Sweet Briar’s 109th Opening Convocation, the official start of the new academic year, began with the installation of James F. Jones Jr. as the College’s 11th and interim president.
Before the students, faculty and staff packed into Murchison Lane Auditorium on Wednesday, Aug. 27, chairman of the Sweet Briar board Paul Rice delivered the oath of office and placed the presidential medal around Jones’ neck. Jones was appointed to serve a two-year term following the departure of Jo Ellen Parker, who left the College after five years to lead the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
In accepting his responsibilities, Jones said he has experienced two great loves in his life, the first at the age of 5 when he discovered school for the first time and the second at 19, when he met his wife, Joan A. “Jan” Jones ’69. Having just retired from a distinguished career in higher education, most recently as president of Trinity College in Connecticut, his profound love for education and the couple’s deep affection for Sweet Briar are among the reasons he wanted to guide the College through this period of transition.
Jones welcomed the students, especially the 179 members of the Class of 2018 to campus, and introduced new staff and faculty members before returning the podium to Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall to officially commence the 2014-2015 academic year.
The dean typically uses her remarks to encourage students to reflect on the months ahead through the lens of a particular theme. Wednesday’s message was for the entire community.
“I’m thinking about what it means when you find yourself holding your breath,” she said, referring to unnerving life moments — unexpected or big, impending changes, for example — that cause us to involuntary pause and wait to exhale.
About the arrival of a new president, Jessen-Marshall acknowledged a collective “whew.”
“I’m very glad to say that we can release that breath now,” she said. “We are certainly in very good hands with our new leader who brings us eighteen years of presidential experience. President Jones, we are very glad you are here.”
But there are times, she said, she holds her breath consciously.
“Consciously, because when faced with the unknown, the best way for me to handle it is to take a deep breath. … And let’s be honest, everyone in this room is facing unknowns right now. It’s a new academic year. We are all at moments of transition and we don’t know where these changes will take us.”
The dean urged her listeners to face transitions tenaciously, to be aware of surrounding circumstances and to plan for them.
“Take a deep breath, fill your lungs, let it out with a calm mind and move through those transitions with grace.”
Jessen-Marshall next introduced the keynote speaker — always a member of the faculty — but not before 600 or so people breathed in together, held it, and let it go.
Mathematics professor Raina Robeva was chosen to speak in recognition of receiving a 2014 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The awards are the commonwealth’s highest honor given to faculty at its private and public universities and colleges.
Robeva struck a rousing tone, citing the empowerment of women through a quality education — one that does more than impart information in an age “when you can access the whole of human knowledge from the device in your pocket.”
Some skills can’t be Googled, she said to a rumble of laughter, such as the ability to think, analyze, argue and listen.
“If we do our jobs properly, you will leave the College an empowered woman, a confident woman — a woman who can use her education to find a space of her own, to earn resources of her own, to produce work of her own so good that it would turn history’s greatest men Sweet Briar-green with envy.”
She told the students to look for inspiration among the women who have made a space for themselves in the annals of history and who do so today, from the first woman to earn a Doctor of Philosophy and be appointed a mathematics professor in the 17th century to Rosa Parks to the fictional Hermione Granger.
Robeva, a native of Bulgaria, was inspired by the women in her own family — engineers, doctors and her mother, a professor of immunology.
“I am in awe of all of these women from my personal history,” she said. “I am in awe of the women from our shared history; and I am in awe of the women of our now. Malala Yousafzai, fighting for girls’ right to education; Maryam Mirzakhani, who just won the Fields Medal, the so-called ‘Nobel of Mathematics’; or even Mo’Ne Davis, the thirteen-year-old making sports headlines recently with her seventy-mile-per-hour fastball. And of course, don’t forget the phenomenal women around you this minute — your peers, your professors, your mentors.”
Jessen-Marshall returned to the podium to present several student academic awards before recalling Jones to give his charge for the academic year. The new president observed that opening convocations originated in 13th-century Europe at the cathedral schools at Oxford, Paris and Bologna.
The school’s bishop gathered faculty — mostly priests and monks — to welcome new students and celebrate High Mass. The clerical vestments of those first faculties gave us the academic robes worn today, he said. To be seated in the room, however, each student had already answered a question posed by a monk guarding the door to the school: “Quid petis?” It means, “What do you seek?”
“It has seemed to me all these decades in American higher education, in the scores of convocation addresses I have been privileged to give, that none of us in the postmodern world could best that one simple question,” Jones said.
He charged his students to go alone to some quiet place on campus and contemplate what it is they seek.
“And if you take advantage of every opportunity that Sweet Briar will put before you, your life will be as transformed in this place … as I and all of my colleagues on the faculty and staff wish for you, you who are our students, the reason why the College exists.”
Category: Mathematical Science