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President's Blog

Archive for July 2011

Vacation Time!

It’s vacation time! Tomorrow I’m off for my annual theater-centric excursion to Canada.

I’m anticipating a few special things in particular. First, Richard III at Stratford, in which Richard will be played by a woman. Many, many years ago I saw Dame Judith Anderson play Hamlet, but since then have not had a chance to see a cross-gendered casting of any of the major male roles. I’ve admired Seana McKenna, the woman playing Richard in this year’s production, for a long time, so I’m eager to see what she does with this challenge.

Then, also at Stratford, Twelfth Night. If you read my recent post, you know that just last week I saw a wondrous production of that play here on campus. It’s always fun to see two different productions of a play very close together so that the comparison feels immediate. Somehow, I suspect that the endstation version will stand up very well to the Stratford festival’s . . .

And, in Toronto, next to normal. A Pulitzer prize winning rock musical about bipolar disorder has got to be fascinating, doesn’t it? 

And, along the way, a few other plays as well. The wonderful thing about theater is that what you expect to be remarkable and what actually stands out are often two different things. After I come back from vacation, I’ll report on what the highlights of the season actually were for me. And I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t post again until then.

Digitally Sophisticated History

Often when I’m talking with alumnae, parents, students, or others about our new Plan For Sustainable Excellence, I’m asked questions about what “digital sophistication” actually means. Does it mean Sweet Briar will launch a major or minor in computer science? Does it mean we will start offering courses on line, sacrificing invaluable interactions between professors and students?

Of course, it means neither of those things. Because I’m always collecting examples of what we do mean by “digital sophistication,” this story in today’s New York Times caught my eye. It’s about how scholars and professors doing historical studies at a variety of institutions are using Geographic Information Systems technologies to allow them and their students to visualize history.

Here’s one great example: a professor at Middlebury College got curious about what General Lee could actually see from his position on the field at Gettysburg. In the Times article, she says: “’The only way I knew how to answer the question,’ about what Lee saw. . . ‘was to recreate the ground digitally using GIS and then ask the GIS program: What can you see from a certain position on the digital landscape, and what can you not see?’”

There are some other examples at this link, including one showing how 3-D digital reconstruction of the camp at Auschwitz is helping verify eyewitness testimony to the events there. (I was especially intrigued by this one because I recently visited Auschwitz with an alumnae tour group.) It turns out that mapping construction activity at Auschwitz using GIS technologies helps explain an increase in escapes made possible by the confusion and location of multiple building projects.

Sweet Briar’s “digital sophistication” initiatives are intended to help more faculty members and students on our campus take advantages of these kinds of advances, enriching traditional fields of inquiry by engaging new digital tools to create richer and livelier teaching. They will increase and intensify interactions between faculty members and their students who are pursuing these kinds of innovative projects together.

A Goal Accomplished!

Yesterday I (finally) completed a long-cherished goal: I finished training to earn my NIA White Belt and become a certified instructor! I’m not sure, but so far as I know I’m the only person who can claim to be both a college president and a NIA instructor.

I’ve thought a lot about how achieving the White Belt relates to being president of Sweet Briar — or maybe doesn’t. After all, there’s nothing very academic or presidential about what goes on in a NIA class, as those of you who’ve attended our playful early morning Reunion sessions know! But on reflection, I’ve decided there are several connections, important ones.

As an educator, I encourage students to value things that will enrich their lives — things like life-long learning; health, fitness, and wellness; stepping outside of comfort zones; learning from non-academic experiences; thinking outside of boxes; pursuing challenging goals. You know, the kinds of things older people are always telling younger people to remember . . .

And one day I heard myself and realized that getting the belt was a chance to practice what I preach. In my case, the example was a NIA White Belt, but it could have been anything; the challenge was simply to do something I love to the highest level I could even though perhaps it was a little outside my comfort zone, not what presidents usually do, and unexpected for someone who’s well along in middle age. The challenge was to do something act on my commitment to wellness for people at all fitness levels and to setting new goals for people at all ages.

