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.
This afternoon the campus is emptying out for the holiday. Since late last week, conversations have tended to focus on the confluence of food and memory, on the things we make because our mothers and grandmothers always did or the things we’re planning to make because our mothers and grandmothers never would! Rick and I are planning two Thanksgiving dinners — one “American” (turkey, cornbread/sausage stuffing, green bean casserole) and one “Lebanese” (roast lamb, coucous, loobiyah) to give due honor to all of our grandmothers.
Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all things Sweet Briar. For the faculty, that wonderful group of imaginative and dedicated scholars; for the students, whose energy and curiosity make every day an adventure; for the staff, who support the work of the faculty and students, generally from behind the scenes; for the alumnae whose remarkable achievements illustrate why Sweet Briar matters.
Today, I am thinking with particular gratitude of our donors. These are some of the things Sweet Briar has today that it didn’t have a year ago, because of generous and wise gifts received since last Thanksgiving:
- The Barton Laing Chair in Art History, given to honor two revered former faculty members — Eleanor Barton and Ninie Laing.
- Seven updated classrooms, given to honor classmates, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, or teachers.
- The endowed Fund for Faculty Excellence and Innovation, which will support and honor faculty leaders who are developing more effective ways to engage today’s students.
- A renovated music room, given by a group of former students to honor Professor Rebecca McCord.
- A Senior Class gift so enthusiastically supported that the dollar goal was met on kick-off night! (They’re still working on their participation goal, and I’m quite confident they’ll get there well before graduation.)
Other gifts have established or enhanced scholarships, swelled the Annual Fund, and supported internships. Yet others have provided equipment to the theater shop, books to the library, uniforms to athletics teams, or fencing for the Riding Center. Every single one of those gifts made a difference and every single one is in use today.
Each fall I invite new students over for Pizza with Parker, and each fall I ask them to fill out comment cards to let me know how things are going in their first weeks on campus. This fall, I received one pink index card that made my heart soar: it said, simply, “THANK YOU FOR THIS COLLEGE.” To everyone who has made a gift to Sweet Briar this year, of any size or nature, I am honored to say with her, on behalf of all our students, “thank you for this college.’
Yesterday Sweet Briar students teamed up with students from neighboring colleges to help package 20,000 meals for people and families suffering from hunger. This news article describes the project. Unfortunately, Rick and I were unable to join them as we had hoped to do — perhaps next year we can lend our hands as well as our encouragement.
As Thanksgiving approaches (unbelievable how quickly it has arrrived!) and Americans as a nation celebrate abundance, these students not only thought of others who are in need but also acted to address that need. Go Sweet!
Tomorrow SGA will be sponsoring one of its major fall projects — a blood drive in Prothro. Lots of students are volunteering and even more are signed up to donate blood. (Faculty and staff can also give in this drive, even though the focus is on students.)
Please turn out if you’re able and help SGA make this important contribution to our community.
Yesterday the afternoon’s events were kicked off by a Keystone Society lunch. It was delightful to get to meet many of Sweet Briar’s staunchest supporters; some of them were people I’ve had a chance to get to know, at least a little bit, but several were people I was meeting for the first time. Sweet Briar women are always impressive, both in what they have accomplished in their lives and in their affection and loyalty for their college, and this group was certainly no exception!
I’ll admit though that my favorite thing about the event yesterday was that it gave me an opportunity to announce one special gift to Sweet Briar that means a great deal to me.
Readers probably know that Indiana Williams Associates are people who have included Sweet Briar in their estate plans. I am proud to be a Williams Associate myself, and to note that several new Associates have joined the group this year.
One of whom is my mother, Justine Johnson, who was able to be here with many of my relatives for the Inauguration. Her Inauguration gift to me was to include Sweet Briar in her estate plans and join me as a Williams Associate. What could be more appropriate? Indiana Williams’ founding gift was a mother’s tribute to a daughter. My mother’s desire to pay tribute to me by following Miss Indie’s example (albeit of course at a MUCH more modest level!) was one of the nicest commemorations of the Inauguration I could have hoped for.
And it was lovely to announce it at the luncheon so that Mom’s thougtfulness could be recognized.