President's Blog

The following articles were authored by jparker

More News About Environmental Stewardship

Monarch with MountainI hope readers recall that we recently announced Sweet Briar’s conversion to “green” electricity. As legions of students, faculty, alumnae, and neighbors will attest, one of the truly special aspects of the Sweet Briar experience is the expansive and lovely environment we enjoy here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. We are proud of being good stewards of that legacy. Today I’d like to share news of another important environmental-stewardship initiative. I’ll quote a message Vice President Scott Shank recently circulated:

“It is with great pleasure that I announce Sweet Briar has taken another step in our environmental stewardship.  The College has entered into an agreement with FDC Enterprises Grassland Services to convert approximately 250 acres of our current hayfields to native warm season grasses with perennial borders.  The grasses will be sold as biofuel, and the borders will become pollinator habitat.  In addition to the extra income the College will earn from the sale of the grass for biofuel, the project has the potential to provide substantial educational opportunities for us in the areas of biology, chemistry, environmental studies, engineering and perhaps others. . .”

This initiative was planned in consultation with the Campus Environment Committee, and the fields selected for use were identified after careful consideration of the needs of the riding program, ongoing research projects, campus aesthetics, and recreational uses.

It’s the best kind of project. It supports our educational mission by connecting us with larger research initiatives and providing opportunities for research and teaching right here on campus. It allows us to realize increased income from the land through the sale of grass for biofuel. And it expresses our ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship.

It does mean that if you visit campus in the late summer or early fall you may notice a changed appearance in some fields; I think the perennial borders and tall grasses will be quite lovely. . .

Honoring Sweet Briar Staff

DSC_8074This week Sweet Briar honored several members of staff at the annual “Unsung Heroes and Staff Recognition Banquet.” It’s always a pleasure and an honor to recognize the people who make this wonderful community work, day in and day out: if you’ve spent any time on campus at all you know it’s the people who work here who make it what it is.

DSC_8080The banquets celebrates those who are celebrating milestone anniversaries — 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years of employment. Among this year’s honorees were ten staff members who, together have contributed 230 years of service to Sweet Briar. Gloria Higginbotham, who came to work here in 1973-74, was applauded for 40 continuous years of service. Think about the changes she has seen during that time, and all she knows about Sweet Briar’s recent history!

Other awards are given by students: they recognize an Unsung Hero and Heroine, as well as Mr. and Ms. Sunshine, Most Dependable, Hardest Working, and Most Encouraging.

The "Superlatives"

The “Superlatives”

I don’t think there is a single member of staff on campus who sees her or his work here as simply a job. At yesterday’s banquet, the pride and dedication of these employees was evident. They know that, whatever their specific  responsibilities, their work support a mission and a community that has great meaning. And ultimately, doing meaningful work is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences life has to offer. As I told the honorees yesterday, I am proud and happy to serve alongside them.

So, holla holla to yesterday’s honorees, and to all staff members whose excellence and commitment they represent.

Anniversary Honorees

Anniversary Honorees

Just Because

One of the joys of this campus is the way nature continually surprises and delights. So, just to share: this morning a bear cub was spotted on campus. Animal control is keeping an eye on him (or her) and assures us he (or she) doesn’t appear to be sick, injured, or in distress. The birds are singing, bulbs and trees are flowering, and the baby animals are finding their feet. Lovely!


A Couple of Cool Pilot Programs

Lots of news this week about Sweet Briar and “digital sophistication!” We’ve just announced two pilot programs that will add opportunities for students to study topics not offered on campus through on-line remote collaborations.

iPads in classOne is in the area of languages. In collaboration with several other private colleges in Virginia, we’ll be sharing instructional resources in Arabic, Mandarin, and German. Because this is a trial and a pilot, only a few seats will be available in each offering. At this early stage, obviously, students will not yet be able to complete the full Sweet Briar language requirement through this program — but they will be able to explore a new language as an elective or brush up a language with which they’re already familiar. And they can also provide invaluable feedback about how to refine and improve the on-line learning experience.

Further, just this morning Sweet Briar was featured in a story on Inside Higher Education about a collaborative project in which we very much hope to participate. This project will connect 20 select institutions in a “Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction.” Here’s a quote:

Leaders of the most enthusiastic institutions, however, said they believe collaboration may be the best strategy for small colleges to pool their resources and create a small-school approach to online education.

“It helps us go bigger by not going big,” said Jo Ellen Parker, president of Sweet Briar College. “We want to teach more than we can. We know that the strength [of small colleges] is the very personalized kind of learning — the high level of learning, the intensity of the relationships. We know there’s that strength, but operating at that scale that we’re deeply committed to, it does sometimes limit some of the topics, some of the courses that we might be able to offer.”