Friends from the studio in Michigan

And I’m happy to say I’ve done it!

Now, I’m thinking about how to use my new skills to contribute something to the Sweet Briar community. Maybe, for example, lunchtime or after work sessions for administrative staff? Stress-relief sessions for students during exam week? Fun workshops for alumnae during Homecoming or Reunion weekends?

Perfect July evening

Last night I sat on a lawn chair out by the old train station, looking toward the mountains over the Observatory Field, eating a picnic of fried chicken and enjoying endstation theatre company‘s production of Twelfth Night.

A few seats over on my left was the mayor of Lynchburg, who had come out with some friends to see the show. Immediately to my right was the owner of one of the local wineries and his wife; further to the right were the proprietor and barstaff of a Lynchburg restaurant, two of our Creative Writing faculty, and an alumna and her friend who was in the area to lecture on immigration policy.

The show was terrific. Check out the video below to get a sense of it. But it was the the setting and the company made the production magical. Occasionally a butterfly would swoop through the set. The sun went down behind the mountain and the evening settled in around the stage lights. The actors’ lines were accompanied by that noise cicadas make — whatever the word for that is!

Seeing friends and neighbors on campus, sharing both the theatrical and the natural shows, was immensely satisfying. Seemed like exactly the sort of thing that should be happening on a college campus on a July evening.

Welcome Dean Jessen-Marshall!

This morning we were delighted to welcome Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall to her first official day at Sweet Briar.

There’s a nice profile of Amy in the new Sweet Briar Magazine, which is available on line if you don’t have your copy at hand. Here’s a quote to give you a sense of Amy’s priorities: 

“Ultimately it’s about student learning and offering a curriculum that serves current and future Sweet Briar women and helps them engage with the world as leaders. This is a responsibility I take very seriously.”

To welcome her, at Senior Staff today I asked each of her new colleagues to write two short pieces of advice for her on anonymous slips of paper. We dumped these all into a bag, shook them up, and then enjoyed hearing her read them aloud.

She got some very good advice. Paraphrasing some of the gems, I’d say that her colleagues advised:

  • that something’s only good for the College if it’s good for students,
  • that the perspective of senior and wise faculty is always worth seeking,
  • that many of staff come from families that have served the College for generations and their devotion is among our greatest assets, and
  • that we are deeply lucky to work here and should celebrate that great good fortune every day.

I can confidently speak for Amy in saying that she is looking forward to meeting all of Sweet Briar’s friends. If you’d like to send her messages of welcome and greeting, I’m sure she’d appreciate them.

Virginia’s Private Colleges: The Public Good of the Private Sector

Last weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. This organization connects Virginia’s private colleges to one another and to leaders in the business community who appreciate the value of independent higher education and support it as corporate, as well as individual, philanthropists. Sweet Briar benefits annually from their support and it’s a great pleasure to thank them in person. This year, as usual, there was  discussion during various sessions of why Virginia businesses think it’s essential to support the Commonwealth’s private, non-profit, colleges.

Here are some of the considerations we discussed. Did you know that Virginia’s private colleges, on average, serve a higher percentage of students from underrepresented backgrounds than do Virginia’s public colleges and universities? And that the Commonwealth’s private colleges enroll a higher proportion of Pell Grant recipients than do the public institutions? (This situation is not unique to Virginia, by the way: you can find some very interesting national data on private higher education here if you’re interested.) And that despite serving such a diverse population, four-year graduation rates at private institutions are higher than at public ones? And that as a sector, Virginia’s private colleges have available capacity to accommodate more students?

Sometimes in discussions of higher education policy there is an assumption that public-sector institutions serve the public interest while private institutions only serve the interests of affluent families. But this is not the case. Private non-profit institutions of higher educations have a social mission, which is to create access to a first-rate education for qualified students, and a powerful tool for fulfilling this mission, which is financial aid. This means that private institutions have a great deal to contribute to the public agenda when it comes to increasing access to higher education and increasing degree completion.

