President's Blog

Archive for September 2012

Giving Back!

Sweet Briar is for some of us an alma mater and for some of us an employer and for some of us a neighbor. It’s also a mission-centered not-for-profit organization to which many of us provide voluntary support.

3rd Floor Fletcher getting a fresh coat of paint

I was thinking a great deal about the ways many people give back to Sweet Briar over the last day or so. Last night was the kickoff event for the Senior Class Campaign. Now, I always attend this event and always enjoy it, but last night was special to me — because the class of 2013 is the first class I welcomed to Sweet Briar as President. Their freshman year was my freshman year and now we are seniors together. . .

2013’s campaign theme is “Reasons for Giving.” Here’s an excerpt from my remarks:

“When I started thinking about what I would say to you this evening, the first thing that occurred to me is that my reasons for giving, paradoxically, have very little to do with reason. I know all the facts and figures about the importance of philanthropy to Sweet Briar, I can explain the logic of private support for higher education, and I can rationally trace the causal connections between gifts and institutional excellence.

But reasonable as all that is, it isn’t really my reason for giving. My reasons for giving are love and faith, and I think I’m pretty typical. People give to what they love and what they believe in.”

Of course, I went on to talk about all the things I love about Sweet Briar and my belief in the power of educated women to make lives better for themselves, their families, their communities, and their professions. Clearly the senior class shares my love for, and faith in, Sweet Briar — the amount of money they raised last night was truly impressive!

Then, today was “Sweet Day of Service.”

Pink and Green at the Post Office

Some of you may remember the long-ago tradition of Patchwork Days. Sweet Day of Service is a return to the idea that those who wish to volunteer can spend a morning painting, scraping, cleaning, raking, planting, and generally sprucing the campus up for a morning. Members of the classes of ’15 and ’16 were painting the post office lobby; Bum Chums were scraping and painting railings; English majors painted the third floor of Fletcher an elegant taupe; and lots of people joined forces to give the second floor of Guion a blue and beige theme. Others cleared and blazed walking trails, stained the bandstand, and painted doors.

About 200 people volunteered to work for about 4 hours: that’s 800 hours, or 20 full work weeks, of time donated to the College.

Blue and beige for 2nd Floor Guion


This year, we made Sweet Day of Service a part of our Founder’s Day celebrations. In just a few minutes now, I will go over to the Chapel for the annual service commemorating the generosity and vision of our Founders. It is especially rewarding to do that having spent the morning helping make sure that all that they left us is lovingly and gratefully maintained.

Holla holla to all those who pitch in!

Single-Gender Studies

Thought you might enjoy this article, from the Richmond magazine, in which Sweet Briar, Hollins, and Mary Baldwin are featured.

Single-Gender Studies.

A President’s Week

When I have the first year students over for pizza I’ve come to expect that every year at least one will ask (a little hesitantly but extremely politely) what it is I actually do. Every time this question is asked — and it’s asked more often than you might think! — it reminds me that the work of a college president is generally (and generously) assumed to be important even though most people have little sense of what it actually involves.

In response I found myself describing some of the highlights of the last week:

I met with the Academic Planning Committee to discuss ways to engage faculty across campus in discussion of educational values and learning outcomes, attended a Tusculum Institute advisory council meeting to discuss how their work on preservation and local history aligns with Sweet Briar’s strategic priorities, and enjoyed a American Shakespeare Center production of The Duchess of Malfi offered as part of the Babcock season. (The Duchess is infrequently performed, and for many in the audience this was the first chance to see it on stage — what a great thing to have available for students on our campus.)