(Please overlook the rather rambling syntax of the quote: it’s an excerpt from an interesting conversation rather than a crisp sound bite!)


Community Update

JEP Portrait December 2013After each meeting of Sweet Briar’s Board of Directors, I provide a brief update to the campus community on key actions and decisions — and then I buy lunch in Prothro for anyone who wants to come out and talk about the report!

The reports are also posted on my office’s web page: click here to find the most recent one.

In the usual course of business, there were several actions taken when the Board met at the end of February.

Professor Coopamah

Professor Coopamah

Tenure and promotion was awarded to Professor Padmini Coopamah (congratulations!) and retired professors Jim Alouf, Gerry Berg, Rebecca McCord, and Margaret Stanton were awarded the state of professor emerita or emeritus (congratulations to them too!)

The Board also lent its support to a renewed research and planning process to support strategic decision-making. Here’s an excerpt from the update:

At its recent meeting, the Board of Directors endorsed a proposal from the administration for a renewed planning initiative in which three interrelated projects will be undertaken in the next 15 – 18 months. The three components are market research, renewed strategic planning, and a fundraising/campaign feasibility study. . . As we continue to build on the good work and many successes of The Shape of the Future and Sustainable Excellence, this research and analysis will provide current information and updated perspectives to guide us through what continue to be extraordinarily challenging times for colleges of our type.

The goal of this initiative is to enable the community and Board, to review, in the spring and summer of 2015, well-researched answers to these questions: What changes to our programs might have the best chance of attracting larger numbers of talented students? What kinds of program innovations and models do Sweet Briar faculty and staff think are consistent with our educational values, academically inspiring, and feasible? And, to support program development and address campus preservation and maintenance, what might our fundraising aspirations realistically be?”

Over the next year and half, information and announcements regarding this process will circulate regularly. We hope that all members of the extended Sweet Briar community will follow along with interest.

Check Out “Project 306″

Students in the Business department have started a blog called Project 306. Here’s a quote from their statement of purpose:

“Our goal is to stimulate a conversation about women in innovation and all of the things that help us attain success. We’re exploring #womenhelpingwomen, experiential learning, professional & personal growth.”

If you check it out, you’ll find stories about Professor Tom Scott’s recent trip to Tanzania, recommendations about “don’t miss” TED talks (click here for one interesting example) a recent young female entrepreneurs panel, and lots more.

I was pleased that they recently asked me to contribute some thoughts on career planning. Here are the first couple of paragraphs of my post:

“In my conversations with students about their career aspirations – and I’ve had a lot of those, over the years! – I often hear them taking one of two approaches to career planning.

The first is goal-driven. These students decide where they want to end up and are determined to do whatever it takes to get there. (“I want to be a vet, so even though labs aren’t my favorite thing I’ll take all the required courses and then some.”) The second is more intrinsically-motivated. These students do what they love and trust that a rewarding career will emerge from their choices. (“Nothing could be more fun than mastering four different languages, and there are lots of interesting things multilingual people can do.”)

I am and always have been one of the second kind.”

If you want to read the rest, visit the Project 306 blog!

The Poet Laureate Visits Sweet Briar

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Yesterday the U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, visited campus. You can read coverage of the public events here and here; both the afternoon discussion and evening reading were inspiring, engaging, and meaningful to students –  those who are writers themselves and those who are “merely” readers and lovers of poetry.

But here’s part of the story you won’t read about in the press. Before the reading, the dinner table at Sweet Briar House was surrounded by Trethewey, student writers, poet/professor John Casteen, and me. As president, one of the privileges I most enjoy is bringing students together with distinguished visitors and faculty mentors in that lovely home. Sometimes it takes my breath away when I realize that yes, these students really are eating dinner with the Poet Laureate and discussing complex and sophisticated matters. It was a treat to hear the conversation:

Is there any ground to the stereotype that artistic ability is inherently associated with mental illness, addiction, and social eccentricity? (One of the students offered a very astute comment, pointing out that creative thinking is essential in many fields and not just in the arts — yet we do not have the same romantic stereotype about, say, economists. Good point!) Trethewey with JGB

Might a poet whose reputation has been built on social media and digital publishing be named as poet laureate anytime soon? (The consensus was no, probably not.) Why have so few poet laureates been young? (This led to an interesting set of reflections on the difference between early and late career work.) Why do many women who write poetry as undergraduates choose not to pursue graduate school or fellowships? (We were a little bit stumped.)

Why do so many people think that art that is popular is by definition of lesser quality than work that nobody actually reads for pleasure? (Again, a little stumped: isn’t the point of writing poetry for the poems to be read?)

Ashley Tucker '15, whose parents drove from Ohio to join her at the reading, with Trethewey

Ashley Tucker ’15, whose parents drove from Ohio to hear her introduce Trethewey


One of the students who attended had this to say this morning on Facebook:

“Best day ever. I am so blessed to have been able to have dinner with the United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey this evening at President Parker’s house.”