The wise business leaders who support the VFIC recognize that the Commonwealth’s goals of increasing educational access and attainment for students from all walks of life are advanced by a thriving community of Virginia private non-profit colleges and universities. In other words, they recognize the public good of the private sector. They recognize that Virginia’s, and the nation’s, private colleges have an important role to play — along with public universities and community colleges — in meeting the challenge of better educating more citizens. Sweet Briar, and the Commonwealth, are the better for their support.

Sweet Briar Magazine

The Summer 2011 issue of the Sweet Briar Magazine is in the mail! This morning I reviewed my copy and found it very exciting. I hope you’ll like it too.

A college publication like the Sweet Briar Magazine has a number of purposes. Obviously, one is to showcase the achievements of alumnae, faculty, students, and staff — especially when those achievements shed light on important issues of current interest to educated readers, no matter where they went to college. Another goal is to support the network of alumnae by keeping them in touch with their fellow alumnae and with the College.

Yet another purpose, one that is harder to describe, is to convey the energy, vitality, and tone of the campus and the larger community of Sweet Briar women. As I flipped through this issue, the sense of liveliness, intelligence, ambition, and clarity was inspiring. This summer’s Magazine looks, and feels, like the College I serve and love. I hope you think so too.

(When you read your copy, don’t forget that there are now additional features available on line. Go to sbc.edu/magazine to find them. For example, class notes can now be entered on line, and for another, you can request an “SBC promo pack” full of information about the College to share with any prospective students you might know.)

Reflections from the Fourth

On past Fourths of July I’ve blogged about things like visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest or watching balloons rise grandly over the Blue Ridge. This year, the holiday brought reflections about how our nation gave rise to a distinctively American form of higher education — the residential liberal arts college.

If you’re interested in this topic, I can recommend a couple of books: neither is new, but both have lots of interesting information and perspective to offer. Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History and Koblick and Graubard’s Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges together draw a picture of the history of higher education in America and the specific issues facing liberal arts colleges along the way and in the present.

This history is fascinating. As what became the United States was established and expanded, people arrived in new areas and planted communities. Often, one of the early aspirations of a young community was to establish a college. There were lots of reasons for this — often, ethnic, religious, or cultural communities wanted colleges of their own to preserve and pass on their values to their youth. Civic leaders wanted colleges to attract educated citizens and to represent a town’s status as a center of cultural and intellectual life. And of course, the community wanted a source for “teachers and preachers” to serve its citizens. And so, across the country, small private colleges sprang up as waves of internal migration pushed across the continent.

As a result of this history, the United States has an enormous variety of privately-founded and supported colleges and universities. This patchwork exists alongside the more intentionally planned and coordinated state systems of higher education. Public and private institutions both complement and compete with one another.

The “distinctively American” liberal arts colleges continue to exist because significant numbers of people identify with them and support them. In many cases they now serve communities much larger than those that founded them — denominational institutions accept students from all faiths, for example — while retaining distinctive cultures and values that derive from their foundings. No other nation has developed an educational sector quite like this, although many are making dedicated efforts to replicate some of its advantages.

There is of course a down side to the American approach. Our “system” of higher education is not really a system. There is no federal, centralized planning or control (although there is much debate about whether there should be). Students and families face real challenges as they try to compare various public and private options: curriculum is described in varying terms, requirements vary from institution to institution, costs are not easy to compare, and sorting through the options in a crowded educational marketplace is no easy task.

Still, on the Fourth of July, looking out over Sweet Briar’s spectacular campus and thinking about the education we provide here, I had to celebrate the American spirit of self-reliance, philanthropy, community identity, and educational aspiration that resulted in a new and distinctive educational sector — one in which I’ve spent my entire career, because I believe it offer unmatched opportunities for students.