Each summer I send a special letter of thanks to Sweet Briar’s supporters and donors; more than a quick thank-you note, this summer letter often includes somewhat lengthier reflections on the importance of our mission and of philanthropic support for what we do. One of the things I most enjoy about doing this is reading the responses I get, and I do get responses! This year, in particular, I heard from many readers; perhaps you might be interested as well.
So here’s an excerpt from this year’s letter, the whole of which is available online
Sweet Briar is one of an increasingly-small number of colleges and universities committed to sustaining a proud tradition in American higher education – the tradition of the residential liberal arts college. In this historically unique and globally influential approach to higher education, undergraduate study is understood as much more than training in specific skills or preparation for immediate employment. Sweet Briar, cherishing the liberal arts tradition as it does, believes that the undergraduate years are a time for building a broad understanding across the major fields of human knowledge while at the same time digging deeply into one or two passionately-interesting subjects. Sweet Briar knows that close and supportive working relationships with faculty members develop judgment, analytic abilities, communication skills, and a sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder in students, qualities which not only equip graduates for professional success but also define what kind of professionals and citizens they will become. We believe that life outside the classroom — on the athletic fields, in student organizations, in campus employment, among friends — develops traits of character, integrity, responsibility and self-direction that are fundamental to living a good and examined life. And, at Sweet Briar, we believe that an environment in which women students are at the center of everything we do intensifies every one of these benefits.
This kind of education, precious and distinctive as it is, is under intense and nearly unsustainable pressure. (You will know what I have in mind if you reflect on the countless discussions you’ve no doubt read in the press or heard in the media about the unsustainable cost of higher education, the call for standardized learning outcomes, the pressure to prioritize career preparation above all.)
I go on to say that in my view we would be both irresponsible and foolish to ignore these critiques. The cost of higher education must be controlled if we are to fulfill our commitment to access for all qualified students; prospective students deserve clear and useful information about our programs and the learning outcomes they can expect to achieve; students certainly need to be prepared to assume meaningful work in a challenging economy.
In my view we are stewards not only of a specific institution, our beloved Sweet Briar, but also of a proud and distinctively American tradition in higher education — the private residential liberal arts college. The challenge before us is to show that this model, which has served students and society well through many periods of social change, has the capacity and flexibility to respond to and to address the pressures of this moment as well. In other words, we will most effectively demonstrate the value of our mission not by refuting the critics of higher education but by addressing their legitimate concerns in ways that honor the intellectual foundations of our tradition.
And those who invest in Sweet Briar — donors who invest their gifts, students who invest their time and tuition dollars, faculty and staff members who invest their talents and careers — do so because they believe this is worth doing. It’s always a privilege to thank them.