Occupation: President, Sweet Briar College
Hometown: Bassett, Va.
What is the current atmosphere on campus?
The mood of the campus is very positive. At the Opening Convocation in August, the faculty, staff, and students all gathered for the first time after the change in governance. The atmosphere at the assembly was electric. Everyone was excited not only because the school was open but because we knew we would all be making history.
What is the state of the school today?
The state of the College is good. Sweet Briar alumnae, through Saving Sweet Briar, delivered more than $12 million to the College before mid-September. Thanks to them, the hard work of faculty and staff, the commitment of students who enrolled on such short notice, and a very hard-working board, we are now poised for another 114 years of operations.
What are your top priorities in leading SBC?
There are two basic immediate goals: recruit more students and raise money. Because of the closing effort, we lost all our students and had to recruit a student body just six weeks before school started. That means that our student body of almost 240 is too small to be viable indefinitely. We must get to an enrollment of about 800 within the next four to five years. While the enrollment is growing, we will be especially dependent on funds provided by alumnae and friends. Raising resources will be the other top priority.
How would you explain your commitment to SBC?
The board and I wanted to be clear from the outset that we were not simply trying to keep the College open one more year to see if good things might happen to improve the situation. We were committed to keeping Sweet Briar operating on a permanent basis. Any reference to “interim” as far as our intentions was inconsistent with that commitment.
As you can imagine, I am often away from campus raising funds or otherwise representing the College, but when I am on campus, I intend to maintain an open-door policy, being accessible to students, faculty, staff, and friends. I have moved my office from a more remote location to make sure my office is easy to find.
I hope this signals my intention to be fully engaged in the campus community.
What compelled you to take this position?
Since retiring from another college presidency in 2010, I had neither sought nor accepted another college position. Although I loved my experience as a college president, I had no intention of going back into higher education. The attorneys representing Saving Sweet Briar, knowing of my careers both in law and higher education, apparently thought the combination of experiences might make me an appropriate candidate to recommend to the court as a new president. When I was called, I agreed that while I did not wish to be part of the litigation or even the strategy for the litigation, if asked by the court or a governing board to serve, I would be willing to be president. When litigation ended in settlement, I fulfilled that commitment.
From your viewpoint, how would you summarize the story of the past year?
If a decision is made to close a college, it is hard to imagine how it can be done in a good way. There is no perfect timing; the damage to staff, students, alumnae, faculty, and the community will be severe under any circumstances.
It seems to me that the college assets were still sufficient to permit the school to disclose its financial and enrollment problems and turn to the alumnae and the broader community for assistance. As demonstrated by the alumnae after the closing announcement, there was a great reservoir of love, support, and commitment for Sweet Briar College. Openness with the constituency, seeking support and counsel when dire circumstances present themselves, and trusting the constituents to cope with the information will lead to better decisions.
Since the leadership change on July 2, we have learned that passion and commitment for the school on the part of all constituents, the willingness of all to work as one community, and simply trusting constituents with information and responsibility will lead to good results.
What are the unique challenges facing all liberal arts colleges today, and what needs to be done to address them?
Public universities continue to expand their market share of students.
Enrolling enough students continues to be a challenge. Of course, fundraising will always be an important activity. We also face the reality that fewer people in the community understand what the term “liberal arts” means and many people are so oriented towards career development and first jobs that they are not easily convinced that a liberal arts education continues to be important. Obviously, the cost of education is a challenge.
We need to make the case better for liberal arts education. We also need to raise enough resources to be able to assist families with the cost of a college education.
How can the community support liberal arts education? And why is such support necessary?
Many in the community benefited from a liberal arts education. We hope they will speak up whenever possible in support of the liberal arts. Their influence is considerable. We continue to get testimonials from corporate executives and other employers about the value of a liberal arts education, especially for its influence on critical thinking, learning to speak and write well, being adaptable to multiple career changes, and understanding culture, social relationships and our political system.
What role can the Sweet Briar story play on the national stage?
Certainly the attempt to close the College provides a wake-up call to all small liberal arts colleges in terms of the challenges of adequate enrollment and sufficient funds. The rescue of the College invites attention to the role alumnae can play in supporting and maintaining their college. In our case, it has also caused us to articulate in better ways what we love about Sweet Briar College and why we are so committed to women’s education.
What type of leader are you?
That is probably best described by others. I intend to be a collegial and engaged president, seeking to inspire the best efforts of all of the community, taking responsibility for decisions that need to be made, and acknowledging and respecting each person in our community.
When you were younger, did you know what you wanted to do?
In college, I anticipated becoming a college professor. During graduate school, I switched to law. My brother, already a lawyer in Virginia at the time, had a major influence on my decision. When I became a college president, just as in the Sweet Briar situation, I did not apply for the position but agreed to serve after being asked to do so.
You enjoyed an accomplished legal career before moving to higher education and the nonprofit sector. What similarities exist among them all?
Whatever the field of endeavor, certain personal characteristics need to be developed and nurtured, such as honesty, analytical ability, willingness to make decisions, initiative, creativity, etc. If these are developed well, one can probably move successfully from one arena to another. I think it is important either to have or quickly develop a passion for the new sphere. I think it is critical to success that the president really commits to the academic and intellectual mission of a college campus. It is not enough to have executive skills.
What excites you the most about the work that you are doing now?
Working with students and faculty is always the source of my joy and passion.
It is inspirational to watch the development of young people and to feel that we are having a good effect on their lives. The faculty are my colleagues and we share this mission of transforming the lives of our students. I am also thoroughly enjoying working with our staff and getting to know our alumnae, community friends, and others.
Do you have any strategies for productivity?
I work hard, putting in long hours. I try to be efficient and not delay anything that can be handled quickly. I delegate well and trust my colleagues to do their jobs without micromanagement. I try to acknowledge and support colleagues and work hard at maintaining good morale.
How have you and your family transitioned with this move? What do you enjoy about this region?
The circumstances under which I came to campus made it difficult to have a smooth transition. For the first month, I did not have access to the president’s residence because the former president was in the act of moving. That required me to commute on weekends. I did not have a senior management staff, so I had little time to attend to the personal aspects of transition.
Cherrill and I first lived in the inn on campus, then in a guest cottage, and finally we moved into Sweet Briar House. It is an extraordinary and historic house. We love the friendliness of this community and the warm welcome we have received from all. I certainly feel the support and good wishes of this entire region.
What’s life like outside of work?
I like to hike, I study and speak on Abraham Lincoln, I love to read, I enjoy my four grandchildren. We have a vacation home in Germany, where I was a student many years ago. We enjoy our time there. For the past six months, there has not been a lot of life outside work.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Try to surround yourself with good people and trust them to do their jobs.
What one piece of advice would you share with others?
Do not take health, family, freedom, community, and beloved institutions for granted. Pay attention, nurture them, and make sure they are protected from harm.
Any final words?
I am deeply grateful for the interest in Sweet Briar College and for the generous welcome extended to Cherrill and me to join this wonderful community.