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President's Blog

Archive for April 2011

Meet Our New Dean!

Meet Amy Jessen-Marshall, the newly-appointed Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College!

Click on the link above to read the announcement: you will see immediately why we are all so eager to welcome Amy and her family to campus. And why I, personally, am so looking forward to working with her. . .

Our search committee, co-chaired by Dean of Co-Curricular Life Cheryl Steele and Chemistry professor and Faculty Executive Committee chair Rob Granger, did an excellent job. The pool was extraordinarily strong, thanks to their good work.

Sweet Briar has enjoyed outstanding leadership in the Dean’s Office, and we all know that Jonathan Green has set a very high standard indeed for his successor. Dr. Jessen-Marshall, however, is clearly up to the challenge and will bring enormous professional depth to our leadership team.

Welcome, Amy! We’re very glad you’re joining us.

Recognizing Staff

Last week I got to recognize the service of Sweet Briar employees who have given decades of service — specifically, 10, 20, or 30 years! Those recognized this year represent 220 years of service.

We had a terrific lunch, with music by the Bramble and Rose string band (led by librarian Joe Malloy, and including Professor Laura Pharis.)

Having not yet completed my own second year of service, I can say that being part of this staff makes me proud every day. All day long, as I move around the campus, I see our staff and the effects of their work — in well-maintained buildings, tasty meals, and cheerful offices. I see them driving vans, escorting visitors, responding to campus safety calls, replacing screen doors, answering student questions, planting annuals, and making sure we have all the supplies and equipment we need, and doing a thousand other things that make it possible for the students and faculty to learn together in comfort, safety, and beauty.

It’s an honor to recognize them and thank them for all they do.

The Salt Block Project

This is the time of year when so many wonderful things are happening that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all of them in this blog!

Prof. Scott, Jenny Young, and me with Lt. Gov. Bolling

One of the highlights of last week was the “Salt Block Project.” This initiative, created by Sweet Briar business students, brought together entrepreneurs and students to exchange ideas and build connections. The project wrapped up with a banquet at which Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling gave the keynote speech. Former Charlottesville mayor David Brown also attended, as did Delegate Scott Garrett.

At the banquet, Sweet Briar recognized the accomplishments and contributions of a number of local entrepreneurs, each of whom had built a business in the face of challenges and each of whom is therefore a terrific role model for students. Some of Sweet Briar’s community partnerships were also showcased, including the archeology partnership with Hurt and Proffitt, the engineering and business partnerships with Edison2, and a “zero waste” partnership with the local public schools.

Guests at the Salt Block banquet

I found the evening to be inspiring. We welcomed to campus business, civic, and political leaders to celebrate the mutual benefit of a strong higher education sector and a strong entrepreneurial sector in and for Central Virginia. We showed off Sweet Briar’s  contributions to the community and the impressive work our students are doing, which is always exilarating!

The proper role of business in a liberal arts curriculum is often discussed. What an event like this one makes clear is that a liberal education prepares students with skills and understandings they will need to be successful in business. And it makes equally clear how essential liberally-educated business people are to a healthy society. Businesswomen who can think clearly about the political and social implications of their enterprises and who can contextualize business goals in the larger economic and historical forces at work will become not only business leaders but also community leaders.

Coverage in the New York Times recently pointed out the many ways in which “b-schools” may be letting down the next generation of business leadership. Events like the Salt Block Project, to my mind, exemplify by contrast how business education in the context of the liberal arts serves students, and society, well.

Very Cool Faculty Project

Newly-tenured biologist Janet Steven has been working on a fascinating project with a robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon; she’s using gigapixel photography to create timelapse images of plant growth. 

A web site featuring her work went live yesterday. (Click on the box labelled “Plant Growth” to see her contribution.) An article on POPSCI.com summarizes how interesting this project is:

“You can zoom in and out of early universe phenomena, track stinkbugs during plant growth, and follow the intricacies of brain veins.” (It’s the stinkbugs and plant growth part that Professor Steven has been working on! Fortunately, we have no end of stinkbugs on campus right now.)

This project exemplifies the potential of digital technology to help us study phenomena in new ways and to develop interest in scientific concepts among new audiences through innovative and engaging presentations. This is Sweet Briar science, collaborating and reaching out. . .and a fine example of what we call “digital sophistication.”

What I’m Reading

This weekends’ reading: Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. There’s a nice review of it here.

Like anyone who loves and pays attention to dogs, I often find myself wondering about dog consciousness and dog perception. This book expands my imagination about what it might be like to inhabit a dog’s sensory universe; Horowitz suggests we think about a dog’s “gaze” as olfactory rather than visual — imagine “gazing” with your nose! She also describes her detailed research into how dogs signal their intentions to play, rather than fight, with one another. I’m still only about half-way through the book, but I’m already looking at Coco and Tazz with slightly different eyes.

