President's Blog

Archive for October 2012


This weekend was Homecoming/Families Weekend here on campus, and a fine one it was indeed.

The weather was crystalline and mild; this picture taken by Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall gives you a sense of it. The schedule was packed with events, including soccer and field hockey games (which the Vixens played well, although alas didn’t win), a performance (to a packed Babcock) of the King and I, lectures by faculty members Eric Casey (on libraries and archives in the ancient world) and Padmini Coopamah (on China’s interests in Africa), the induction of four impressive alumna athletes into the Athletics and Riding Hall of Fame, a picnic (BBQ pork, macaroni and cheese, corn muffins), a Guion open house hosted by science faculty, a faculty-led “classroom crawl” through newly-renovated classrooms, a networking event hosted by the Black Pearls, the dedication of a refurbished Music Room, hunter trials on the old proving grounds, and probably lots of other things I’m forgetting to mention. Parent and Alumnae leadership volunteers received special updates and training, old friends reconnected, students enjoyed meeting alumnae and one another’s families. A fine time, indeed.

Reflecting on the weekend I found myself thinking about what really makes these occasions so very special. Clearly the beautiful setting and interesting events are important, but in themselves they don’t explain it. After all, on a gorgeous fall weekend in the Blue Ridge there are lots of opportunities to do interesting things in beautiful places.

What alumnae, family members, and students can only do HERE is celebrate connections —  connections forged in and through this place.

Any fine college strives to make its campus an idealistic place — a place where students can experience a bit of the world as they would have it be. Sweet Briar seeks to be a place where ideas are respected, engaged, and lived by; a place where individuals matter and can develop into their own best selves; a place where faculty and students call out the best in each other and in the college. Students who experience that kind of place during their undergraduate years will, I believe, be inspired to work to make the rest of world more like that after they graduate. . . and as the careers of our alumnae amply demonstrate, in fact they do.

When alumnae come back, when parents visit, they are reminded of those ideals. Spending even a short weekend in an environment where the life of the mind is evident, where individuals are valued for their talents and characters, where achievement is nurtured and recognized, where fair play and respect can be assumed — that is, I think, what really makes alumnae and parents most proud of their connection to Sweet Briar. It’s what makes coming home to Sweet Briar truly refreshing.



Talking Politics in Reid Pit

Gathering to watch the debate

Last night’s local news presented a very nice piece about a bipartisan debate watching party that took place on campus. (Click on the link to see video, including some impressive student quotes.) Members of both the Republican and Democratic clubs gathered in Reid Pit to watch the vice-presidential debates and talk about the issues — especially issues as they relate to women and to foreign policy.

Professor Steve Bragaw notes that “democracy is not a spectator sport,” adding that politics is not and should not be something that can’t be discussed in public. (He also points out that his students didn’t require the incentive of extra credit to join in the evening’s discussion!)

Colleges and universities take seriously the role of education in equipping students to become engaged citizens. As educators, we believe that voters who bring skills of critical thinking, analysis, and research to the issues will make better choices. And at Sweet Briar, as educators of women, we remember that the enfranchisement of women was hard-won and is not to be taken for granted. Our goal is therefore to promote active and thoughtful engagement in political discourse and the expression of a wide range of ideas and positions — which also means that we take seriously the importance of creating an environment in which disagreement between students can take place vigorously, wholeheartedly, and civilly.

Local news interview at the event

This is a challenge — it can appear easier to either submerge potential conflict or sever relationship with those with whom we disagree. And as is frequently observed, today’s media offers many examples of under-reasoned, over-inflammatory, and far-from-enlightening discourse. Personally, I will admit to being disheartened when political rhetoric sounds more like cheering for one’s team to win than like seeking the best ideas for the common good.

But last night, forty students came together to watch — and to listen and to talk. This election is about their shared future; what should be more natural than that they would want to reason it through together? And what could be more heartening?




Slave Dwelling Project Spends the Night at Sweet Briar – WSET.com – ABC13

Local television coverage of the event about which I posted yesterday, if you’d interested . . .

Slave Dwelling Project Spends the Night at Sweet Briar – WSET.com – ABC13.

Slave Dwelling Project at Sweet Briar

Yesterday and today Sweet Briar has hosted Joseph McGill Jr., a field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and his Slave Dwelling Project.

Welcoming McGill and visitors to the slave cabin

In this video, Mr. McGill explains the project, which is dedicated to raising awareness of and preserving the buildings in which African Americans lived while enslaved.

Mr. McGill told me yesterday that Sweet Briar is the first college campus to host his project, which has previously taken him to national and state parks, various historical and living-history sites, and private properties. Yesterday he gave a public lecture and a tour of both the slave cabin and of Sweet Briar House, the “big house.” After that, he and eight members of the community slept in the slave cabin. His visit will conclude with a lunchtime talk in the dining hall today. It has been a privilege to have this program on campus — thanks are due to the Tusculum Institute for sponsoring it.

Joseph McGill at Sweet Briar House

It would be disingenuous to pretend that the topic of slavery is comfortable or easy to discuss. It’s painful to acknowledge the role slavery played in our region, our state, and our nation, much less its role in the specific history of the property the college occupies and in creating the wealth that established Sweet Briar.  Some — both white and African-American students, neighbors, and colleagues — have questioned the value of drawing attention to this painful topic. It would indeed be a grave mistake to focus on the period of slavery to the exclusion of other eras — say, the civil rights movement, which fifty years ago led to the legal integration of Sweet Briar — or of the achievements of 20th-century African Americans, Sweet Briar’s relationship to white workers or the Monacan nation, or the Fletcher family’s deep commitment to education for women.

Nonetheless, it is important that we seek to learn about and understand even those aspects of our history which raise difficult emotions — emotions of guilt, anger, shame, grief and all the complex reactions thinking about slavery and racism evokes. I will confess that, yesterday, it was not easy for me to contemplate Sweet Briar House, the house in which so much of Sweet Briar’s cherished history took place, the house which all Sweet Briar women love as a symbol of our tradition and heritage, as a plantation’s “big house,” with all that phrase entails. But of course, there was a time when that is what it was. Both things are true — it was once the home of slave owners and workplace of enslaved people, and it is now the beloved site where alumnae and students of all races gather in friendship and shared purpose.

The group that slept in the cabin

Yesterday, Mr. McGill and Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville were speculating that the boxwoods that stand between Sweet Briar House and the slave cabin were planted sometimes well after Emancipation to block the view of the cabin from the House. Their conjecture was that those boxwoods were planted to obscure an architectural reminder of a history that was too painful to confront. Now, as we continue to do research on all aspects of Sweet Briar history, we do not wish to obscure the Slave Cabin any longer. We wish to look at it, with understanding and clarity, as a meaningful part — but just one part — of our history.



Just for fun — Founder’s Day Dance

Saturday night the Founder’s Day celebration wrapped up with a terrific dance. Current students, recent alumnae, dates and friends enjoyed music, food, and company in the FAC. You can’t really tell it from the shot above, but the field house was charmingly decorated and the band was really good.

The “photo booth” was a popular feature. Just for fun, here are a couple of pictures I took that night.

Me with Senior Class Leaders in the Photo Booth


Me and Rick