President's Blog

Archive for June 2012

And another leadership discussion

After speaking to the Senior Leadership Academy, as I mentioned in my last post, I went on the the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group.

This gathering of the presidents of America’s national, selective, liberal arts colleges is always a refreshing opportunity to compare notes, pick brains, and hear from engaging speakers. Topics on our minds last week included how alumni assess their undergraduate experiences — did you know that 72% of liberal arts college graduates are “completely satisfied” with the quality of their educations, and compared to 41% of “Top 50″ public university graduates? (This according to research conducted by Hardwick~Day.)  Law professor Theodore M. Shaw gave an interesting and timely summary of case law on issues of diversity and affirmative action, and White House Senior Adviser Zakiya Smith offered the presidents some insight into the Obama administration’s higher education agenda.

One of the regular features of this meeting is an update from David Warren, of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, on important policy issues affecting all of higher education. Financial aid is, of course, one essential item of importance to colleges, families, and taxpayers alike.

Private institutions benefit enormously from federal programs that help students afford college. For example, did you know that 169 Sweet Briar students receive support from Pell Grants? Between Pell Grants, FSEOG grants, and federal work study, nearly $750,000 in federal assistance supported Sweet Briar students last year. Just to give you a frame of reference, for Sweet Briar to replace that amount with institutional funds would require an additional $15,000,000 in endowed scholarship funds.

And then there are the federal loan programs. Various loan programs helped Sweet Briar students pay nearly $5,640,000 in tuition and fees. If Sweet Briar replaced those loans with institutional funds, it would require an additional $112,000,000 in endowment.

Of course, the question of how we, as a society, wish to invest in higher education is pressing and contentious at this moment. It’s well established that tuition costs must be controlled and that access must be maintained for students from all economic circumstances. There is active debate about the relative roles of institutional cost reduction, federal and state programs, philanthropy, and student loans in keeping American higher education affordable while retaining its excellence.

It is important, however, for those of all political persuasions to recognize that, today, ambitious, talented, and dedicated students in all kinds of institutions across the nation depend on federal programs to help them realize their educational dreams. For institutions like Sweet Briar, federal and state aid allow us to advance our mission by educating women whose families could not otherwise afford to give them a selective private education. Right now, the more than $6,675,000 that supported Sweet Briar women last year is paying off in changed lives and a stronger community for all.


Discussing Educational Leadership

In the last few days my travel schedule included a couple of events focused on academic and educational leadership, giving the week a serendipitous and interesting theme.

First I had the chance to speak to participants in the Senior Leadership Academy, a collaboration between the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Academic Leadership Institute. (And an excellent program: our own Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall is a former participant.) It was an honor for me to be invited to speak to this group of aspiring academic leaders: my topic was the way a president thinks about making vice-president level appointments and molding an effective senior staff team. Believing, as I do, that higher education will be facing complex and crucial challenges for decades to come, it seems to me that preparing the next generation of deans, vice-presidents, and presidents to address those challenges wisely is an essential priority.

The title for my remarks was “Cabinetball.” If you’ve read the book Moneyball and if you loved the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, you have two essential reference points for what I had to say. In very brief summary, I emphasized two things. First, effective academic administration is a team effort and the team’s success can only be measured by institutional achievements that advance mission. In other words, a good cabinet works together to ensure that students are learning, growing, and moving toward their professional and personal goals. This may seem to be patently self-evident, but I assure you it’s not; sometimes the pursuit of reputation (both personal and institutional) can displace the pursuit of actual mission. I also suggested to these future leaders that they should think less about whether they want to be leaders then about whether they want to do the work that leaders need to do to support student success. That is, I suggested that they’d do well to think in terms of the verb “to do” rather than the verb “to be.”

I also noted that, these days, running a college means negotiating a turbulent and rapidly-changing environment, requiring flexibility, nimbleness, and the willingness to take (prudent, appropriate) risks. The metaphor here was “Calvinball,” which you may remember as the game Calvin would play with Hobbes in which the rules were constantly and mystifyingly changing. . . .sometimes higher education in today’s economy feels like that. Under the circumstances, leaders need creativity, agility, and courage in addition to the integrity, wisdom, dedication, intelligence and other qualities that academic leadership has always required.

In the next post, I’ll say a bit about the Annapolis Group meeting, which is where I went next. . .

A Personal Accomplishment, Part 2

OK, I try to keep the purely personal posts to a minimum, but today I hope you’ll indulge me briefly. Last year I blogged about a personal accomplishment — getting my White Belt and teaching certification in the NIA Technique, a fitness practice I’ve enjoyed for years.

Since then, I’ve been teaching classes whenever I’m on campus to a group that includes office and administrative staff,  faculty members, faculty and staff spouses, and occasionally students. And from time to time I “guest” in PE classes or do workshops for student groups. (For example, in the fall I’ll be doing a session during orientation for the student Peer Health Educators.) And as some of you know because you’ve come to them, I’ve offered a NIA “playshop” on the first morning of Reunion for the last couple of years — which is always great fun. Sweet Briar’s even gotten some press recognition for drawing attention to wellness in this way.

So, last week I took the next step and completed the training to become a Blue Belt! Here are a couple of pictures from the workouts. For me, pursuing these goals is all about the educational ideal of a sound mind in a sound body — and the integrity of practicing what I preach to our students about wellness and activity. . .



Tusculum Institute in the News

The Tusculum Institute has been much in the news recently.

