President's Blog

Archive for the Family and Personal Category

Health, Wellness, Community

Setting Up in Prothro

Setting Up in Prothro

This week the annual community Health Fair took place in Prothro. Employees, spouses, and campus residents could explore local resources and pick up lots of information — as well as have their eyes checked and get a free flu shot or grab a quick chair massage!

As a nation, we (rightly) worry deeply about the increasing costs of health care and how to provide access to first-rate care as broadly as possible. Those issues are complex, requiring thoughtful and careful work at the public policy level.

Rick Visits with a Local Chiropractor

Rick Visits with a Local Chiropractor

At a more local and immediate level, one piece of the health care puzzle that we can each do something about is helping neighbors, co-workers, relatives and friends discover ways that they can improve personal health by making small, consistent choices. There’s no question that getting regular check-ups, making healthier food choices, exercising moderately, curbing tobacco and alcohol use, managing stress, and maintaining strong relationships can reduce the risks associated with heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other serious illnesses. And that people simply feel better when they do these things. . .

Members of the Lions Club provide eye screenings

Members of the Lions Club provide eye screenings

As president, each year I encourage each of the vice-presidents and deans to choose one small thing they can do to make a small wellness improvement — park at a distance from Fletcher in order to walk a few more steps each day, cut out one dessert each week, try a new sport, set aside half an hour a week to catch up with old friends by phone or email. And then I encourage them to do the same with the people who report directly to them. After all, we teach Sweet Briar students that wellness and health are an important component of successful adult life: shouldn’t we practice what we preach?



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.

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.


Away For a While

Summer activities continue in full force on campus: “Exploring Engineering Design,” a hands-on, project-based summer camp for girls, has been here all week. I could tell they’d arrived because a heap of pink campus bikes that have been used beyond repair appeared on the lawn in front of Guion. They were clearly being transmuted into something, but what? I couldn’t tell. Here’s an explanation from our news story:

“In front of Guion, two high school girls work feverishly on a rusty pink bicycle. They’ve taken the rubber tire off the back wheel and are getting ready to attach a PVC pipe. Clearly, no one’s going to ride the bike anymore. Instead, it’s being repurposed as a “sunflower seeder,” explain 16-year-old Carter Kyle from Austin, Texas, and Hanna Frazier, 17, from Utah.”

Professor Hank Yochum explains that a low-maintenance machine capable of shelling edible seeds is of great value in the developing world and so makes a terrific project for students, demonstrating the power of relatively simple engineering solutions to address real life problems and improve quality of life.

Elsewhere on campus, high school juniors and seniors and their families will soon be visiting as part of Virginia Private College Week. Walkways near the Chapel are being resurfaced, the construction fence has gone up around the library, and paint is drying in several renovated classrooms. The renovated servery in Prothro opened last week, in plenty of time for any last minute wrinkles to be ironed out before students return. Preparations to welcome the class of 2016 are underway in earnest — I signed welcome letters to each one of them this week and yesterday the Deans’ Office staff was preparing their orientation packets. It’s a busy time. . .

This is also the point in the summer when Rick and I take some time to enjoy the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, celebrating both our wedding anniversary and Rick’s birthday with wonderful shows and a few good books. This summer we have tickets to performances of a new play about the War of 1812, The Matchmaker, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Pirates of Penzance, Cymbeline, and a Canadian play entitled “Best Brothers.” We’ll be back in about 10 days!


Sweet Briar, keeping women on the move!

Photo by Jill Nance, courtesy Lynchburg News Advance

Yesterday the Lynchburg newspaper ran an article about the fitness class I’ve been leading on campus. You can find it here if you’re interested.

It’s part of a series of articles on fitness and health initiatives in greater Lynchburg. Last year, the Lynchburg area was found to have a high rate of obesity. In response, the mayor has encouraged a number of activities intended to help improve health and wellness in our community.

Sweet Briar too has increased its focus on wellness this year. One example is a program offered to all employees: those who undergo a basic health assessment receive an informative health status summary, tips for improving any areas of potential concern, access to a health educator, and best of all reduced health insurance premiums. Others have included things like hosting events for Girls on the Run and Special Olympics.

The classes I offer are just one small contribution to a increased focus on wellness and activity for people of all fitness and ability levels across the campus. Healthy activity allows people to experience themselves as strong, agile, flexible, mobile — qualities that enhance not only physical health but also academic and professional success. And in a culture that still places greater emphasis on sports and physical activity for boys than for girls, I believe it’s especially important for girls and women to have this experience. So, to my mind, fitness at Sweet Briar is and should be central to our mission.

Which doesn’t mean that everyone can or should be an athlete. It simply means that everyone can benefit by experiencing the joy of movement in whatever way they can. I know I do. . .

This morning’s topics on campus. . .

Downton Abbey, and snow!

I don’t know how many of you are hooked on Downton Abbey, but I can tell you on the basis of facebook traffic and casual campus exchanges that most of Sweet Briar is. We pass around our favorite quotes from the Dowager Countess — inimitable: I hope to be her when I grow up! — and comment on the motivations and the wardrobe in equal measure. And if you’re watching Downton on Blue Ridge Public Television, as we are, you’ve seen the Sweet Briar spots that run before each episode. How much fun is it to see our own Kat Alexander ’11, then Professor Debbie Durham, right before Laura Linney takes the screen?

