President's Blog

Archive for the Diversity Category

Joyful Noise

Students, Singing!

Sunday evening was the annual Gospel Fest, held in celebration of Black History Month.

Chaplain Dori Baker greets the crowd

I love this event, at which the Sweet Briar and local communities gather in the Chapel to share the kind of music that makes that lovely old building ring like a bell! We heard choirs of men and of women, family groups and soloists, performing spirituals and hymns.

AND, for the first time, Sweet Briar students welcomed our guests with a performance of their own. Our singers — 68 strong! — opened the evening with a spirited version of “Siyahamba,” accompanied by the Sweet Briar drum ensemble. (Did you know Sweet Briar has a drum ensemble, thanks to new music professor Jeff Jones?)

I’ll admit it, I’ve been humming that tune since Sunday night. . .

Opening our doors, sharing the vitality of the gospel tradition and the talents of our students and our neighbors: I can’t imagine a better way to end a weekend. Since I don’t have audio clips to share, I hope these pictures give you some sense of the energy and fun.



An Academic “Rumpus”

Audience members arriving for the lecture

This week Sweet Briar’s Lectures and Events Committee and the Tusculum Institute sponsored a visit to campus by Henry Wiencek, journalist, independent historian, and author of “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.”

I was pleased that Mr. Wiencek, also the author of books on George Washington and the Hairston family, appeared on campus for several reasons. First, obviously, Virginia history — and Thomas Jefferson’s role in it — is a topic of special interest; Sweet Briar is so close to both Monticello and Poplar Forest that Mr. Jefferson feels like a neighbor. And then, in recent years Sweet Briar and the Tusculum Institute have launched various projects studying enslaved people on the former Sweet Briar Plantation and their descendents in our community; examining the larger context of slavery in Virginia is essential to those efforts.

Henry Wiencek and Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville arriving

But mainly, I was pleased because Master of the Mountain has been the center of an academic controversy — what Wiencek himself refers to as “the rumpus.” Wiencek argues that Jefferson’s management practices as a slaveholder must be taken into account as we assess his public and private statements (and silences) on the topic of slavery. If you’re interested in the controversy, Smithsonian Magazine published an excerpt from Wiencek’s work which you can find here: the New York Times described the controversy here: Annette Gordon-Reed, distinguished author of The Hemingses of Monticello, published a “debunking” of Wiencek’s work in Slate.

I think too often we forget how much academic debate matters. The heart of academic work is not in declaring what is known or has been learned but in marshaling competing ideas, interpretations, observations and analyses and letting them contend with one another. In his lecture, Henry Wiencek openly considered the grounds on which he and his critics differ. He represented himself not as an authority on Jefferson come to reveal the truth but as an active intellectual engaged in thrashing out contentious issues.

Reminding students that ideas are worth arguing for and over is essential to a healthy intellectual community. As is showing them that vigorous academic debate can be conducted without profanity, personal aspersion, invective, or abuse.

Some people in the audience seemed to agree with Mr. Wiencek. Others challenged him on various points. Everyone heard him frankly describe the differences between his critics and himself and explain why they mattered — and why he cares enough about his subject to make the strongest case he can for his views. Whatever members of the audience learned about Jefferson as a slaveholder, they learned something very important about intellectual integrity and what it means to care passionately about ideas.


All Saints, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos

It’s that time of year; autumn colors have faded, the ground is covered in crispy brown leaves, the community garden has been put to rights for the winter, the chill in the air has a cutting edge, there’s more gray than blue in the skies. It’s November on campus. Mid-terms have passed but there’s still a way to go until finals. The novelty of the semester has worn off and yet the end is not quite yet in sight. Thanksgiving break can’t get here soon enough.

This season has its own celebrations, marking the pivot of the year toward the dark, the cold, dormancy.

Last night, Chung Mungs took faculty and staff children trick-or-treating through the dorms and — of course! — Sweet Briar House. Rick and I are delighted to see the various ghouls, film characters, animals, and superheroes walk up through the Boxwood Circle to the front door.  Last night, I was particularly enchanted by a small lobster-in-arms. 

