President’s Reunion update offers glimpse of visioning process

June 6, 2017 | Jennifer McManamay
President Woo at podium

President Woo delivers her first general Reunion address since officially taking office on May 15.

Meredith Woo delivered an update on the College Saturday morning to Sweet Briar alumnae gathered in Murchison Lane Auditorium. It was her first general Reunion address since taking the helm as president on May 15.

Although some of the many 425 registrants were still trickling onto campus, those who came to the 9:30 a.m. convocation heard some of Woo’s initial thoughts for the future.

The program included updates and acknowledgements from Mary Pope Hutson ’83, vice president for alumnae relations and development, on fundraising and volunteer efforts. Among those recognized were the previously announced 2016 Outstanding Alumna Award recipients, Debra Elkins ’93 and Sarah VonRosenberg ’72.

Hutson also announced the 2017 Distinguished Alumna. That was a surprise to Professor Emerita Aileen “Ninie” Laing ’57, who was not expecting to hear her name called. Hutson noted that in the future, the Outstanding and Distinguished Alumna awards would be presented together. Class giving awards were announced to conclude the convocation.

Board chairwoman Teresa Pike Tomlinson ’87 spoke about recent past accomplishments of the College as well as its direction for the future — a natural segue to introducing the president. Woo began by noting the warm welcome she has received from the community.

It is wonderful to join the “band of sisters who are confident, courageous and full of grit,” she said.

Woo spoke first of the “old” Sweet Briar that alumnae hold dear in their hearts — but also of the imperative for renewal and rebirth. Regarding the latter, she turned to the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee who escaped the Holocaust.

Teresa Tomlinson ’87 (from left), Ninie Laing ’57 and President Woo

Arendt wrote of deliberate human actions that create new beginnings — without which life is a simple process that moves from birth inevitably to death. Creating new beginnings is a uniquely human and deeply liberating action, Woo said — and wholly necessary for humans to flourish.

Beginning anew starts with what already is, Woo said, identifying three “givens”: Sweet Briar is a women’s college, it is isolated in Central Virginia, and it is small. These are attributes that, employed wisely, become assets, she said.

Being a women’s liberal arts college doesn’t distinguish us by itself, Woo said. The question we should be asking is, “What are the serious problems that this nation faces to which Sweet Briar is part of a solution?”

The underrepresentation of women in the “dominant industries of the twenty-first century” and in other areas such as political leadership, is one of the biggest problems, Woo said. The engineering program and others at Sweet Briar that empower women respond to these needs.

“I think that Sweet Briar, as a school with a small but fine engineering program [in the context of the liberal arts], distinguishes us as a destination place.”

On the second given, Woo argued our location can be an advantage. Using online education judiciously and strategically, she said, we can reach the world and bring the world to us.

“We have this stunning campus, which can provide a core immersive experience,” she said, adding the College can also offer important opportunities to people in Amherst County and surrounding areas.

Woo is similarly undaunted by Sweet Briar’s size.

“The fact that we are small does not doom one — I say as a woman who’s five-foot-two. If you’re small, you create surroundings where smallness works to your advantage.”

Woo noted that Sweet Briar is not a research university, suggesting it shouldn’t act like one. “We need to leverage our smallness into something great,” she said.

By that she meant bringing students, faculty, staff, alumnae and other friends of Sweet Briar together to build a unique “enterprise of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing” that may be unprecedented in American higher education.

It’s an idea she refers to as “One Sweet Briar.” The vision calls for the community to be one in its purpose of providing a transformative experience for students, regardless of academic titles or administrative job descriptions.

This, Woo explained on Saturday, requires rethinking the curriculum to make it truly relevant for the 21st century; and an academic calendar that enables the flexibility to bring in expertise of alumnae and other practitioners. A curricular reform committee of faculty, staff, students and alumnae is already hard at work on these issues, she said — thinking creatively to position Sweet Briar as one of the more innovative places of higher learning.

“I’m absolutely thrilled at the creative energy that’s been released,” said Woo, who expects to receive a white paper from the committee by mid-July.

She concluded her remarks with a message of gratitude and hope.

Quoting from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, she said that love always protects, always hopes, always trusts, and always perseveres. She thanked the alumnae for loving and protecting Sweet Briar, and pledged to make sure their sacrifice was not in vain.

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