English retires after 11 years on board

The milestones kept rolling, right to the end of Michela English’s 11 years on the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors

English retires in June after more than three terms as a member. She has served on every committee and in every officer’s position, including chair since 2000. During her last official act at the 2005 commencement, the 1971 alumna felt gratified by another capstone event — seeing the College’s first students receive master’s degrees.

New programs flourished under her leadership. In addition to Master of Arts in Education and Teaching degrees, SBC developed one of the nation’s first engineering programs at a women’s college, an environmental sciences department, and bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and business management. In 2000 the government and international studies department launched the Center for Civic Renewal.

For English, recruiting Elisabeth Muhlenfeld as president was another milestone. So, too, was the convening of the Shape of the Future (SOF) strategic planning effort, conceived in 2003 and completed last year.

“We needed to step back from the year-to-year budget cycle to create a strategic plan that links Sweet Briar’s unique assets to the needs of today’s young women,” she said. “The board realized that the College’s long-term financial well being requires a larger enrollment, as well as a smaller cost base.”

Enrollment is increasing, by about 30 percent this year. So far, English believes the gains owe more to better marketing and other new programs than to SOF. The plan focuses on student outcomes, and its implementation has just begun.

“I think there is renewed vitality in the curriculum,” she said. “Shape of the Future made us appreciate the things we do really well, while identifying the areas where new initiatives or refinement of existing programs is needed. We are still in the early stages, but I think — I hope — five years from now people will look back on this period as a significant development stage for the College.”

President Muhlenfeld acknowledged that English leaves a permanent legacy to her alma mater and its governing board. “Michela is a broad and deep strategic thinker on one hand and an outcomes-oriented business woman on the other,” she said.

English is the second alumna to serve as chair. Like her predecessor, Sara Finnegan Lycett ’61, and Virginia Upchurch Collier ’72, who will succeed her, she is typical of today’s board members: busy professionals who bring expertise to the table. That many members are Sweet Briar alumnae is appropriate, because it’s a big talent base of people who know and love the school, English said. However, she noted, it’s most important to select members whose skills dovetail with the College’s needs.

Muhlenfeld appreciates English’s knack for getting results while levitating the weightiest issues, especially during trying times for women’s colleges. “It has not been unusual over these years in board meetings for Michela to bring a contentious discussion to a conclusion using a light hand and a nice sense of humor,” she said.

English found her business and marketing background helped her as a board member. Since 1996 she has served as a president and COO in Discovery Communications Inc.’s new media and retail divisions. Before that she was a senior vice president at National Geographic Society, after increasingly responsible positions at McKinsey and Co. Inc. and Marriott Corp.

In addition to her service on the Sweet Briar Board, English serves on a number of other corporate and non-profit boards including the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and D.C. Preparatory School, an innovative charter school in the District of Columbia.

The Suffolk, Va., native describes her career path as “episodic” rather than planned, with early stints as a social worker and federal employee after earning a bachelor’s in international affairs at Sweet Briar. A master’s from Yale School of Management in 1979 opened more doors.

She lives in Washington with husband Rob Quartel, son Will Quartel, and a curly-coated retriever named Zack. A daughter, Eleanore Quartel, attends Rice University.

As English hands the reins to Virginia Collier, who chaired the Shape of the Future Committee last year, Muhlenfeld knows the transition will be smooth. A medical doctor, Collier is vice chair of the Department of Medicine and director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware.

“We couldn’t have found a busier person,” Muhlenfeld said. “The same was true of Michela, but you know the old adage that if you’re looking for somebody to work hard, find a busy person.”