Sweet Briar College President Phil Stone delivered his second state-of-the-College address in seven months to faculty and staff on Tuesday, Jan. 26, declaring it, in short, “good.”
“Now, we have to put that in context. Good compared to what? It’s good when you think about what we’ve been through,” he said, referring to the rebuilding that followed the reversal of an earlier administration’s decision to close the school.
Recalling a frenetic summer working to restore the people, services and signature programs that make Sweet Briar tick, he said, “All of a sudden, there we were on Aug. 25, you remember the atmosphere, how wonderful it was, and I think we’ve been able to sustain it.”
It was a “flawless” opening to the school year because everybody on campus pitched in, he said, adding, “Thank you for that.”
Meanwhile, others in higher education, as well as the media, were watching us, Stone said, reporting that he recently spoke about Sweet Briar’s experience at meetings of the Council of Independent Colleges and the Women’s College Coalition and has another talk planned at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Presidents from large and small schools expressed support for Sweet Briar, he said, telling him, “You’re fighting for all of us,” because they know they face the same challenges that confronted Sweet Briar.
Stone mentioned reasons to celebrate, too, citing the accomplishments of sophomore rider Makayla Benjamin, who represented the USA in a student world final competition in Germany. He also singled out Sweet Briar’s latest recipient of an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, mathematics professor Jim Kirkwood. His is the second OFA in three years for Sweet Briar.
“Those kinds of achievements really do bring attention to the fact that not only are we alive, we have a lot of stars,” Stone said.
About next year’s enrollment, he noted a 50-year high in the number of applications received so far — 1,060 and counting. He delivered a strong caveat, though, because today’s multiple-application processes make it easy to apply to numerous schools, but more difficult to assess serious inquiries.
“We’re not trying to imply to you that we automatically translate that into a record class just because we have record applications. But I’d rather be up than down,” he said.
“It also means that we have enough young women who are seeing the name Sweet Briar and have at least a flicker of interest in an environment in which many people were saying women were not interested.”
Enrollment increased from fall to spring, Stone said, an almost unheard-of occurrence in higher education. Twenty students who transferred back after enrolling elsewhere following the closing announcement and 11 new transfers accounted for the bump. He said he asked some of the returning students why they came back. Their new schools just weren’t Sweet Briar, they told him — a response he credited to the people in his audience.
“You have been able, over the years, to develop a sense of community, a culture here that makes students feel like this is the only place they want to go to school,” Stone said.
Of the students he’d spoken to who weren’t returning for the second semester, he added, all left for financial, health or academic reasons — not because Sweet Briar just didn’t work for them.
“It may have happened but it hasn’t come to my attention. Usually, you get at least some of that,” Stone said. “I think that’s quite a testimony to what you have done to build this culture of community.”
He reported total enrollment goals for the fall are set at 245 new students including 200 first-years. Referencing 2013 when the College enrolled 197 first-years from a smaller applicant pool, the president called for “a lot of hustling and good work” to reach 2016’s goals.
“We’ve just got to be very positive about this that this is doable, that we’ve got the number of applications that make that possible. I expect us, frankly, to do better than two hundred.”
It will take a few years for enrollment to return to sustainable levels, however. That’s why he’s traveling the country telling alumnae to sell their homes, take their children’s money and send every penny they have to Sweet Briar, he said facetiously — to cover the gap between what students can pay and the cost of operation while enrollment grows.
“That gap is covered by our alumnae friends through gifts, so I’m obviously teasing them, but I mean it: We’re trying to shake their pockets as much as we can.”
Stone also reported progress on initiatives to recruit international students from China, India and other countries, with negotiations with a Chinese-American nonprofit being the furthest along. Its delegates recently visited campus, and Sweet Briar administrators are planning a trip to China for a ceremonial signing of the agreement soon. Students from the program may be enrolled by fall.
Beyond boosting enrollment, he said, these initiatives will make the community more international and substantiate Sweet Briar’s claim to be a global center for the development of women leaders.
In his wide-ranging address, the president reviewed a number of recent appointments to key administrative positions and acknowledged those who’d temporarily filled the roles during the transition. Among them was Barb Watts, who isn’t leaving but returned to her duties as director of career services full time after doubling as human resources director since July. Watts received a warm round of applause.
He also singled out new VP for development Mary Pope Hutson ’83, who arrived this month and was immediately “off to a flying start” — literally, as she put him on a plane crisscrossing the West for eight days. Already she has garnered million-dollar pledges and is rolling out Next is Now, a campaign to raise $30 million in 2015-2016 for the Sweet Briar Fund, the newly rebranded annual giving program.
Part of the fundraising plan, Stone said, is to accelerate the conversion of Saving Sweet Briar pledges to cash while the extraordinary alumnae involvement from the attempted closing is still peaking.
“We want to give them the opportunity to vent their expressions of excitement right now,” Stone said, drawing more chuckles.
He also noted the return of several faculty members: Mike Davis, biology; Suzanne Calvert, business; Bethany Brinkman, engineering; Tom O’Halloran, environmental science; Steve Wassell, math; Josh Harris, music; and Jessica Salvatore, psychology. Katie Glaeser is also returning to the library.
Stone touched on efforts to revive the computer science major, including a meeting with Google representatives and the recently announced affiliation with BRAID, a collaborative program among select colleges and universities to increase diversity in STEM fields.
Returning to budget matters, he reaffirmed that the College hasn’t used and doesn’t plan to use the $16 million of restricted funds released by the state’s attorney general as part of the court settlement. He reported both savings on expenses and income are exceeding or meeting expectations and the budgeted 5 percent draw on the endowment looks safe at this point.
Stone said an independent audit of the books for 2014-2015 is complete and first impressions suggest to the auditors that all endowed funds, including academic prizes and named professorships, remain intact.
Among other miscellaneous items, he mentioned the relocation of campus security to The Conference Center, where the office is more accessible to visitors; a $200,000 fuel efficiency tax credit due to the College in coming weeks; and his recent appearance before the General Assembly to lobby for Virginia’s Tuition Assistance Grant program.
Stone concluded by reiterating two charges he issued in his first meeting with employees last summer: to mend any relationships broken by the closing attempt and to not only persevere through the rebuilding, but to do it joyfully.
“I think we are doing it with joy and I deeply appreciate your making that the case,” he said. “I guess I would close by saying: As you can see, at Sweet Briar College, roses still bloom.”