President's Blog

Archive for November 2011

Interesting Research

In my Thanksgiving post, I mentioned attending a recent meeting of the Annapolis Group presidents.

One of the ways the Annapolis Group supports liberal arts colleges is by sponsoring research. Recently, a survey of graduates showed that alumnae of residential liberal arts colleges report consistently higher levels of satisfaction with their undergraduate educations than do alumnae of either public or private universities.

To quote a few points from the piece at the link above:

  • Seventy-six percent of liberal arts college graduates rated their college experience highly for preparing them for their first job, compared to 66 percent who attended public flagship universities;
  • Eighty-nine percent of liberal arts college graduates reported finding a mentor while in college, compared to 66 percent for public flagship universities;
  • Sixty percent of liberal arts college graduates said they felt “better prepared” for life after college than students who attended other colleges, compared to 34 percent who attended public flagship universities.
  • Liberal arts college graduates are more likely to graduate in four years or fewer, giving them a head start on their careers.

This research has sparked considerable discussion. True, it doesn’t shed light on what might be “selection effect” and what might be “treatment effect,” by which I mean simply that it doesn’t analyze the impact of possible differences in the characteristics of students who choose to attend residential liberal arts colleges. And it relies on self-reported data; it doesn’t prove that liberal-arts college graduates are demonstrably better prepared than others, for example,  just that they report that they believe they are. In other words, it’s more of a J.D. Power “consumer satisfaction” survey than a Consumer Reports study.

But to my mind it’s important to know that students who invest in themselves by choosing a residential liberal arts education end up certain that they’ve received excellent value. I can, and do, tell families confidently that if they choose Sweet Briar they will, in decades to come, feel they made an excellent choice. And really, if our graduates aren’t the best authorities on the value of their experience, who is?




Giving Thanks

It would be naive to ignore the many challenges confronting us as Thanksgiving 2011 approaches. The state of the world economy continues to be uncertain, with serious financial questions facing both American and European leaders. Too many American families are still affected by job loss, diminished investment value, or low home equity; too many American college students are deeply concerned about the loan burden they will face upon graduation and about sluggish job prospects for new graduates. Even the finest colleges and universities face tough questions about financial sustainability and public opinion of the value of higher education is declining.

And yet, and yet. Educators of all people have reason to be thankful. Last week I attended a dinner meeting of the Annapolis Group at which the presidents of member institutions heard wide-ranging and interesting remarks from columnist David Brooks. I won’t summarize it all here, although I’ll be thinking about points he made for quite a while.

Mr. Brooks concluded by commenting on the current political stalemate and the most pressing problems that will, in his view, result. And then he ended by reminding the assembled college presidents that, whatever problems lie ahead, our institutions are educating the people who will solve them.

Liberally educated young people — engineers, journalists, business people, community organizers, artists, policy analysts, academics, teachers, volunteers, politicians, museum curators, entrepreneurs — will be the leaders who can think critically and holistically about the choices that face society, whatever those choices might be. Institutions like Sweet Briar (and all its sibling liberal arts colleges) play an essential role in cultivating the qualities of mind and character that such young leaders will need. Because, of course, while they will certainly need technical skills and disciplinary knowledge to succeed, the ends to which they choose to apply those skills and knowledge — the solutions they create — will reflect habits of mind and character such as judgment, flexibility, broadmindedness, creativity, curiosity, and perseverance; qualities instilled by education in the liberal arts.

And so, those of us who are lucky enough to be intimately connected with such colleges have much for which to give thanks. We give thanks for parents who understand the enduring value of investing in their daughter’s educations. We give thanks for young women who have chosen to invest their energy, hopes, and aspirations in the education they receive at our hands. We give thanks for the faculty, whose tireless dedication, encouragement, and support expand young women’s lives every day. We give thanks for the staff members whose pride in the institution they serve shows in every detail of the way they do their jobs. We give thanks for the alumnae who provide moral and financial support to ensure that they pass on to others the legacy they received. We thank foundations, corporations, boards, and legislators who understand that education is a social, as well as a private, good.

Educators are among the luckiest of people, because we know that whatever challenges the world faces, our mission involves us in shaping the solutions. As friends of Sweet Briar give thanks this year, let’s include our connection to this wonderful college in the list of blessings. Certainly Rick and I will be giving thanks for the opportunity to serve.



Travel/Study, Study/Travel

When I talk to alumnae and friends of Sweet Briar about what the Plan for Sustainable Excellence means by “a community of entrepreneurial educators,” I explain that this phrase means a faculty that is thinking about how Sweet Briar’s resources can be used to create innovative programs that offer educational value to new groups of learners.