Tusculum as it appeared in the 1960s

The fourth annual “Teaching with Historic Places” conference was just held on campus. This event, co-sponsored by the Tusculum Institute and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, brings together K-12 teachers, museum curators, historical interpreters and others dedicated to educating the public about history.  This year’s topic, appropriately enough, was the War of 1812 and the socio-economic histories of the presidencies of the Virginian Jameses — Madison and Monroe.

We also recently announced a generous gift from alumna Cynthia Wilson Ottaway ’57 to support the work of the Institute over the next decade. Here’s a quote from the press release: “Ottaway views the Tusculum Institute as an ‘excellent instrument’ to pass on to younger generations the value of preserving historical buildings and places in an environmentally sustainable way. The institute is committed to the idea that old can be made new again, saving resources and honoring the rich historical legacy of the region.”

When the Plan for Sustainable Excellence talks about the educational value of Sweet Briar’s “Landscape for Learning,” it means programs (like the Tusculum Institute) which celebrate and interpret the historical legacy of Sweet Briar’s property and the surrounding region — the community from which the College arose, in which it has flourished, and which it serves to this day.

Some readers will recall that originally the vision for the Tusculum Institute included the reconstruction of the Tusculum house for which it was named, where Indiana Fletcher Williams’ mother Maria Crawford was born. While the building materials are safely stored and preserved, raising the funds needed to reconstruct the building in an historically-responsible manner proved to be challenging in the current economy.

A good editorial in the Lynchburg News Advance recently noted that as a result the Institute has redoubled its focus on local history and on the study of environmentally sensitive preservation. Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville is quoted: “Looking at the past that goes back to Tusculum, Rainville described the history here as rich. ‘Just looking at the history of this county, you cover the history of slavery, Jim Crow, plantation economies, farming, technology, racism, desegregation … Every topic that our students are learning in K-12, you can find an example here.'”

Whether or not funding will become available to reconstruct the Tusculum building, the Tusculum Institute will be actively preserving, creating, and sharing knowledge about the region’s history with Sweet Briar students, our neighbors, and the scholarly community. What a fine tribute that is to our founder’s mother!



A Summer of the Arts

In recent years a thriving summer arts scene has developed on campus. People of all ages are creating and performing and discussing and enjoying the arts from one end of campus to the next.

Here’s a recent story about the U.Va. Young Writers Workshop, a nationally-known program for student writers that will bring 170 young writers and their teachers to campus in two sessions, the first starting on June 24th. Sweet Briar is very proud to be hosting the young poets, fiction writers, playwrights/screenwriters, songwriters, and non-fiction writers who will be participating.

All the better that the U.Va. Young Writers Workshop will coincide with Endstation Theatre Company’s Playwrights Initiative. This program, which takes place alongside the Blue Ridge Summer Theater Festival, allows young playwrights the opportunity to work with each other and with a community of practicing theater artists on new plays. (The Festival, by the way, is performing Comedy of Errors in the back garden at Sweet Briar House. I’ve had the best evenings sitting on the porch overhearing the preparations and rehearsals — and now, hearing the applause and laughter! If you’re in the area, please do think about coming out to see it, or one of the other plays they’ll be offering.)

And then there’s BLUR, Sweet Briar’s own interdisciplinary program for young artists. . . 

I suspect that those involved in each of these programs would agree that there is something magical in the elegance of the buildings, the inspiration of the landscape, and the intimacy of the community that makes Sweet Briar a particularly fruitful place for the arts. It’s a lovely place to make art and a lovely place to enjoy it. And it’s one more way the intellectual life of the college continues throughout the summer and one more way Sweet Briar makes central Virginia a richer place for our neighbors.

(And, speaking of the campus, if you haven’t seen the new interactive map yet, do take a look!)

A Scene from Comedy of Errors: bet you didn't expect a British bobby costume!



Romano-canonical criminal jurisprudence and other summer diversions

Intellectual life at Sweet Briar continues all year ’round. . .

Students gathering for the talk

Yesterday I had a wonderful time at a summer honors talk by History Professor Lynn Laufenberg, whose full title was “Everything you never wanted to know about how to conduct Florentine archival research on the question of the early development of Romano-canonical criminal jurisprudence.” The students who attended were participants in the summer honors research program: several other faculty honors mentors attended as well. These talks are intended to give students a glimpse into the working lives of professional scholar/teachers as role models and inspirations for their own work.

Professor Laufenberg described her research into legal cases in Florentine courts during the Renaissance. She explained that what we today understand as criminal law began in the 12th century, when state-controlled judicial bodies began to address matters that had until then been regarded as matters for familial resolution.

She presented the sentence given to one Florentine woman who had committed incest and adultery and then killed the daughter to whom she gave birth, for all of which she was burned at the stake. (You can imagine, this provided a very interesting stimulus to discussion!) Students asked some very smart questions about the language of the sentence. A professor of government offered observations about the way in which modern states reserve the right to exercise violence to themselves, a professor of psychology questioned the relationship between law and morality, and a professor of English and I fell into conversation about The Merchant of Venice and its view of state and personal “vendettas.”

All in all, just the kind of afternoon that represents what life on a campus ought to be about!

Professor Laufenberg gave us a book recommendation, which I share with you: she said that Nikos Kazantzakis’ biography of St. Francis had been a definitive book in her life. It’s now on my list for summer reading.