President's Blog

Archive for February 2011

SACS team is coming!

Next week, our reaffirmation of accreditation visiting team will be on campus.

I mentioned SACS in a previous blog post. It’s the peer-driven regional accrediting organization in this part of the country. Every regionally accredited institution undergoes a thorough review every decade and this year is Sweet Briar’s turn.

An FAQ Sheet and other materials are posted on my office’s web site, including our compliance report, our focused report, and our Quality Enhancement Plan proposal.

If you’re going to read any of these, I’d suggest you look at the QEP proposal, which describes an initiative called ‘y1.” Or, better yet, check out the web site dedicated to y1.

Everything SACS looks at is, of course, important.  But much of it has to do with issues such as regulatory compliance, assessment, and financial management — topics that are vital but perhaps not exactly inspiring. But y1 IS inspiring, because it speaks directly to our educational excellence and our aspirations for the intellectual experience of our students. Y1 is the kind of program that I, personally, would have found the highlight of my introduction to college, and it appears that the Sweet Briar students with whom we piloted it last fall felt the same way! So, if you want to know why it can be so exciting to be a first year student at Sweet Briar, check out our y1 program, which is intended to extend the best of our first-year experience to more students earlier in their time at Sweet Briar.

A Message About Diversity and Civility

College campuses across the nation experience occasional episodes of intolerant, offensive, or discriminatory speech or conduct. Of course they do.

As Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, noted in an article on recent experiences on one campus, “In the context of rising social anxiety about the perceived decline in economic opportunity, the changing place of the United States in the global economy, and even the paradigm-shifting election of a black president, we see a corresponding rise in incivility and more frequent public expressions of hostility toward the ‘other’ – whether that is defined by race, religion, ethnicity,or immigrant status.” When American society struggles to conduct its public discourse with civility, reason, and temperance, it is hardly surprising that college students are sometimes unable to do so.

Racially charged incidents may reflect ignorance, insensitivity, or immaturity, as suggested by this article on a blackface incident. When overtly racist incidents occur, it is not always clear how an educational institution can and should most effectively respond, as examples from Georgetown College and Denison University indicate.

And we are no exception: this national issue is present at Sweet Briar too. Educating students for success and leadership in a diverse society requires instilling the values of civility. Engagement with diversity — both intellectual, academic engagement and engagement through lived experience — is fundamental to an education in the liberal arts. Embracing diversity and instilling civility are therefore essential to our College’s mission and its excellence.

On Friday I issued a message to our campus community, which you can read in the Voice if you like. Here’s a quote: “I know that Sweet Briar women are open-minded, open-hearted leaders who do not appreciate hearing slurs, insults, or attacks in their dormitories, classrooms, and clubs. I know that faculty and staff are educators and citizens who uphold the values of diversity, civility, and respect for persons.  I call upon all not only to set the example in their personal conduct but also to take action when offensive interactions do occur. Sweet Briar will not tolerate discriminatory or harassing behavior. We cannot afford to tolerate it, as it undermines the educational quality that is the very reason for the college to exist.”

The message closes with a saying I first heard from a Kenyan friend of mine: “I am because we are: we are because I am.” It’s one way of phrasing the concept of Ubuntu, and it inspires and comforts me.

Yesterday was fun!

Yesterday was one of those days that reminds me what a privilege it is to live and work in an academic community and how much sheer fun it is.

In the morning, Professor Gerry Berg kindly invited me to visit his course on Sweet Briar history. As his students prepare to go into the archives in pursuit of their research projects, he asked me to talk with them about what I would like to know about Sweet Briar’s history and why I would like to know it — that is, how it would help me as a President to know more about our own history.

If Professor Berg and his students had as much fun as I did it was a great conversation. We touched on the history of curriculum (when, how, why, did Sweet Briar think about the role of science in an education for women, for example), on the eugenics movement and its impact on higher education nationally, on the philosophical underpinnings of English language composition theory, and on how larger 20th-century intellectual movements (suffrage, McCarthyism) played out on campus.

Professor Berg shared with me an article I hadn’t previously encountered, by Sweet Briar alumna Amy Thompson McCandless, called “Preserving the Pedestal: Restrictions on Social Life at Southern Colleges for Women, 1920-1940.” (It’s in the History of Higher Education Annual, 1987, if you’d like to look it up; as someone who has experience of both Northern and Southern women’s colleges I found it fascinating.) Naturally, I asked the students to consider sharing their eventual papers with me — and I promised that if they discover really wonderful historical nuggets about the College I’ll share them with my blog readers!

In the evening I attended the meeting of a club I belong to in Lynchburg. Members take turns writing essays; one is read and discussed at each meeting. Last night, a philosopher and professional ethicist explained and explored various aspects of quantum mechanics from both a scientific and a philosophical point of view. Fortunately, Sweet Briar physicist Scott Hyman attended the meeting as a guest of the presenter and sat next to me, which allowed to get immediate whispered help with some of the thornier concepts. Like the dual-slit experiment. For example.

Ethics Bowl Champions, 2011!