She’s right. It was a pretty great day.

Our Environmental Legacy

Monarch with MountainSweet Briar students and alumnae know that one of the defining aspects of our campus is the beautiful expanse of land it occupies. Here on more than 3,000 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, we live among daily reminders that the natural environment is among our most treasured legacies as a college — and that environmental responsibility and stewardship are essential for  students to understand at local, regional, national, and global levels.

We recently announced a major step in our efforts to be good stewards: all of the electricity used on campus is now “green!” Specifically, we’re buying electricity generated from the renewable resource of landfill gas. Click here to see the press release announcing this important move, which not only helps us meet our goals as participants in the Presidents’ Climate Commitment but also helps us contain cost increases for more than a decade to come.

(Partnership between Sweet Briar and other local institutions made this possible. We’re proud to be among those colleges and universities which are working together for the sake of the environment we all share.)

Shortly after the announcement of our green electricity initiative, this year’s Waxter Forum was held. The speaker was Josh Fox, film director and environmentalist, whose films Gasland and Gasland 2 have explored the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this year’s forum in person, but there was good coverage in the local press; and, since some of the students who have friended me on Facebook were there, I was able to see from their comments how engaged and lively the reaction to his lecture was. In a high point, for example, he suggested that Sweet Briar students who want to protest fracking might win media attention by riding horses all the way from campus to Washington D.C.!

Sweet Briar students and faculty members and alumnae hold a range of opinions on important environmental issues: on fracking, certainly, and forest management, and climate change, and others. But I think all agree that an informed citizen at this moment in history should be conversant with the issues and aware of the debates. Events like the Waxter Forum help make sure that our students, whether or not they take Environmental Studies courses, think about these issues and hear from national leaders who are shaping the debates.



And We’re Back for Second Semester

We’re back on campus, classes underway, activities in high gear, and the winter weather fortunately a bit more moderate than it was a week or two ago!

With Rick in Havana

With Rick in Havana (photo by Mary Shaw Halsey)

Since my last post, I’ve visited with alumnae in Florida and at a wonderful Sweet Briar Days event in Atlanta. I attended the annual President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, a great opportunity to think about Sweet Briar’s place in the distinctively American context of our nation’s private liberal arts colleges. And I’ve traveled with an astonishing group of alumnae and their family and friends to Cuba, where we met with many artists and intellectuals and learned more than I can wrap my head around at this point. (As I’ve been saying to people who ask about the trip, it’s going to take me months to reflect and read before I will have a sense of what I think about it all.)

So, you get the idea — since my last post it’s been several weeks of intensive travel. Now that I’m back on campus, happily once again among our students and faculty, some remarks I made at the closing dinner of the Cuba trip keep coming back to mind.

I’m paraphrasing now, but I told the group why I think traveling with Sweet Briar alumnae is so much fun. It all has to do with the kind of education they received here in Virginia. A Sweet Briar education encourages women to be their most curious and adventuresome selves. It teaches them how to ask interesting questions and gives them a broad intellectual context in which to consider new experiences.

With Alumnae, Hamel Alley, Havana (again, thanks Mary Shaw!)

With Alumnae, Hamel Alley, Havana (again, thanks Mary Shaw!)

It gives them an appreciation for the value and meaning of the arts and for the ways in which the interplay of art, science, politics, economics, psychology, religion, history, law, (the list goes on and on) sheds light on human experience in many nations at many times. Who wouldn’t want to travel — or for that matter work, or play — with women like that? For that matter, what young woman wouldn’t want to BE like that? As we travel through life, wherever we go, the journey is more interesting and more rewarding because of the way our minds have been shaped by our alma mater.



Happy New Year!

Monarch with Mountain

Gorgeous Early Summer Day In The Blue Ridge

My guess is if you read this blog you’ve already seen our year-end video greeting, but in case you haven’t click here to share a few scenes from the past year. It’s all there: the classroom discussions, research presentations, athletic feats, quiet study, clubs and traditions, faculty engagement, outdoorsmanship, and a whole lot of fun — in short, all the ingredients of the Sweet Briar experience.

Three Students After Convocation

Three Students After Convocation

As we say goodbye to 2013, it seems like a good moment to share a few images from the past year with the students, faculty, staff, friends and supporters who made it all possible. Fortunately, 2014 will be full of more of the same — student achievement, challenging study, faculty mentorship, friendship — and probably a few surprises to boot!

Whether you’re a student or a parent, a member of the faculty or staff, a friend, neighbor or donor, thank you for everything you do to make each year at Sweet Briar great. And best to you and yours for 2014!

Lively Competition at Briar Bowl!

Lively Competition at Briar Bowl!