President's Blog

Finals Week

It’s finals week, and I was about to type “and things are winding down” but of course that isn’t exactly true. Last night, for example, Co-Curricular Life sponsored Late Night Breakfast. Between 10 and midnight, students could come over to Prothro for a break and have a hearty helping of bacon, pancakes, omelettes, and juice to fortify themselves for a long night of studying. For the half hour before breakfast started, I led a short NIA workout to holiday tunes (my favorite Christmas album of all time, by the Blind Boys of Alabama — click to see and hear a sample) to remind them that music and movement are great stress relievers!

BookBut things have slowed down enough that I had time to go shopping for the books I intend to read over the holiday break. I’ll tell you what I chose — and what I thought about them! — when I get back in the New Year. But I also thought I’d issue an invitation: if you read anything that makes an impression on you over the holidays or receive any great gift books, send me a note with your recommendations. I’d love to know — and share — what blog readers are reading.

While we’re on the subject, over Thanksgiving I finally read Jill Lepore’s The Name of War. I couldn’t put it down, to the point where I risked being rude to my sister, nephew, husband, and son. (My sister cheerily pointed out that she grew accustomed to being ignored because my nose was in a book sometime in the early 60s.) While I admit that King Phillip’s War is not a topic I thought I was interested in, this book led me to think about American identity in new and challenging way and about how the ripples of history extend and expand, how we’re awash in them. . .



Happy Last-Day-Of-Classes Eve!

Santa President with a Deanly Elf and her daugher/assistant

Santa President with a Deanly Elf and her daughter/assistant

Last night Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall and I (and my two little dogs) donned holiday accessories and made a series of surprise visits to various dorms and the library, toting large bags from candy from which we distributed study break treats. We just wanted to wish everybody good luck with final exams and term papers!

Santa Coco

Santa Coco

Here are a few pictures. . . .





me santa library

Visiting some study spaces in the new library



Sweet Briar Engineering, making us proud!

Mr.MiltonAndFriendsHave you heard about “Sweet Prosthetics?” The local paper ran a story about it this morning: our own story is available on line.

Here it is, in a nutshell: Sweet Briar engineering students participate in a collaborative course on “Technology and Society” with students from St. Ambrose college. As part of this course, engineering students from Sweet Briar and occupational therapy students from St. Ambrose traveled to a village in Brazil  to work on developing low-cost and sustainable assistive devices for disabled people. While there last summer, they met a quadruple amputee, Mr. Milton. Moved and inspired by his situation, they set out to find a way to provide him with arm prosthetics that would allow him to perform many of the routine daily functions the rest of us take for granted.

Back home, they knew they needed some additional expertise, so our students connected with a specialist at UVa who agreed to help them with issues of fitting and customization. Turned out creating “Mr. Milton’s Arms” would require the use of a body model who had similar dimensions — and it turned out that maintenance supervisor Randy Cash was just the man and was more than happy to volunteer. The team, led by Professor Scott Pierce, now consisting of our engineering students, their colleagues at St. Ambrose, a faculty member at UVa, and a maintenance supervisor, have been busily at work and are prepared to begin building the arms.

Students at both Sweet Briar and St. Ambrose have been fundraising to buy the parts needed to build the arms. They’ve had some success, but they are about $2,500 short of their goal. If they can raise this amount between now and February, they will be able  to build the arms in time to deliver them to Mr. Milton in Brazil this summer.

As Sweet Briar’s president, I’ll cheerfully admit this is the kind of story that brings tears to my eyes. It combines engineering with a strong desire to serve, connects our students with people on other campuses and in other nations, and requires them not only to be good engineers but also requires them to be culturally sensitive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and determined. This project summarizes what a Sweet Briar education is all about.

So, Vixens and friends of Vixens: very small gifts at this holiday season can make this very special project happen. If, as this calendar year draws to a close, you think you might be able to make an additional small gift for this very special purpose, please be in touch or go on to our “giving” website, where you can designate your gift for “Sweet Prosthetics.” How I would love to report to you all next summer on the day next summer when a team of occupational therapy students from St. Ambrose present Mr. Milton with new arms designed and built by Sweet Briar engineers!

