Sweet Briar opens 112th academic year with new president, new look and new ideas

President Meredith Woo addresses students, faculty and staff at Sweet Briar’s 112th Opening Convocation.
President Meredith Woo addresses students, faculty and staff at Sweet Briar’s 112th Opening Convocation.

Change was a common theme as Sweet Briar began its 112th academic session on Wednesday afternoon. But so was tradition: As always, anticipation and excitement filled the air as faculty and senior staff filed into Murchison Lane Auditorium.

SGA president Marina Biel ’18 welcomed new and returning students with a passionate bid to embrace change. “Challenge your norms, be open-minded, and support your new sisters, because these relationships can last forever — just ask any of our alumnae!”

The 2017-2018 year, she added, was a new beginning, with new ideas and many changes ahead.

“Remember that change, while scary, can be a good thing,” Biel said.

And there were many good things indeed: It was Meredith Woo’s first Opening Convocation as president, and longtime chemistry professor Rob Granger’s first as dean of the faculty. In her opening remarks, Woo also introduced new vice president for finance and Lynchburg “homeboy” James “Rocky” Query, as well as vice president for communications and enrollment management Melissa Farmer Richards.

After leaving the podium to Granger to introduce several new faculty and staff, Woo thanked the many volunteers for their hard work during Sweet Work Weeks. Over three weeks, 168 alumnae, students, faculty and staff painted 200 dorm rooms, a dozen hallways and parlors, and weeded, mulched and power-washed.

All of this, she added, was done for the students.

“You are the future,” Woo said. “I am deeply honored to be your president at this time when Sweet Briar is poised to soar, determined to show through example how higher education can be transformed.”

While to some, women’s colleges are artifacts of a time long gone, they are now more relevant than ever, she said. Progress in equal rights for women around the world has not led to equal opportunity, Woo said, and leaders in countries such as South Africa and China are asking why. “In so doing, they look to the United States for ways to empower women.”

Students, faculty and staff mingle after convocation.
Students, faculty and staff mingle after convocation.

Woo believes Sweet Briar is part of the answer and has charged faculty with rethinking the College’s core curriculum to specifically address today’s big questions. What does it mean to be a leader in the 21st century, and a woman? What are the skills, ethics and habits of great leaders?

Three “centers for excellence” will be part of the College’s reimagined focus, she added, but excellence has another side, too. Visitors from Salvador, in Brazil, had asked her that morning what her aspirations were.

“I said without hesitation: greater diversity and international presence, among students as among faculty. Without diversity, I do not believe that excellence is possible. It is with diversity — interesting people with different backgrounds, different ways of thinking things, doing things, solving things — that you learn to think effectively. I do not believe that a college needs to be a Noah’s Ark, but it does have to have cognitive diversity.”

For Sweet Briar to lead the way in women’s education in the 21st century, diversity of thought — and an education that is “as excellent as it is relevant” — is necessary, Woo said. That change, she added, might be unsettling to some, but it also offers unique opportunities.

When Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt escaped the Nazis and came to America, she was struck by one thing in particular, Woo said: America’s “capacity to take action, and to start over.” Arendt based her “Philosophy of New Beginnings” on that very ability.

“Action, with all its uncertainties, is like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin something new,” Arendt wrote.

Woo believes this philosophy is key to Sweet Briar’s continued growth — and the growing pains that might accompany it.

“Sweet Briar is a small college cunningly made but complex,” she said. “It has many parts and many constituencies — the students, faculty, staff, alumnae, friends — but we are also remarkably one, united in our belief in what Sweet Briar stands for, and fulfillment of the vision of the founder to become women of consequence, ‘useful members’ of our society. I look forward to phenomenal years ahead, working closely with you.”

In the spirit of change and celebration, students, faculty and staff were greeted by new marketing materials and a photo booth outside Babcock Fine Arts Center, as well as, of course, ice cream.

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