Trick-or-treating is the least of it. Today and tomorrow, the Sweet Briar Museum is offering a tour and program of ghost stories. “The program includes fictional and non-fictional accounts, such as “The Shadow Child,” which appeared in the very first Sweet Briar Magazine in 1909, “A Mid Summer Night’s Vision of Daisy’s Garden” from 1915, and a news story from 1928 titled “Novel Ghost Flits Far Ahead.”” And last Saturday there was a 5K “Zombie Run” on campus. This event was created by business students as a fundraiser for the Jennifer Hunter Yates Sarcoma Foundation. If you don’t know about zombie runs, they’re pretty much like any other 5K — just with zombies chasing you.

Photo from NPR on facebook

Some of our celebrations are thoughtful opportunities to reflect on the relationships and ties that connect the living and the dead. New Chaplain and Director of Student Spiritual Life Dori Baker held an all saint’s commemoration this week: participants were invited to bring memories of the saints (whether canonized or not) who have touched their own lives most deeply.

And later this afternoon the Cochran Library is sponsoring the 2nd annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. They’re collaborating with the student group Hermanas Unidas on this; there will be homemade Mexican food, face painting, and candy skulls to decorate. There will also be an altar on which participants will display photos of friends and family members who have passed away. (There’s an interesting explanation of the meaning of the altar pictured at left on NPR.)

As the darker and colder season closes in, the campus finds creative, fun, and meaningful ways to make sure Sweet Briar generates light and warmth.


History and Family

With descendants of Martha Penn Taylor and Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville

This week I had the great good fortune to spend time with descendants of Martha Penn Taylor who visited campus as part of their research into their family’s history.

Martha Penn Taylor, as those familiar with Sweet Briar history well know, was an enslaved woman who was purchased in her youth by Elijah Fletcher and who, employed by the Fletcher family for many years after Emancipation, later served as nursemaid and nanny to Elijah’s granddaughter Daisy. Martha lived in the area until sometime between 1910 and 1920. She is buried in her family’s plot in nearby Coolwell cemetery.

Family members with a reproduction of Martha’s 1854 letter to Elijah Fletcher

The family found out about their connection to Martha, to Sweet Briar, and to the Fletcher family through the online resources created by Lynn Rainville, Director of the Tusculum Institute. (The Institute’s summer newsletter is here, if you’d like to catch up on some of their other recent doings.) One of the priorities of the Institute is to research the history of all people who lived and worked on this property throughout its history and to educate members of the campus and local communities about them. A recent grant, for example, will support historical interpretation of the slave cabin, bringing museum experts and community members together to advise Sweet Briar about how to use the cabin to tell meaningful stories about the many people who have lived and worked on what is now the campus. (Naturally, our visitors wanted to know whether there is any evidence that Martha herself might have occupied the cabin at any point: alas, our knowledge of the cabin’s occupants only begins at a later date.)

It isn’t easy to think about the period of enslavement, much less to talk about it. But for these members of Martha Penn Taylor’s family, the opportunity visit places where their ancestor lived and worked and to learn more about the community of which she was a part was clearly gratifying. And they provided Sweet Briar with information about their history that expands our understanding of another of the families with roots in this soil.

The Tusculum Institute is creating invaluable connections between the Sweet Briar of yesterday and of today and between the campus and its communities. In the process it expands our knowledge and our understanding of this place we love so deeply.


Brave In The Attempt

Gathering before the first match

This morning we had an inspiring event in the field house. As part of a national NCAA initiative, our conference — the Old Dominion Athletic Conference — partnered with the Special Olympics to create a regional event. Sweet Briar was very proud to be the first host site.

Skills drill

Athletes from all ODAC member schools arrived at the FAC early this morning to join Special Olympians from across greater Lynchburg for a morning of volleyball. Three volleyball courts were set up in the Upchurch Field House. Matches and skills instruction took place on each court, music was booming, players were in brightly colored T-shirts, and all in all it made for a lively scene. Before the Special Olympians arrived, Sweet Briar athletes — tennis players, swimmers, field hockey players — got a crash course in volleyball rules and techniques, so they could help with officiating and, hopefully, keep up with their more-experienced teammates for the day.

I had the pleasure of welcoming the guests, thanking the student volunteers, and opening the morning’s activities. To start the day, we all repeated the Special Olympics oath:

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

I had never heard that saying before, but it’s one that I’ll remember. On and off the field or court, an utterly admirable attitude.