(Please note, when originally published this post mistakenly referred to St. Ambrose in two sentences as “St. Anselm.” Apologies to both readers and our friends there!)



Students Arriving For Holiday Dinner on Sunday!

Community holiday dinner was Sunday evening: while bad weather kept many folks away, of course the students were all on campus and showed up in force — and in style! Thought you’d enjoy a couple of the outfits that made the evening festive.





Doing Science at SBC

Bio presentation 1This week biology seniors presented the research they’ve been doing. So many of them are doing independent research that it took two whole evenings for them all to present! (I was able to attend the first evening — and I apologize to those whose presentations I was unable to hear.)

Here are some of the titles of their projects — and don’t ask me to explain what they all mean:

  • Rates of Borrelia in Ixodidae Ticks in Amherst County (worryingly high, if you’re like me and love to take long walks in the woods.)
  • Responses of Nematodes, Mites, and Springtails to the Pesticide Fipronil
  • Effects of Floral Symmetry on Reproductive Success in Lobelia siphilitica
  • Breast Cancer Cell Line MDA-MB-231: Treatment with Anti-Cancer Furanone Compounds
  • Sweet Briar Soil Carbon (a study of historical levels of carbon sequestration, partly supported by a grant from the Tusculum Institute.)

And there were of course many others.

The opportunity to do actual, individual, scholarly research of this kind, under the direction of senior faculty members, is one of the hallmarks of Sweet Briar’s academic program. It’s one thing to learn science: it’s another thing entirely to do science, and these students are doing it. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen on a small campus, where access to faculty, equipment, and resources is open to all.

The audience arriving

The audience arriving

And many of these students were doing science by making use of the richness of our campus environment — dissecting ticks collected on campus, studying the visitation of pollinators to plants growing on campus, analyzing the chemistry of campus soil to learn about past conditions. We’re surrounded by 3,250 acres that our biologists use as a living lab.

Finally, of course, the faculty is very wise to incorporate public presentation into these research projects. Having done important research work, Sweet Briar students are expected to be able to organize and deliver a presentation that will clearly explain its meaning to an audience of both experts and non-experts. Whatever these students go on to do, this is a valuable and too-often-overlooked aspect of success.

Attending these presentations was one of those wonderful occasions that pretty much summarized what a Sweet Briar education is all about. Makes me want to be a student again, at a place like this. . .

Happy Thanksgiving!

There’s not much news to share from campus this week, as we’ve all been enjoying Thanksgiving break! ThankgivingStudents have headed off for  well-deserved rest and recreation and many faculty and staff have either traveled to visit family or welcomed houses full of visitors.

travelRick and I were among the travelers. My sister recently moved to Phoenix, and several of us gathered there to inaugurate her new Southwestern home by importing all our Midwestern Thanksgiving traditions. (I’m the official keeper of the family stuffing secrets, and in an excess of enthusiasm made far too much of it. But what else is Thanksgiving for?) While in Phoenix we visited the Desert Botanical Garden and enjoyed a truly magical Chihuly exhibit.  chihuly dbg




What better time than Thanksgiving for me to express how deeply grateful I am to all members of the Sweet Briar community? The love and loyalty of our alumnae sustain us. The creativity, dedication, and excellence of our faculty define us. The energy and skill of our staff support everything we do, every day. And our students — the aspirations and achievements of our students inspire us all and are the reason the rest of us do what we do!

On behalf of Sweet Briar, heartfelt thanks to you all. Now it’s back to campus to finish up the semester — these last couple of weeks before finals will just fly by!




On my desk this morning


When I came in this morning I found these on my desk — thank you notes from 30 girls in the 3rd – 5th grades at Amherst Elementary School who participate in Girls On the Run. (Which will be holding a race on campus tomorrow morning.)

What better way to open the Thanksgiving holiday week than with an event dedicated to encouraging girls to “learn, dream, live — and run!” We’re proud to support Girls on the Run here at Sweet Briar; it brings girls and their families to our beautiful campus, of course, and our students and staff enjoy their volunteer work with the organization, but mainly we value the partnership because Girls on the Run delivers an extraordinarily important message to pre-teen girls. Simply put, as the cheers at every GOTR race have it, YOU CAN DO IT!