The Patio at Sweet Briar House

And last night, we were able to curl up to watch the season finale as snow fell across the campus. It’s the first snowfall of the year, believe it or not, and it’s lovely. Clean, white, soft, graceful.

Coco and Tazz, however, were extremely reluctant walkers this morning. Notice how Coco is canted sharply back toward home?

Home again, home again. . .

I’m pleased — no, delighted — to report that I’m back on campus after vacation followed by some visits with Sweet Briar alumnae and supporters. Now to get ready for the best part of winter break — preparing to welcome the students back at the end of it!

In my last post, I made bold assertions about my plans for vacation reading. Naturally I didn’t manage to get through everything I hoped I would, but I certainly enjoyed what I did manage to read.

Several of you sent notes saying that you too are reading, or planning to read, the new biography of Catherine the Great. I highly recommend it — although my reactions to it were not uncomplicated, made all the more so by the conjunction of reading it with Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. (I hadn’t realized that I’d be spending so much time in the 18th century on this trip, between the biography of Catherine and a long novel about the French Revolution, but as it turned out I was.) Both books, to my mind, emphasized the relationship of political ideals and political realities, focusing on the tension between intensely felt commitment to values in the abstract and intensely experienced difficulties in realizing them in practice. Catherine, as Massie presents her, struggled throughout her reign with reconciling Enlightenment values that inspired her with the realities of governing Russia. (The French Revolution played an important role in Catherine’s thinking, of course, as an example of what she wanted to avoid at all costs.) Mantel, in her novel, follows fictionalized versions of Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton through the Revolution, charting the twists and turns of their convictions as events unfolded around them, ultimately spiraling out of their control.

Since I was already so deep into the 18th century, I rounded out the trio by reading Death Comes to Pemberley, which was light, witty, and great fun. (Oddly enough, the French Revolution appears in this book too, as a character complacently reflects that the general superiority of British ways of life is the best insurance against such upheavals.) P.D. James cleverly interweaves the conventions of an Austen-like “little bit . . . of ivory” with those of a modern detective novel.

At the last minute, I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for a plane ride and to continue the detective theme. This is a compelling piece of non-fiction, set in the earliest days of professional police detection. I couldn’t put it down — and neither could my sister, to whom I gave it. This book, depicting a time when the nature of “evidence” and the rights and privileges of the “detective” were under debate, offers not only a gripping story but also interesting reflections on to what lengths we can or should go to pursue the truth, and how we can possibly know whether we’ve gotten there.

Which also turned out to be a theme of my final book. Finally, whew, Two Lives, Janet Malcolm’s fascinating book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Malcolm brought me full circle back to Massie and Catherine the Great: she poses fundamental questions about what it means to attempt biography and the very possibility of biographical knowledge, even as she offers provocative insights into the two biographies she considers.

There can be no greater treat than time to read at length. . .

Winter Break!

Campus has emptied out. Facebook informs me that our students are back home or on exciting travels, reconnecting with family and friends, preparing for holiday festivities, enjoying home cooking, and celebrating the successes of the last semester.

Rick and I are headed for Mexico, where we’ll spend both Christmas and New Year’s. Please understand if I don’t post again until after the New Year, when Sweet Briar reopens!

I LOVE our winter trips to the beach. They provide the best opportunity I have these days to immerse myself in reading. What luxury! Here’s what’s on the iPad for this trip:

  • The Most Human Human: a reflection on intelligence, human and artificial, and what we mean by “humanity.”
  • The new biography of Catherine the Great. I know far too little about her and I have admired Massie’s other biographies. 
  • P.D. James’ new novel, Death Comes to Pemberley. (Do check out the video at that link!) P.D. James meets Jane Austen. What more could you want?
  • Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. I’m eager for the sequel to Wolf Hall to appear — Wolf Hall being one of the very best things I’ve read in recent years — and until it does I’ll be reading Mantel’s previous work. This one is a novel set in the French Revolution.
  • Abelard to Apple. OK, this is a bit of a cheat, as I’ve read this quickly once before, but I want to reread it when I have a little more time to think about it. Higher education, from the monastery to the cloud. . .


And maybe I’ll tuck in paperback mystery for the plane.

I hope the next weeks bring holiday joy and the happiest of new years to each and every one of you. Thank you for being part of 2011 at Sweet Briar: I look forward to sharing 2012 with you.

Just About My Favorite Holiday Gathering

The annual holiday luncheon for retirees is just about my favorite holiday gathering.

As wonderful as all the holiday parties are, there is something especially festive about spending time with people who have experienced so much of the College’s history. Yesterday, there was a particularly interesting thread of conversation, as the event took place on December 7th and several of those present had personal memories of Pearl Harbor Day to share. I found out, for example, that Biology Professor Margaret Simpson had been a child in Hawaii on Pearl Harbor Day and recalls everyone around her assuming it was a drill. . .

Here are some tidbits about the group that gathered yesterday:

  • Together, they represent more than 700 years of service to Sweet Briar.
  • Seven of their daughters have graduated from Sweet Briar, and one of those daughters is now a member of the Board of Directors.
  • Two of them have honored spouses with wonderful gifts to Sweet Briar — in one case an endowed concert series and in the other case a scholarship.
  • The longest serving individual present worked at Sweet Briar for 46 years.


When I called for those who had begun working at Sweet Briar in the 1950s to join me to receive applause and a poinsettia, there were six who rose.

Stories flow like water at this gathering of colleagues who have, in many cases, worked together since before our current students’ parents were born. It’s a privilege to hear them.