President's Blog

Archive for March 2012

2012 Presidential Medalist

The annual Academic Recognition Banquet was last week; what a joy it is to spend an evening with students and faculty members celebrating the achievements of students in all four classes!

Here’s a brief excerpt from my remarks:

“Sometimes it’s easy to take your own achievements for granted. But if each of you will reflect for a moment you’ll realize how very much you have accomplished here at Sweet Briar. For example, think back for just a moment on everything you know now that you didn’t know when you first got here. Think about the tough lab that you finally got through, or the hours of grueling rehearsal that paid off in an effortless performance, or the problem you thought you’d never solve but eventually wrestled to the ground, or the translation that finally made sense in both languages, or the essay that showed you (and your professor!) that you knew more about the topic than you thought you did”

At this banquet it is my honor to award the Presidential Medal — Sweet Briar’s top award, given to a student who represents the best of Sweet Briar and the full range of our educational values. (You can read all about Alex St. Pierre’s many accomplishments here.) The recipient receives a smaller replica of the Presidential Medal I received at my inauguration which she is entitled to wear with her academic regalia.

It takes nothing away from Alex, or any other year’s Presidential Medalist, to note that what’s most wonderful about these outstanding young women isn’t how exceptional they are: it’s actually, in a sense, how typical they are. They represent the best in Sweet Briar women: the qualities of talent, discipline, hard work, integrity, competitiveness, and service for which they are honored can be found in many, many of their fellow students.

So, holla holla to 2012 Presidential Medalist Alexandra St. Pierre, and holla holla to all the Sweet Briar women she represents!

Contemplating Charles I

Earlier this week the Browsing Room was packed to capacity for a lecture sponsored by the Medieval/Renaissance Studies program.

The lecturer was Dr. Kenneth Finchem, Resident Director of the Virginia Program at Oxford (on which several Sweet Briar students go each year.) It’s a fabulous program — read this Voice article to get a sense of the opportunities it offers students.

Dr. Finchem’s topic was “”King Charles I, 1625-1649: Tyrant or Scapegoat?” He reviewed various interpretations of events during the reign of Charles I, exploring how political, economic, and religious considerations influenced the ways Charles’ actions and motives were understood and represented.

What emerged, at least in my mind, was a focus on one of the enduring quandary of leadership. Could any individual who was King of England at that moment have succeeded? To what extent did Charles bring his failures upon himself, and to what extent were they ordained by his circumstances? Could a greater king — or maybe just a different one — have changed the course of history? How much do kings shape history and how much does history shape kings?

An English Professor, a librarian, a Chaplain, and a Professor Emeritus

One of the enduring pleasures of life on campus is the opportunity to sit and ponder such questions in the company of faculty members and students. Around me in the Browsing Room were first year students, sophomores, juniors, and seniors — historians of art, historians,  literary scholars, librarians, faculty emeriti, and many others. And of course while we were thinking and talking about events that took place on another continent more than 350 years ago, we were also thinking and talking about ourselves, today. Can we re-capture what it must have been to contemplate regicide in that time and place? How can the study of kings who believed they ruled by divine right shed light on political situations unfolding today? How wonderful to hear people reflecting on these questions, from all their diverse perspectives and positions.

As I left the library after the lecture, I found myself musing on what ancestors of mine who were living in the England of Charles I might have thought about the events we were discussing as they happened.  And I realized I have absolutely no idea. . . but asking the question certainly made me want to more, which is the point . . .

Spring Break!

It’s Spring Break this week and students are traveling with their athletic teams, visiting family and friends, preparing applications for internships and summer jobs, finishing up work from the first part of the semester, preparing for work to come in the next few weeks, and — I devoutly hope — taking some time to recharge their mental batteries.

Break gives me an opportunity to read a bit, in an effort to recharge my own mental batteries. I’ve picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s The Lambs of London, a short but utterly engaging historical novel about the real-life literary fraud perpetrated by William Henry Ireland. (And the domestic complexities in the lives of Charles and Mary Lamb, to boot.)


When I look up from my book, I notice the campus is beginning to look irresistibly spring-like. Last week I watched the progress of the landscaping around the FAC. Boxwoods were planted, mulch was placed, beds were prepared for shrubs. . . and elsewhere trees are budding, geese have established themselves at the Boathouse lake, and daffodils have flowered. (Carrie Brown recently brought me a cheery handful from the lawn around Sanctuary Cottage, planted years ago by Buck Edwards.) To give you a sense of this week on campus, here are some iPhone pictures I took on this morning’s walk with Coco and Tazz.


Sweet Briar, keeping women on the move!

Photo by Jill Nance, courtesy Lynchburg News Advance

Yesterday the Lynchburg newspaper ran an article about the fitness class I’ve been leading on campus. You can find it here if you’re interested.

It’s part of a series of articles on fitness and health initiatives in greater Lynchburg. Last year, the Lynchburg area was found to have a high rate of obesity. In response, the mayor has encouraged a number of activities intended to help improve health and wellness in our community.

Sweet Briar too has increased its focus on wellness this year. One example is a program offered to all employees: those who undergo a basic health assessment receive an informative health status summary, tips for improving any areas of potential concern, access to a health educator, and best of all reduced health insurance premiums. Others have included things like hosting events for Girls on the Run and Special Olympics.

The classes I offer are just one small contribution to a increased focus on wellness and activity for people of all fitness and ability levels across the campus. Healthy activity allows people to experience themselves as strong, agile, flexible, mobile — qualities that enhance not only physical health but also academic and professional success. And in a culture that still places greater emphasis on sports and physical activity for boys than for girls, I believe it’s especially important for girls and women to have this experience. So, to my mind, fitness at Sweet Briar is and should be central to our mission.

Which doesn’t mean that everyone can or should be an athlete. It simply means that everyone can benefit by experiencing the joy of movement in whatever way they can. I know I do. . .

Farewell to Jan Osinga

Photo Courtesy Lynchburg News Advance

One of the things a newcomer to Sweet Briar learns very quickly is what a marvelous part the Dairy played in the college’s history. It’s literally true that I’ve heard more stories about the cows, the yogurt, and dairy manager Jan Osinga than I can count.

Which made it particularly poignant to say farewell last week to Mr. Osinga, who passed away on February 28th. (His obituary is on line here.) Services were held on Saturday at his beloved Amherst Presbyterian Church. Friends and neighbors from Amherst and Sweet Briar came together to share stories of this remarkable man, console his family, and share in the music he so enjoyed.

A few years ago, a short interview with Mr. Osinga was aired on local television. You can see the video and read the story here, if you’d like to hear some of his memories in his own voice.

It was only in the last couple of years that I had a chance to come to know Jan, his wife Douwina, and their two Sweet Briar alumna daughters Nelly and Ieke. From the moment I arrievd I was curious to meet him: every time someone spoke to me of Jan Osinga, they did so with a big and affectionate grin. Once I had the chance to know him myself, I could certainly see why. I have rarely met anyone so vividly full of life. Jan Osinga loved the land and the College he served with such distinction, and Sweet Briar is a better place for it.


“Flash Mob,” Prothro

Our marvelous Marcia Thom often reminds people that “we make music here at Sweet Briar.” Sometimes at unexpected times and places! Enjoy this video from yesterday.