Let’s see. . .

This has been one of those weeks that makes it very hard to choose a topic to post about! Let’s see: should I tell you about Molly Haskell’s visit to campus and lecture? After all, she’s one of our most distinguished alumnae and her new book is being very well reviewed . . . or perhaps an update on issues discussed at this fall’s Board meeting? But then my community update is posted here, if you’d care to read it. Or perhaps something about the meeting I just attended with government representatives such as Martha Kanter and Gene Sperling to discuss President Obama’s proposals for higher education? (Whatever your political leanings, I hope you’re following the discussion of these proposals: their implications are potentially very challenging for institutions like Sweet Briar and friends of higher education should be paying close attention.) Or maybe you’d like to hear about what fun it was to welcome nearly 50 families to campus on a gorgeous weekend for an Open House for prospective students?

A screen shot from Virtual Tusculum

A screen shot from Virtual Tusculum

Instead, though, I think I’ll point you to two  clever videos that have just been created by Sweet Briar’s Tusculum Institute. “Virtual” tours of Tusculum have just been posted on line: I really do encourage you to take a look. In these two short videos you can get a dynamic sense of what the family home of Indiana Fletcher Williams’ mother looked like. The digital images are interspersed with historical photographs that add color and dimension to the presentation. These videos are a great example of how technology can allow us to understand space and place in new ways; watching them, you really feel as though you’re moving through this historic building.

Several years ago, as many readers will recall, Sweet Briar acquired the Tusculum house and had it carefully dismantled, inventoried, and moved to campus for safe storage.

Tusculum in a photograph from the 1960s

Tusculum in a photograph from the 1960s

Our initial hope was to be able to secure funding to reconstruct it on campus. However, that did not prove to be feasible: we are now making the house available to any qualified organization or individual willing and able to reconstruct it in a historically sensitive manner. Proposals are currently being accepted and the call for proposals is available on line.

Sweet Briar takes its stewardship for this piece of history very seriously. Having preserved the elements of the building, repaired and restored them appropriately, and carefully organized and protected them in storage has been a valuable achievement. But we know that long-term storage is not good stewardship: Tusculum deserves to be reconstructed and used, to come back to life.

Until that happens, however, what fun it is to watch these videos and imagine it!


Living Intelligently

ALD inductees with meThe annual induction ceremony for the Alpha Lambda Delta honorary society was held yesterday.  This society recognizes sophomores who excelled during their first year of study; new members make a commitment not only to continuing their commitment to academic excellence but also to encouraging high achievement in their fellow students — particularly the new first years.

Professor John Goulde serves as the faculty adviser to our chapter. In his remarks at the ceremony, he mentioned that one of the society’s purposes is to “promote the intelligent life.” The moment he said it, I felt the little chime of recognition that an apt phrase often creates.

Why, ultimately, do we celebrate those who do well in academic pursuits? Why should undergraduate students strive for excellence? Of course, one obvious reason is that academic achievement represents future competitiveness; it identifies students who are well prepared to succeed in their future professions or in grad school.

But there are other reasons. students in prothroOne came up earlier yesterday during my regular lunchtime meeting with members of the Faculty Executive Committee. Professor Steve Wassell mentioned that it seems to be a human trait to like doing things we’re good at; people tend to find doing well intrinsically satisfying. Simply put, we’re designed to experience achievement as affirming and gratifying: outstanding students know the joy and pleasure of success, which is in itself a good thing.

But finally, there is the reason Professor Goulde noted. Ultimately, whatever professional paths Sweet Briar graduates choose, whatever degree of pleasure and pride they derive from their personal successes, they become women who are prepared to live intelligently. For me, as an educator, this is the highest motivation: I believe that individual human lives and the lives of families, communities and nations are made better when people are educated to live intelligently — by which I mean educated to assess information critically, analyze complex interactions carefully, communicate effectively, reflect ethically, react with empathy, and contextualize personal experience in historical, cultural, and social frameworks. This is what an education in the tradition of the liberal arts promises, and it’s what generations of Sweet Briar women have experienced.

So holla holla to this year’s ALD initiates! May they embrace and promote the intelligent life.


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?