Here’s a terrific example, open to any readers who might be interested. (And it’s such a tempting one that I’m quite frustrated that I can’t sign up myself; however, they tell me I really DO have to be on campus for Commencement and Reunion!) Professor Cathy Gutierrez is combining her expertise and the resources of Junior Year in Spain to offer a program open to Sweet Briar students and alumnae as well as to students from other institutions.

This is liberal education. Comparative religion, historical awareness, international perspective, experiential learning. All in an innovative format open to Sweet Briar undergraduates and as well as others. If you’re interested, Professor Gutierrez will be glad to hear from you: and if you can go, I will be very eager to hear all about it when you get back!

Girls, Running!

Yesterday nearly 500 girls participated in a Girls on the Run race at Sweet Briar. With their families and friends, we estimate this event brought about 1500 people to campus!

Here’s a clip from the local news coverage.   






I knew that the event would be fun and that Sweet Briar and Girls on the Run share some core values — values about empowerment and achievement for girls and women. What I wasn’t prepared for was how moving it was to watch the runners cross the finish line to the cheers of the crowd. Those girls were happy and proud and knew they had earned the applause — even though more than a few looked a little surprised that they had pulled it off! Holla holla, Girls on the Run.



Last spring, special gifts made in honor of Dr. Ginger Upchurch Collier’s outstanding service as Chair of the Board of Directors enabled us to plan some much-needed landscaping around the FAC. The first trees have been going in this week! The whole garden won’t be installed until spring, but by Reunion you’ll able to see what a difference this project will make.

The FAC has become an important and vital center for campus life — athletic, social, and academic. Connecting it visually to both the built and natural environments through landscaping is going to provide just the right finishing touch. It’s a very fitting tribute to Dr. Collier!

Brave In The Attempt

Gathering before the first match

This morning we had an inspiring event in the field house. As part of a national NCAA initiative, our conference — the Old Dominion Athletic Conference — partnered with the Special Olympics to create a regional event. Sweet Briar was very proud to be the first host site.

Skills drill

Athletes from all ODAC member schools arrived at the FAC early this morning to join Special Olympians from across greater Lynchburg for a morning of volleyball. Three volleyball courts were set up in the Upchurch Field House. Matches and skills instruction took place on each court, music was booming, players were in brightly colored T-shirts, and all in all it made for a lively scene. Before the Special Olympians arrived, Sweet Briar athletes — tennis players, swimmers, field hockey players — got a crash course in volleyball rules and techniques, so they could help with officiating and, hopefully, keep up with their more-experienced teammates for the day.

I had the pleasure of welcoming the guests, thanking the student volunteers, and opening the morning’s activities. To start the day, we all repeated the Special Olympics oath:

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

I had never heard that saying before, but it’s one that I’ll remember. On and off the field or court, an utterly admirable attitude.



A President’s Days, and Evenings

From time to time, people tell me they enjoy following the blog to get a sense of what college presidents actually do on a typical day, if there is such a thing — or at least what this college president does. (It’s interesting: people in general seem to have a notion that presidents spend their days doing Important Things without much sense of what those things might be!)

Let’s take this week for an example, and just talk about presidential evenings. It’s been a terrific week, actually. Monday evening I led one of the after work workout sessions that some staff, faculty, and friends attend. (It’s always a good week when I can get several workouts on the schedule.) Tuesday, after work, I joined Dean Cheryl Steele for a impromptu meeting with students to discuss concerns they wanted to raise. While of course I’m never pleased to learn that Sweet Briar students are encountering difficulties, it’s gratifying to know that they can and do bring their problems to the Dean and President directly and on short notice, and I deeply value the opportunity to participate in creating solutions that will serve them well.

Wednesday evening began with dessert, so you know that was a good one; I joined the students who serve on the Honor Council at Red Top for conversation and an all-sweets potluck. These terrific women dedicate their time, energy, and imagination to making sure that Sweet Briar’s Honor code works in the interests of all students and the community as a whole. We talked about a variety of issues, including where they think rudeness becomes an honor violation, whether or how the internet desensitizes people to interpersonal relations, and the implications of softwares that do your citations and bibliography entries for you. I left that group to go over to Prothro for one of the open update meetings I do for faculty, staff, and students after every meeting of the Board of Directors. Students always ask important questions at these updates, different from those posed by faculty and staff. One example from Wednesday night: “What exactly is the Board’s job?” I had hoped to round out the evening by attending a film I had been looking forward to, but in the event I couldn’t fit it all in.

