President's Blog

Archive for December 2012

And I’m Back On Campus. . .

After a wonderfully restful break, I’m back on campus. With the students away, it’s peaceful and I have time to take the dogs on extra-long walks: their favorite is the Dairy Loop so that they can visit the horses. Very soon, though,  it will begin to seem slightly too peaceful and I’ll be eagerly looking forward to the day the students return.

This trip brought the opportunity to read some things I’ve been hoping to get to for a while. First, I finished Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (started a while ago but laid aside in the press of the end of the semester.) Kate Summerscale writes lively and thoughtful histories of 19th-century cases. A while back I blogged about a previous book of hers, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher; to my delight I enjoyed Mrs. Robinson’s story even more than I had Mr. Whicher’s. Summerscale tells the story of the Robinson’s case in the newly-created English divorce court to raise questions about the evidentiary status of Mrs. Robinson’s diary. Was it a record of actual events? The expression of a neurotic and confused imagination? A series of quasi-literary fictional exercises? Much hinged on these ultimately unanswerable questions.

Having finished Mrs. Robinson’s story, I turned at last to a book given to me by a very good friend last summer — The Hare With Amber Eyes. If you haven’t read this, I think you should. As soon as possible. As Roger Cohen says, in a New York Times op-ed, this book is “a meditation on Jewish upheaval and loss.” Tracing the history of a family collection of netsuke, Edmund de Waal tells the story of the Ephrussis — a vastly wealthy, multinational, cosmopolitan Jewish family — from the late years of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. Connected with avant-garde literary and artistic circles in Paris and Vienna, consulted by governments, stalwarts of influential clubs and civic organizations, the Ephrussis could simply not conceive that their Jewish identity might still put everything they had at risk. But of course, by 1938 it was apparent that indeed it could and did: I’ll confess that I cried while reading the chapter on the Anschluss. And I cried again, later in the book, while reading about how the netsuke collection was saved and returned to the family. For this is a story not only about upheaval and loss but also about memory, and survival, and the consolation of preserving both objects and stories.

Often, I find that I discover commonalities in books I read one after another. These two, different as they are in tone and topic, both illustrate a historian’s research process. Summerscale and de Waal set out to answer questions they have about the past, and both document the twists and turns and clarities and uncertainties that they encounter in doing so. Both reminded me of how richly challenging it is to attempt to understand the ways that other lives in other times were different from our own. . .


PS: I read two other books on this trip as well: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (charming fun) and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. (Fascinating and probably deserving of its own post.)



Holiday Break

Finals are wrapping up. Last night students who are still on campus enjoyed a “late night breakfast” party in Prothro (during a brief power outage!); faculty are grading, grading, grading;  cookies and other holiday treats are being exchanged — in short, it’s almost time for the holiday break to begin! Judging by what I read on Facebook, students are ready for the break and looking forward to time at home with family and friends. . .

Rick and I will be traveling until shortly after Christmas. Please understand if I don’t post anything here until after the New Year. (If I do then: we are going to Mexico and will be there for the projected date of the “Mayan apocalypse,” so who knows?)

As usual, I’ll be travelling with both an iPad and a tote bag full of books. When I return I look forward to sharing my book list and perhaps hearing about what all of you read during the holidays.

In the meantime, I hope that the coming weeks bring you time with those who are most important to you and many heartening reflections on the accomplishments and joys of the year that is drawing to a close.

An Important Matter of Public Policy

In this blog, I’ve occasionally pointed to matter of public policy that have important implications for private higher education in general and Sweet Briar in particular.

One such issue is currently under discussion. As our elected leaders are negotiating an agreement to increase tax revenues and decrease government spending, some proposals have contemplated a change in the federal income tax deduction for charitable contributions. Some have argued that this deduction should be eliminated, while others have argued for a cap or reduction.

Along with other leaders of American’s private colleges and universities, I have strongly expressed my concern about any such action through national education organizations. I believe that any reduction in the federal income tax deduction for charitable giving would have an immediate and adverse effect on giving to Sweet Briar — and I know how important philanthropy is to our ability to fulfill our mission, maintain academic quality, and keep a Sweet Briar education affordable.

Please consider calling or emailing your elected representatives, adding your voice to mine in asking them to protect federal tax incentives for charitable giving. There is one central point for you to emphasize. As a supporter of American’s private sector in higher education, urge your representatives to protect the charitable giving deduction. Philanthropy represents the way the private sector supports services that the government therefore need not provide. Boosting tax revenues by discouraging philanthropy would be a false economy and bad public policy.

I am very proud of the public good provided by the private sector in higher education, as I am of the private support that allows distinctive institutions like Sweet Briar to flourish. As Indiana Fletcher Williams knew, philanthropy is the cornerstone that upholds private institutions; it should be encouraged by any public policy that aims to encourage a robust private sector.

The Holiday Season Arrives!

Last night the holiday season arrived on campus complete with lights, food, music, and good fellowship.

In the late afternoon, on our way to the annual Holiday Dinner, Rick and I joined in the SGA Tree Lighting. We could hear the carol singing as soon as we left Sweet Briar House. Walking down Chapel Drive, toward the lighted tree, the Chapel backlit against the sunset, the singing students — well, it was simply spectacular. It was a mild and clear evening and as you can see several horses joined in the festivities. What you can’t see, because I’m not that good a cell-phone photographer, is that many of the horses, like their riders, were dressed for the occasion in reindeer antlers, santa hats, and other seasonal tack.

From there, it was off to Prothro for the Holiday Dinner. Nearly 150 members of the faculty and staff, with family members and guests, joined the students for an ample and traditional meal. There was ham, and roast beef, and turkey, and dressing, and gravy, and mashed potatoes, and green beans, and fresh rolls, and probably a great deal more that I simply didn’t have the capacity to try.


Flashing-light earrings!

On the dessert table — buche de noel, various pies and pastries, little tiny cakes, and lots and lots of whipped cream. Standing at the doorway, welcoming all to the feast, I especially enjoy the festive outfits. (My personal favorite may have been the red and green striped “Santa’s Elf” boot socks that several students were sporting, although I didn’t get a good picture of those.)

And then, back to the Chapel for the Vespers service, the first led by new Chaplain Dori Baker. All of it was lovely — the greenery and candlelight, the swelling tones of the organ, the traditional readings — but I have to say that I was replaying the processional in my ear’s memory all night long. The more than 60 members of the choir performed an arrangement of a South African hymn accompanied by a drum ensemble led by music professor Jeff Jones. (Professor Jones was the arranger as well.) There was no way in the world to listen to that music without swaying and smiling and singing along. . .