It was great fun sharing lunch and a Gager series concert with a donor who was visiting campus. (The program featured Spanish music. Who knew that Spanish teacher Carlos Fagundo is also a marvelous pianist?) A team was here as part of the Virginia Department of Education review of our teacher education program: I had the chance to talk with them about Sweet Briar and about why Sweet Briar is so proud that graduates go on to become highly skilled and liberally educated teachers. Three nights I had first-year students over to the House for pizza and got to hear about their first weeks on campus: one afternoon I led a NIA “playshop” for the Holistic Nutrition and Fitness class and got to talk with them about the relationship of joy and health; and one morning I went to a “Town and Gown” meeting of the Lynchburg City Council and the presidents of all the other local colleges. (We discussed community wide emergency preparedness and response, mainly. LOTS of fodder for nightmares in emergency planning scenarios!)

And then there was the more routine work — meeting with the leaders of various campus offices, checking in on projects like the library construction and classroom renovations, analyzing updated enrollment and financial information now that the new school year is underway, participating in the occasional conference call with a Board committee.

In short, what I actually do is encourage, support, and promote everything that everybody else at Sweet Briar does. Which certainly makes for lots of meetings to attend and a lot of spreadsheets to review, but just as certainly makes for an inspiring and rewarding experience almost every single day. Which is why I often say I have the best job there is —


It’s Pizza with Parker season!

One of my favorite rituals of the new school year is getting to know the members of the first year class over pizza at the House.

These are informal evenings: we chat, eat, and then I offer a brief tour of Sweet Briar House. It’s a wonderful way to tell new students the story of the College to which they now belong and to introduce them to some of the impressive women in whose footsteps they are (both literally and figuratively) walking. We talk about the well-educated businesswoman Indiana Fletcher Williams, the formerly enslaved nanny Martha Penn Taylor, founding president Mary Kendrick Benedict, scientist and physician Connie Guion, and many others too. The students tell me about their aspirations and dreams. At one table on Monday night, for example, there was an aspiring archeologist, a future orthodontist, a budding business owner, and a student whose goal it was to read as much about politics as she possibly could although she wasn’t sure exactly why!

This year I’m collecting comment cards. On pink cards, students are offering words or phrases that capture what they expected their first week or two at college to be like. On green cards, they are telling me something about what it was REALLY like.

I can’t wait to have had all these pizza evenings, to have met and talked with all new students, and to read the cards they’ve submitted to get a picture of what they hoped for and what they have found. I promise to share some of their comments here in a later post.

And we’re off!

Gathering for ice cream after Convocation

Opening Convocation last week kicked off the new academic year and welcomed the class of 2016 — already known as the “Sweet Sixteen.”

One of those addressing the community was McVea Scholar Katie Bitting ’13: she reminded her peers that “Money, time and energy all tend to be limited resources for college students. What we decide to do with these resources is a great indication of what we value in our lives and our education. College is the best time to discover what we enjoy, to find what interests us and what our passions are.”

Remarks were also offered by Cameron fellow and mathematics professor Steve Wassell. Taking up the theme of “value,” which is the focus of this year’s common reading book — The History of Money by Jack Weatherford — Professor Wassell encouraged students “to appreciate the here and now, which is forever becoming the there and then.” Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall noted that in a liberal arts curriculum “every discipline challenges us to contemplate and test our ideas about value.”

Opening Convocation is, for me, always an inspiring affirmation of why we value Sweet Briar and all the people who make the College what it is. Presenting awards for academic excellence is one highlight of the ceremony; you can find the list of honors on sbc.edu. Another is presenting ROSE awards to staff members for “excellence as a team member” and “excellence in service.” And of course we honor the value of an outstanding faculty: this year I had the distinct pleasure of announcing a new endowed chair in art history given in honor of former professors Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing. Professor Chris Witcombe was named as the first Barton Laing Professor to loud and prolonged applause.

Leading the recessional out of Babcock and toward the ice cream social waiting for us just outside, I couldn’t help reflecting on the value of rituals like Convocation. We come together as colleagues to celebrate shared values, including our respect for scholarship, for excellence, for history, and for the future our students will create. And we come together to celebrate our bonds to each other as members of a community dedicated to the intellectual values of the liberal arts and the daily joys of discovery and creation.

And of course we  join together to share sunshine and ice cream on a lovely late summer afternoon!