President's Blog

Archive for February 2012

Another Vixen Victory~!

Another in this month’s series of Victory Teas: the 2011-12 Sweet Briar Ethics Bowl Team!

Me, Professor Honeycutt, and the Ethics Bowl Team

You may recall that last year’s team took first place; because several of last year’s competitors graduated, this year Professor Kevin Honeycutt started with a new group of students including three first-years and one sophomore. Their second place achievement is outstanding, especially in light of their relative youth.

Here’s a quote from our news story about the event:

“Honeycutt said he was proud of how the team conducted itself throughout the tournament. “Each of these young women is poised, articulate and intellectually courageous,” he said. “They are quality representatives of the type of student that we aim to produce.””

The tea was great fun. The students told me about one hypothetical case, discussed over dinner at the Ethics Bowl closing banquet. In this scenario, a college president is offered, and accepts, a large donation on the condition that the donor’s nephew be accepted into a fraternity which had previously rejected him. The president goes to the members of the fraternity to ask that they admit the nephew, but they refuse. Over dinner the participants dissected the ethical issues raised by the actions of the donor, the president, and the fraternity.

As you can imagine, over tea in the pink parlor this led to a discussion that was obviously fascinating from my point of view. What are the appropriate boundaries to a donor’s requests? What gifts should a college president question or reject? How can a college balance student autonomy with larger institutional interests?

It was a perfect afternoon with bright and lively Sweet Briar students.

Sneak Peek: Library Sketches!

As is my custom, last week I reported to the community on this month’s meeting of the Board. (You can find the written summary here, if you’re interested.)

At these update meetings, I was able to share the excellent news that we have now taken all necessary steps to begin the renovation and expansion of the Cochran library. Naturally, everyone is eager to hear about the details, and I promise that as we move forward we will provide full coverage on the web site, in the Sweet Briar Magazine, and in e-newsletters.

But I couldn’t resist providing a bit of a sneak peek of the concept, so at the update sessions I showed a couple of sketch models. People who were unable to attend expressed an interest in seeing them too, so here they are.

Please remember that these are sketch models of a concept, not detailed or finished building plans. I’m sharing them to give you a sense of how beautifully the historic building will be showcased by the addition. The project will provide improved heating, cooling, and ventilation throughout the building, wheelchair access to all floors and areas, and a number of new (and newly-equipped) learning spaces, including small group study spaces, seminar rooms, and a larger flexible classroom/learning studio. We’ll begin site preparation work this summer, and about two years after that we will have a wonderfully improved and expanded facility — as well as all the historic virtues of the existing building.



Victory Tea for Vixen Swimmers

Last year I started what I hope will become a tradition — “Victory Teas” for Sweet Briar teams that win championships, trophies, medals, or other honors. (The inaugural tea was for last year’s first-place Ethics Bowl team.) We have tea, lemonade, cookies, and pimento cheese finger sandwiches at Sweet Briar House, and the members of the winning team (and their faculty and staff mentors) celebrate teamwork, achievement, and success. I love hearing their stories about what it took for them to win!

Yesterday’s tea was for the swim team, which just took third in the ODAC conference championships. (You can read detailed coverage on our web site.) Here’s a quote: “Vixen head coach Jason Gallaher had this to say about his team’s performance, ‘I am extremely proud of the way our swimmers handled themselves all weekend.  From putting in a lot of swims, to the tight turn around time between each session to sportsmanship, I am definitely pleased with our team’s performance.'”

AD Kelly Morrison and Coach Jason Gallaher

The Vixens fought hard to take third place from Bridgewater College, which offered strong competition. But, as the Vixens explained to me, they had simply decided not to be beaten! When I asked them what the key to their success this year was, one of them said, “Well, just don’t quit.” Which is great advice, in or out of the pool.

Holla Holla Vixen swimmers!


This morning’s topics on campus. . .

Downton Abbey, and snow!