Last night, at Sweet Briar House, Professors Kershner and Kuhar joined me, the Dean, and about 15 students for a symposium on staging The Merchant Of Venice for a modern audience. How can or should a director deal with the anti-semitism and ethnic hostility of those characters? It was a fascinating discussion and it gave me, personally, a whole new reading of the character of Portia. I especially enjoyed hearing the students reflect on how they hope their work in campus theater contributes to discussions of important topics.

Tonight, Friday, is the dance concert, which is also being given tomorrow night — don’t know which performance I’ll attend yet, but I certainly intend to get to one. And tonight, right after work, another workout!



“Colleges have departments, life does not”

Somehow, in the last few days, I’ve heard more than one faculty member on more than one occasion say something like “Colleges have departments, life does not.” The general topic has been interdisciplinary collaboration, and their point is a simple one: while it is necessary and good that scholars train intensely and deeply in the methodologies and content areas of specific disciplines, the phenomena they study are rarely fully graspable by any one discipline in isolation. The fullest understanding of the world around us often emerges when the perspectives of multiple disciplines are brought to bear; this is why liberal education has always emphasized both breadth and depth of study.

Here’s just one example. For a week now, Sweet Briar has had the writer and philanthropist Masha Hamilton in residence. (You can read more about her and the residency here and here.) Hamilton is a journalist and novelist; her philanthropic work is with the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Her residency is an important part of this year’s academic theme of “testing tolerance,” which I described in a recent video chat.

The students who have worked with Masha here on campus are taking creative writing and journalism, theater, business, studio arts, international studies, gender studies, and a range of other disciplines. Art students have made prints to sell for the benefit of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Business students have helped sell them and learned about what it takes to start and sustain a not-for-profit organization. Theater students staged a reading of works from AWWP to bring them “alive” for the campus. Journalism students have considered the ethical questions war correspondents face and fiction writers have discussed how to write about a society other than their own. Students in international studies have contemplated the long-term political and economic implications of empowering women in Afghan society and gender studies students have talked about the role of story-telling in empowering women in any society.

What has made this residency so powerful is this kind of curricular interconnection. Sometimes “interdisciplinarity” is understood to mean, or to imply, the erosion of disciplinary rigor. At its best, however, it means the active engagement of thoughtful minds across disciplinary boundaries.


As You Like Sweet Briar Theatre

Yesterday Rick and I had a great time at Sweet Briar Theatre’s production of As You Like It.

First, of course, it was simply great fun — and even better, it was quite interesting. On Thursday evening,  Professor Tony Lilly gave a pre-show lecture about the various confusions and anxieties reflected in the text. He talked about the performance of gender, the replication of courtly hierarchy in the forest of Arden, the contrast between romantic notions of nature and love and the characters’ rather unromantic experiences of them, and the emergence of capitalism as a framework for human relations. And, not surprisingly, he reminded us that Renaissance acting troupes were single-sex organizations, with male actors playing both male and female roles.

Watching any of Shakespeare’s “gender-bending” plays in the context of a women’s college raises intriguing questions. On stage in Babcock this week were female actors playing male characters, female actors playing female characters who temporarily assume male identities, female actors playing as female characters originally written as male — and, of course, some female actors playing women and some male actors playing men!  The head of a thoughtful viewer begins to spin. . .

Thinking about women’s education inevitably opens questions about how we think about sex, gender, and identity. Is womanhood nature? Performance? A little of both? When we say Sweet Briar’s mission is to educate women, what assumptions are being made about what that means?

Across higher education similar questions are being energized by increased awareness of transgender students. A few recent articles on this issue are here, here, and here. In a previous generation, colleges and universities were challenged to ensure that lesbian and gay students could learn and grow unimpeded by discrimination, harassment, or prejudice. In our generation, that discussion has expanded to include concern for the well-being and academic success of transgender students or others whose gender identities are expressed in “unconventional” ways.

Many educational programs and campus facilities rely on clarity about gender distinctions. Who is a male or female athlete, according to the NCAA? Who should be allowed to live on single-sex residence halls or use single-sex bathrooms? Who can be admitted to, or graduate from, a single-sex institution? Answers to such questions will emerge and develop over time, through thoughtful and compassionate discussion. We can’t know what the answers will be yet, as we are only beginning to recognize the issues.

Leaving the theater yesterday, I walked home thinking about these matters and the fact that, as is so often the case, Shakespeare has been there before me.