I got interested in this general topic recently when I saw a fascinating episode of Nova, which I’ll recommend while I’m at it. Check out the “Dogs Decoded” website for some interesting features.

I find that there is something profoundly moving about attempts to understand communication across species. We are all drawn to understanding the “other,” so powerfully so that we fall into anthropomorphizing our pets and mythologizing wild animals. But what a noble thing it is to recognize the limitations of human consciousness and to aspire to connect beyond ourselves with beings who share our planet.

And of course beings who share our homes! Speaking of which, since I haven’t posted a picture in a while:

Check out Benedict 101!

In a previous blog post I described the renovation of Benedict 101. This new video gives you a vivid sense of the kind of student activity and collaboration the room now facilitates! Take a look — it will give you a sense of what the room is like “live.”

Springtime Fun

This weekend Sweet Briar placed 3rd in the American Canoe Association Collegiate Canoe and Kayak regional competition here in Virginia. Next we’ll be off to nationals in the fall.

Our Team with Trophy!

Apparently the relay race was particularly exciting: we took 2nd place, narrowly beating Hollins which came in 3rd. I’m also told that in a show of true sisterly women’s-college solidarity and sportsmanship, the two teams shared dinner and hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

As those of you who’ve been following the strategic planning process know, we know that one of the most distinctive assets Sweet Briar has is our location. Students (like those above) who enjoy outdoor recreation have countless opportunities for fun and fellowship while hiking, riding, running, paddling . . .

I happen to believe that such activities are far from incidental to our educational goals. Time spent outdoors refreshes us and shifts our perspective. Physical activities, whether formal athletics or informal recreation, build leadership, teamwork, and self-reliance. It took me a long time to learn that when I’m wrestling with a knotty problem, often the best thing I can do is take a hike with my dogs or take the canoe out onto a lake.

Anyway, what a delight it is to be among healthy happy active young women, especially with trophies in their hands!

Sweet Day of Service!

Last Friday we celebrated what we hope will become a new tradition on campus — Sweet Day of Service!

Here I am, with our dynamic new HR Director Carolyn Burton in a fetching pink chapeau, kicking off the day.

Faculty, staff, and student volunteers pitched in and accomplished a great deal on a beautiful spring day. There were too many projects underway for me to list here, but some of them included:

  • Fresh coats of paint (and some beautiful new colors) in sections of Guion, Fletcher, Gray, the FAC, and the Interfaith Room.
  • Planting, mulching, and general cleaning up outside Development and Pannell.
  • Maintaining the pink bikes — tightening chains, filling tires, checking bolts. (This was Rick’s crew: I think he thought his Harley experience might be relevant here.)
  • Signage, including resurrection of an old “Sweet Briar College” sign and better marking for recycling bins.

In opening the day, I noted that Sweet Briar people are famously active volunteers for the causes they care about, the organizations that inspire them, and the places they love. I also reminded everybody that Sweet Briar, which we mostly experience as the place where we work or study, is also a non-profit organization that inspires us, a place that we love, and a cause that we care about. So on Sweet Day of Service we came together not as faculty, staff, and students but as volunteers for Sweet Briar.

If you have any doubt that fun was had by all, you can look at a slide show of the day.  We may not have captured every volunteer in these pictures, but we got most of them.

Shared Governance

There has been a great deal of discussion about the concept of “shared governance” in academic institutions lately, much of it cynical. See articles here and here for examples.

I read such articles with dismay. Of course, “shared governance” is a complicated matter and there are many subtle and thorny questions to be worked out in both theory and practice. But that said, nothing is more vital to the health of an academic institution than making sure that the faculty is exercising leadership over academic priorities and directions and that faculty and administration are engaged in close, frank, and regular discussions of mission and resources. And to my mind that’s what gives “shared governance” meaning.

On Friday, the faculty at Sweet Briar took what I believe to be an important step forward in shared governance on this campus by creating a new Academic Priorities Committee.

A new faculty committee may not seem like interesting news, but in this case it really is. In the APC, elected representatives of the faculty will be joined by the President, Dean, and Vice-President for Finance in proactive discussions about the future directions of our academic program and how resources can best be allocated to help us achieve our educational goals. While faculty governance has always been strong at Sweet Briar, this new structure will focus increased attention and energy on strategic and forward-looking questions and will further strengthen the leadership voice of the faculty.

With a strategic plan taking shape, and a structure for faculty to take increased leadership in ongoing planning, it’s a very promising moment for Sweet Briar. I left the faculty meeting on Friday feeling even better than I usually do about being at this particular College at this particular time!

Now, I’m quite well aware that faculty leaders and presidents don’t always see eye to eye and that negotiating competing perspectives and priorities is seldom easy or comfortable. I imagine that the issues we face will generate some friction and frustration as we work toward the best available solutions. But as Sweet Briar’s president I heartily welcome the new APC and I look forward to an even stronger relationship with faculty leaders, because I believe it will lead us all to better decisions and a stronger Sweet Briar.