“Colleges have departments, life does not”

Somehow, in the last few days, I’ve heard more than one faculty member on more than one occasion say something like “Colleges have departments, life does not.” The general topic has been interdisciplinary collaboration, and their point is a simple one: while it is necessary and good that scholars train intensely and deeply in the methodologies and content areas of specific disciplines, the phenomena they study are rarely fully graspable by any one discipline in isolation. The fullest understanding of the world around us often emerges when the perspectives of multiple disciplines are brought to bear; this is why liberal education has always emphasized both breadth and depth of study.

Here’s just one example. For a week now, Sweet Briar has had the writer and philanthropist Masha Hamilton in residence. (You can read more about her and the residency here and here.) Hamilton is a journalist and novelist; her philanthropic work is with the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Her residency is an important part of this year’s academic theme of “testing tolerance,” which I described in a recent video chat.

The students who have worked with Masha here on campus are taking creative writing and journalism, theater, business, studio arts, international studies, gender studies, and a range of other disciplines. Art students have made prints to sell for the benefit of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Business students have helped sell them and learned about what it takes to start and sustain a not-for-profit organization. Theater students staged a reading of works from AWWP to bring them “alive” for the campus. Journalism students have considered the ethical questions war correspondents face and fiction writers have discussed how to write about a society other than their own. Students in international studies have contemplated the long-term political and economic implications of empowering women in Afghan society and gender studies students have talked about the role of story-telling in empowering women in any society.

What has made this residency so powerful is this kind of curricular interconnection. Sometimes “interdisciplinarity” is understood to mean, or to imply, the erosion of disciplinary rigor. At its best, however, it means the active engagement of thoughtful minds across disciplinary boundaries.


As You Like Sweet Briar Theatre

Yesterday Rick and I had a great time at Sweet Briar Theatre’s production of As You Like It.

First, of course, it was simply great fun — and even better, it was quite interesting. On Thursday evening,  Professor Tony Lilly gave a pre-show lecture about the various confusions and anxieties reflected in the text. He talked about the performance of gender, the replication of courtly hierarchy in the forest of Arden, the contrast between romantic notions of nature and love and the characters’ rather unromantic experiences of them, and the emergence of capitalism as a framework for human relations. And, not surprisingly, he reminded us that Renaissance acting troupes were single-sex organizations, with male actors playing both male and female roles.

Watching any of Shakespeare’s “gender-bending” plays in the context of a women’s college raises intriguing questions. On stage in Babcock this week were female actors playing male characters, female actors playing female characters who temporarily assume male identities, female actors playing as female characters originally written as male — and, of course, some female actors playing women and some male actors playing men!  The head of a thoughtful viewer begins to spin. . .

Thinking about women’s education inevitably opens questions about how we think about sex, gender, and identity. Is womanhood nature? Performance? A little of both? When we say Sweet Briar’s mission is to educate women, what assumptions are being made about what that means?

Across higher education similar questions are being energized by increased awareness of transgender students. A few recent articles on this issue are here, here, and here. In a previous generation, colleges and universities were challenged to ensure that lesbian and gay students could learn and grow unimpeded by discrimination, harassment, or prejudice. In our generation, that discussion has expanded to include concern for the well-being and academic success of transgender students or others whose gender identities are expressed in “unconventional” ways.

Many educational programs and campus facilities rely on clarity about gender distinctions. Who is a male or female athlete, according to the NCAA? Who should be allowed to live on single-sex residence halls or use single-sex bathrooms? Who can be admitted to, or graduate from, a single-sex institution? Answers to such questions will emerge and develop over time, through thoughtful and compassionate discussion. We can’t know what the answers will be yet, as we are only beginning to recognize the issues.

Leaving the theater yesterday, I walked home thinking about these matters and the fact that, as is so often the case, Shakespeare has been there before me.



Diversity has turned out to be a theme of my day today. Earlier I met with the faculty diversity committee for an excellent discussion of priorities and commitments. And shortly I’m headed out to have dinner with Unity — that’s the student organization for women of color formerly called Onyx.

I don’t know the history of the name change, but I have to say I love it. Student unity is a wonderful thing and the source of the caring and respectful community that is Sweet Briar.

And here’s where diversity comes in. Unity does not require uniformity. In fact, unity in the face of difference is the hallmark of a strong community. What we strive for, here on campus, is unity of purpose and mutual respect, not uniformity of identity, opinion, taste, or perspective. I deeply appreciate the members of the campus community who express their differences — differences of opinion, differences of identity, differences of belief. (Yes, even when they differ with me!) They make us stronger.

Respect across differences, unity in our diversity, true community.