; they can offer you insights and challenges because they are working right alongside you and know a lot of what you know. But presenting your work to an audience “cold,” to people who are smart and attentive but simply haven’t been thinking about your topic for the last several weeks and who have not necessarily read all the same things you have, forces you to clarify your thoughts, focus on what really matters, and think on your feet.

And really, how much of anybody”s work life ends up consisting of precisely that, in any field?

It was informative to talk with the students and gratifying to see them presenting their work in a poised and professional manner. Even better, there were moments when you could see the students developing new perspectives on their material in light of the conversations they were having. It was fun to be part of it!

Holiday Concert in the Chapel

This week the Chamber Orchestra played its holiday concert in the Chapel. Here’s a picture of people assembling: 

The first piece they performed was a flute ensemble arrangement of “O Holy Night.” Lovely. And later in the program we got to sing some carols.

As Rick and I walked home, I was thinking about how wonderful it is to come together with friends and neighbors to share art that our community is making for itself. We join in the chapel to create and share beauty in celebration of a season that is meaningful in many traditions, to greet each other and raise our voices together.

And, in my case at least, to think about all the other voices that have been raised, singing those same words, across the generations in so many places, and about  the generations of friends and neighbors who once gathered in Sweet Briar’s Chapel and whose influence can still be felt there.

We also celebrate new friends and neighbors who grew up singing different songs and observing different holidays. Their presence and their perspective refreshes our sense of what is wonderful in our traditions and enriches us by sharing wonders from other traditions.

It truly feels as though the holiday season has now begun!