I don’t know how many of you are hooked on Downton Abbey, but I can tell you on the basis of facebook traffic and casual campus exchanges that most of Sweet Briar is. We pass around our favorite quotes from the Dowager Countess — inimitable: I hope to be her when I grow up! — and comment on the motivations and the wardrobe in equal measure. And if you’re watching Downton on Blue Ridge Public Television, as we are, you’ve seen the Sweet Briar spots that run before each episode. How much fun is it to see our own Kat Alexander ’11, then Professor Debbie Durham, right before Laura Linney takes the screen?

The Patio at Sweet Briar House

And last night, we were able to curl up to watch the season finale as snow fell across the campus. It’s the first snowfall of the year, believe it or not, and it’s lovely. Clean, white, soft, graceful.

Coco and Tazz, however, were extremely reluctant walkers this morning. Notice how Coco is canted sharply back toward home?

On the topic of Commencement . . .

Seniors at the Salute

The “Senior Salute” is taking place today — an informal lunchtime event at which seniors can visit with various campus offices to talk about matters related to Commencement and graduation. (And pick up some snacks: nearly every table offers chocolate, cookies, or some other treat.)

Career Services is there, offering appointments and resources to those who are still considering various post-graduation options. The class of 2014 has a table expressing their appreciation for their big-sister class — and highlighting some fun and stress-relieving events planned for the rest of the semester. Staff from the Bookstore are there to explain the various options for Commencement announcements, invitations, and other stationery.

Choosing graduation announcements


The Alumnae Office is encouraging seniors to think about ways they can remain involved with Sweet Briar as alumnae and the Development Office is there to encourage the class as it closes in on its senior class gift goal. Outdoor Programs is spreading the word about some excursions and activities in coming weeks. In short, it’s a “one stop shop” for seniors to plan their last few weeks at Sweet Briar and their first steps into life as college graduates.

I took a few quick pictures.


Alumnae Relations Director Melissa Coffey Gay and senior Mary K Rora with the Senior Robe they share

This Year’s Commencement Speaker Announced

Impossible as it seems, Commencement is just around the corner now. Today we announced this year’s Commencement speaker to the campus community and I thought I’d share the news with you.

“We are delighted to announce that this year’s Commencement speaker is Dr. Vivian Pinn, M.D. former Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Before retiring in August of 2011 Dr. Pinn completed a national initiative to reexamine priorities for the women’s health research agenda for the 21st Century, involving advocates, scientists, policy makers, educators, and health care providers in a series of scientific meetings across the country that ultimately informed the ORWH’s new strategic plan. One of the objectives of the ORWH is to increase the number of women in leadership roles in research and academic institutions. Pinn points out that while more women are entering the field of science, a ‘leadership gap’ still exists between men and women in research.

Dr. Pinn came to NIH from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., where she had been Professor and Chair of the Department of Pathology since 1982, and has previously held appointments at Tufts University and Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Pinn, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia, earned her B.A. from Wellesley College, and received her M.D. from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in  1967, where she was the only woman and only minority student in her class. She is a member of long standing in many professional and scientific organizations, in which she has held positions of leadership, including being the 2nd woman president of the National Medical Association in 1989.
Dr. Pinn has received numerous honors, awards, and recognitions. Most recently, The Foundation for Gender Specific Medicine honored Dr. Pinn in May of 2011 with the “Athena Award.” In March 2012 she will be awarded the inaugural Bernadine Healy Award at the 20th Annual Congress on Women’s Health for her visionary leadership in advancing women’s health.

Dr. Pinn is excited about coming to Sweet Briar and bringing her message to the class of 2012. Look for more information about her on the commencement website: http://sbc.edu/president/commencement.

Obviously, we are delighted to welcome so distinguished a researcher, physician, and policy expert to Sweet Briar. And, since we will again be streaming the Commencement ceremony, you can join us to hear her remarks over the internet if you can’t attend in person!

Couldn’t Have Said It Better Myself

The topic of college rankings has come up on this blog from time to time, usually with some cautionary words from me about understanding rankings for what they do and don’t mean, thinking critically about how rankings are defined and compiled, and so on.

This week the topic of rankings, and specifically of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, is much in the news. The unfortunate occasion is the revelation that an official at Claremont-McKenna College, a fine institution with outstanding students and a strong reputation, misrepresented its students’ SAT scores in pursuit of higher rankings. (They are not alone; similar approaches to “gaming the rankings” have been reported at other colleges.) Several interesting and insightful commentaries on this situation have been published this week; some I’d recommend to you are here, here, and here.

