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President's Blog

Archive for January 2011

Faculty Show

Faculty Show was Saturday night. You might enjoy this student blog summary! (She neglects to mention Rick’s walk-on cameo in full motorcycle gear, but it was something to see.)

Full disclosure: wearing my tiara, I sang the alphabet song, arranging the letters in keyboard order. . . qwertyuiop. . .

Sometimes meaning arises from the oddest juxtapositions. In the morning on Saturday there was a wonderful chapel service in celebration of the life of David Orvos, who passed away shortly after Christmas. At first, of course, the coincidence of the memorial service and the faculty show on the same day seemed difficult to reconcile, but as I walked home after the show I realized how entirely harmonious the two events actually were.

Both expressed the relationships that make the Sweet Briar community so rare and so valuable; the human connections that flourish intertwined with the professional relationships. The love of students and colleagues for Dave Orvos and his love for them was made abundantly clear in the chapel in the morning.

And the love of the faculty for the students, and of the students for the faculty, was just as clear in Babcock in the evening! Because no doubt about it, what makes a German professor appear in drag, a librarian dress as a stinkbug, an environmental economist don a wizard’s hat, and a coach impersonate Susan Boyle, is nothing but love . . .

News Coverage of a New Project

Yesterday we held a reception celebrating the opening of a new lab and the partnership with a local business that made it possible.

Check out some television news coverage from last night.

Hurt and Profitt, a Lynchburg engineering and surveying firm, frequently encounters archeological artifacts in the course of its work. Such artifacts need to be identified and assessed so that appropriate decisions can be made about whether the site merits preservation or excavation, whether the project needs to be moved, and whether other steps should  be taken with regard to research or preservation.

Sweet Briar students and faculty are analyzing the artifacts uncovered by Hurt and Profitt, cataloging and describing them, and providing the appropriate reports back to the company and also to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Students are learning good archeology, getting hands-on experience, and providing a meaningful service to a local business.

For me, this project is exemplary because it illustrates the way in which the liberal arts both benefit from and contribute to important and practical work as well as the ways that a thriving academic community and a thriving business community can create value through collaboration. And besides, it’s just fun to find out about what is being dug up around here!

Leadership, Values and the Liberal Arts

A friend just now pointed me toward an article in the Washington Post; I want to share it with all of you. It seems to me to articulate beautifully why the study of the liberal arts is essential to the development of leadership.

The writer, Heather Wilson, notes that students whose undergraduate educations are too narrowly specialized can become “stunted.” In her words:

“An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for.”

Wilson’s observations resonated closely with an experience of my own. A few years ago, I served on the Michigan Rhodes selection committee and encountered exactly what Wilson describes. In one interview, after a passionate undergraduate scientist spoke of his determination to eliminate cancer, a wise medical school dean asked this wonderful question: “It sounds as though you believe it is better for individuals and for society if people die of causes other than cancer. What causes of death are preferable to cancer, and why?” The candidate was flummoxed, but the interview panel talked about that question for hours after his interview was over.

An education in the liberal arts pushes students to grapple with such essential but intractable questions and gives them disciplined  information, context and method to call upon in struggling with them. In this way values are examined, consequences anticipated, and judgment developed. And if leadership requires anything, it’s values, foresight, and judgment. . .

Holla Holla Phoenix, Mobile, Jackson, Birmingham, Charleston, Savannah, and Jacksonville

Today I’m wrapping up a series of visits with alumnae, prospective students, and friends. What fun it always is to sit at a table that includes alumnae whose Sweet Briar experiences span from the mid-2oth century to the early-21st century! Their conversations usually start with what is different about Sweet Briar then and now — students no longer wear skirts to class (unless they want to!) or eat family style in the Refectory, and there is no longer wonderful yogurt from our own dairy — but soon they begin to focus on what is the same: supportive and engaged professors, lively friendships, opportunities and challenges.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and that leads me to reflect on one of the differences between then and now that is a source of pride to all. One of my tablemates in Birmingham was a member of the first class at Sweet Briar to admit an African American woman. She talked passionately about how strong leaders on the faculty, in the administration, and on the Board worked through a number of arduous legal appeals, ultimately establishing by a ruling of the Supreme Court Sweet Briar’s right to educate women of all racial and ethnic identities. As a student she had been an ardent supporter of their efforts. She wanted me to know proud she and her fellow alumnae were to hear that 18% of the entering students last year identified themselves as other than “white.”

This year I’ll be kicking off Black History Month with a reception at Sweet Briar House in honor of Sweet Briar’s women of color. I’ve invited all students, faculty, staff, and nearby alumnae who identify themselves as women of color to join me in celebrating their achievements.

Tomorrow, to observe Martin Luther King Day, I plan to offer thanks for the leaders who made sure that Sweet Briar could educate all women who, by the merit of their minds and “the content of their characters,” deserve one of the finest undergraduate experiences available.

Barbara Johns, by Robert Shetterly, a print of which hangs in my office

Back at work

Vacation’s over — and it was wonderful! But I’m still on the road. . .

I’ve returned to equally wonderful work, starting with the annual President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges. This morning I’ve heard provocative thoughts about the relation of the values of an education in the liberal arts to the political, social, and economic needs of our nation. Later today I’ll attend a special roundtable for presidents on the implications of digitization for all aspects of a contemporary college education, from facilities to course design to scholarly communications and administrative efficiencies. At a good conference like this one, I’m always struck by how many thoughtful, dedicated, resourceful, and imaginative leaders are attracted to the service of America’s liberal arts colleges. It’s an enormous privilege to be part of the discussion about how to advance the educational mission that motivates all of us.

I managed to accomplish a reasonable amount of the reading I intended to do while on vacation, finishing both Stacy Schiff and Adrian Goldsworthy on Cleopatra. (Here’s a New Yorker podcast about recent interest in Cleopatra which refers to both books.) It was fascinating to read them side by side, and a great example of the kind of debate that a liberal arts education should teach students to engage. Schiff and Goldsworthy agree quite strongly on the facts and they rely on the same sources. But their perspectives and many of the conclusions they draw couldn’t be more different. If I were still teaching freshman seminars (as I did regularly for many, many years) I think my next syllabus would ask students to read both books and grapple with the question of how two meticulous researchers can look at the same set of facts and derive very different meanings. If a liberal education should be about anything, it should be about that: not simply finding the facts but also asking how it is that meaning gets made from them.