Sweet Briar won the VFIC Ethics Bowl yesterday! (And — wait for it — they beat Hampden-Sydney for the win.)

(Yes, that’s Roger Mudd in the photo with our team; he is co-chair of the Ethics Bowl committee and a VFIC trustee.)

This year’s topic was “Ethics and Privacy.” Our team’s coach, Philosophy Professor Kevin Honeycutt, stopped by my office this morning to show me the plaque and to tell me all about the victory (this year I was unable to attend in person, although I posted about serving as a judge last year.) He said that the judges praised our team not only for clear thinking and articulate presentation but also for coordination and collaboration among teammates.

The Ethics Bowl proceeds as a series of debates on topics of applied ethics. Leaders from the business, educational, civic, and legal communities in Virginia serve as judges and moderators.

To me, this victory pretty much sums up everything a Sweet Briar education should be about. Students take the lessons they’ve considered in courses from across the curriculum and apply them to making sense of specific and realistic ethical dilemmas. They are judged on their ability to analyze key aspects of the cases they’re assigned, to define terms and concepts coherently, to argue their positions cogently and to respond to questions directly, and to make their points persuasively to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. They need to think on their feet, confront challenges, and disagree with their opponents respectfully yet vigorously. In short, they need to be liberally educated thinkers and powerful communicators.

So, Holla Holla, Catherine, Jennifer, Kathryn, and Samantha!

Open Learning, On-Line

Sunday’s New York Times ran an article on on-line courses that refers to a new book, Unlocking the Gates. (Full disclosure: the author is Taylor Walsh for Ithaka S+R. I formerly worked for Ithaka and commented on this book in draft form, and I’ve provided an endorsement that appears on the publisher’s web site.)

While the text may be a little dry for the general reader, the book provides a thought-provoking survey of efforts by some of America’s leading universities to make course materials freely and generally available on line. MIT’s Open Course Ware is the best known of these projects, but there are several other noteworthy examples, including especially Carnegie-Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative.

The story that unfolds through these examples is of higher education grappling with “disruptive technology.” Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, MIT: all have dedicated significant time and resources to exploring what it can and should mean, educationally, to make “courseware” available on line. Can it bring much-needed intellectual resources to underserved populations? Can it make institutions both more productive and more effective? Or, as some critics suggest, is it simply infatuation with novelty or a move to grab publicity?

Of course, my experience gives me a distinctive point of view. The initiatives described in the book arose at large and well-funded research universities. It would be easy for those of us devoted to liberal arts colleges (small, and alas usually underfunded!) to view these efforts as utterly irrelevant to us. We know that our pedagogical tradition places the human connection between students and teachers foremost; we know that we educate in relationship.

But what such efforts on the part of research universities force us to consider is this: what kind of learning, and for whom, requires the intensive and interactive mentoring which defines our distinctive excellence? Are there topics (and the work at Carnegie Mellon suggests that basic statistics might possibly turn out to be one) that students could learn on-line better than in our classrooms, allowing their work with faculty to focus not on basic skill and concept acquisition but on more sophisticated and meaningful analysis? What will it mean when a syllabus at Sweet Briar  includes not only published texts and journal articles but also a full semester of video lectures from a Yale, or MIT, or Carnegie Mellon, professor?

Liberal arts colleges face an opportunity to prove their excellence and value in the face of on-line courseware initiatives such as those described in Unlocking the Gates. However, I don’t believe we’ll do so by resisting or resenting the impacts of technology. We’ll succeed by making sure we use technology and technology-enhanced learning to sharpen our focus on what we do best.

Unbuilt Sweet Briar

This week a wonderful exhibit opened in the Benedict gallery; it’s called “Unbuilt Sweet Briar” and it will be on display until March 27th. If you’re anywhere near campus I encourage you to stop in and take a look. (The Lynchburg News and Advance ran a story on the exhibit which you can find here.)

The drawings are beautiful and worthy of display in their own right. But what makes them utterly compelling is that they present alternative visions of the campus space we live in daily and think we know so intimately. We can see in these drawings elements of Sweet Briar as she was, as she is, and as she might have been. And through this exhibit we can watch visions of the campus develop over time: for example, the earliest drawings naturally included no accommodation for automobiles, but by the late 1930s parking and car-friendly building access had begun to shape the relationship of the buildings to each other and the land.

Since 1901 there has been an ongoing dialogue about the kind of built environment Sweet Briar should create and its relationship to the unmatched beauty of the natural environment she inherited. And much of that dialogue has been conducted in the form of architectural drawings, including those currently on display. You can literally see the discussion: how important is classical symmetry, and how important is responsiveness to the natural topography? What does the placement of buildings signal about the College’s values? Where do we want people to gather and where do we want to allow them to find solitude?

And, trivially, I thoroughly enjoyed contemplating the illustrative human figures drawn into the plans. From young women with exaggerated Gibson Girl silhouettes to young men in roadsters and straw boaters to students in gracefully draped  ’30s-style dresses, these ghostly figures suggest the social trends that came, and went, as the buildings and the landscape endured.