Sweet Briar, like many of the liberal arts colleges in the Annapolis Group, does not participate in the “reputational survey” aspect of the USN&WR rankings — that is, we do not respond to surveys asking us to give our subjective impression of the quality of other schools. Nor do we promote our own U. S. News rankings in admissions materials. We take this position because we do not believe the reputational survey collects meaningful information and that, because of its weight in the methodology, the overall scoring is significantly flawed. Besides, it is inherently unreasonable to think that all the complex factors that make an educational institution effective can be distilled into one single number on which meaningful comparisons can be based.

What thoughtful people in higher education are talking about this week is a larger issue. They are talking about the skewed system of incentives created by the dominance of rankings such as those published by USN&WR. Here’s an example, from a piece by William D. Adams, president of Colby College:

“Perhaps the time has come for us to admit that we are trying to work within a system that encourages us to skew our work toward improving our performance in the rankings rather than focusing on our core educational missions; deploy teams of people to squeeze each ranking data point until it screams, rather than take all possible measures to find students who seek – and will truly benefit from – the distinctive experience we each have to offer.”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. When I was a candidate for the presidency at Sweet Briar, I remember being asked by a faculty member what I would do to improve Sweet Briar’s standing in the U.S. News rankings. And I remember my reply: that I would do very little for that reason, as I believe it is a serious mistake to chase rankings. The thing to chase, in my view, is excellence. If institutions keep focus on educational excellence for students, the world — and any truly useful rankings systems — will recognize it. If we chase rankings, we may succeed in moving an institution from, say, #84 to #81, or from #25 to #20, or from #7 to #3.  But there is no reason to believe that we would be better serving students because of it.

At Sweet Briar, we spend much more time thinking about how we assess and improve student learning than about where we stand in the eyes of U. S. News. And that’s as it should be.



Happy Groundhog Day!

One of the loveliest aspects of academic life is the “groundhog day” effect created by the recursive events and rituals that mark the school year. (As in the movie Groundhog Day.) On this actual Punxsatawney Phil Groundhog Day, I find myself thinking about cycles, rhythms, and the way they mark the passage of each year.

Right now, on campus, we’re looking forward to the events of the 2012 Fringe Festival. Here’s some local press coverage; you’ll see that the events include a puppet show, a concert musical, and standup comedy. Usually the Fringe is a mid-winter festival of artistic energy at the College. With this year’s unseasonably mild temperatures it may end up feeling more like a spring fling, but no matter! Students and faculty and guests will share performances, ideas, and reactions whatever the weather.

Endstation Theater Company’s “Sonnets and Chocolates” event is also coming up very soon. This annual Valentine’s-themed evening is great fun. Better yet,  it showcases Endstation (and its partnership with Sweet Briar) to the community, and best of all it reminds me of how soon I’ll be enjoying Endstation productions on campus again.

Of course, many other familiar events are taking place at their appointed moments in the cycle. The call has gone out for faculty proposals for Honors seminars for next year, plans for Commencement are beginning to take shape, the juniors are preparing for Junior Week festivities, seniors are beginning to report grad schools acceptances or job offers, and so on.

The beauty of this familiar round is that every academic year is both profoundly the same and yet in fact not at all the same. For some — new faculty, new staff, first-year students — this year is the very first turn of the wheel they will experience at Sweet Briar. For others — and I now count myself in this group — the specifics of the cycle has become familiar enough to have become deeply satisfying; although this can be a poignant satisfaction for seniors who know that shortly they will be stepping off the Commencement stage and into the rather different rhythms of post-undergraduate life. And for faculty, staff, and alumnae who have watched the College’s life evolve over many, many years, these periodic reminders of the ongoing and regular joys of college life have become second nature.

So, happy Groundhog Day! We humans I think tend to repeat what is most meaningful to us, but always with some inevitable difference: sun some years, shadow others. For a college, there are always new generations of students to teach and mentor, new colleagues with whom to work, new circumstances to take into consideration — but always in the context of established and treasured rhythms.