If fair weather is a good omen — and some would argue that at Sweet Briar, it usually is — there was plenty of sunshine to put even the most superstitious minds at ease when Meredith Jung-En Woo was inducted as Sweet Briar College’s 13th president this afternoon.
When thanking Sweet Briar board member and Inauguration Committee chair Alice Dixon ’82, Woo joked that Dixon had successfully “commandeered every aspect of today, including the heavens.”
But first, it was up to Teresa Tomlinson ’87, chairwoman of the board, to introduce the new president, along with an array of speakers who would formally welcome her to the College.
“We knew she was the one to lead us,” Tomlinson said of Woo, whose presidential search she had led. It was obvious, Tomlinson added, that Woo understood Sweet Briar. “Welcome to the Sweet Briar family,” she added.
Director of Human Resources and Community Engagement Nicole Whitehead offered a welcome on behalf of the staff, followed by a few words from Professor of Engineering and Physics Hank Yochum, who spoke for the faculty. Student Government Association President Marina Biel ’18 welcomed Woo on behalf of the students.
“It’s impossible to talk about Sweet Briar without talking about our past,” Biel said. Her “bubble,” she added, popped in March 2015, when the College announced it would close. Biel was among those who came back, taking “all those lessons of grit, determination and hope” to start over.
“As we welcome our new president, it would be easy to become jaded,” Biel said. “Change isn’t easy, and we’ve experienced a lot of it. I have questions and concerns, just as many of you do. But as we move forward, we need to let ourselves trust again. And don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean we need to stop asking questions and fighting for what we want. It just means we need to have faith in the future of our beloved college, and the tenacious woman who is making sure Sweet Briar succeeds. … Each year brings me back more of that hope and optimism that I was so full of when I was a first-year. Because just as we made the choice to save our school, we made the choice to keep looking forward, to keep fighting for its future. I cannot think of anyone better suited to lead us in this challenge than President Woo. Her vision and determination will put Sweet Briar back on young women’s top-college lists, and she will help us prove to the world that an all women’s education is, and always will be, relevant.”
Alumnae spokeswoman Anna Chao Pai ’57 agreed, calling Woo the “lucky 13th president of Sweet Briar College.”
As one of two keynote speakers, John T. Casteen III — best known for his 20-year tenure as seventh president of the University of Virginia — shed light on Woo’s background as dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at UVa. Woo was hired 10 years ago, he said, because she understood the need for new leadership within liberal arts colleges. “Intellectually tough,” Woo “remade the college” in just five years, he added, raising almost twice the amount asked and hiring a cadre of talented young faculty. Through it all, the two became friends, he said.
“Each time we met, we managed to resolve all the world’s problems,” Casteen joked.
When Woo told him about Sweet Briar College, she “relished the challenge of leading a small college,” he said. She also liked the faculty, and loved the way of life.
“Sweet Briar will thrive and prosper with you. Godspeed, my friend. Flourish here.”
Arriving from about 8,000 miles away, Kamal Ahmad spoke in his keynote address about Woo’s commitment to education. As founder of the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, Ahmad met Woo during her time with the Open Society Foundations. Together, they enrolled 75 Rohingya women from the Bangladesh-Burma border at AUW, which provides an American-style liberal arts education.
“Only Meredith could have pulled this off at such lightning speed,” Ahmad said, describing Woo as thoughtful, creative, smart, humorous and empathic. “She will transform Sweet Briar into the best it has ever been.”
Recounting his own family history — including a grandmother who was married at 11 — Ahmad stressed the importance of women’s education.
“Women’s education is the most powerful way to change the destiny of society,” he said.
Next came a special surprise — a poem written for Woo’s inauguration by award-winning writer Molly McCully Brown, daughter of Sweet Briar professors and novelists Carrie and John Gregory Brown. Carrie, who is the Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, stepped up to the podium to read “Perennial.” Followed by music, the recital set the stage for the main event: President Woo’s investiture.
First, Tomlinson presented Woo with three artifacts significant to the College’s history — Indiana Fletcher Williams’s will from 1899, which established Sweet Briar; the College seal; and a pen used in the 2015 settlement agreement by Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ellen Bowyer, William Hurd of Troutman Sanders and Michael Shepherd of White and Case.
Pledging the board of director’s support, Tomlinson officially declared Woo president of Sweet Briar College as she presented the final ceremonial item: the Presidential Medal.
President Meredith Jung-En Woo quickly turned her attention to the day’s first event.
“Today is also Founders’ Day,” Woo said. “On [Monument Hill], we are always reminded of the origins of this college. On the monument it is inscribed, ‘dedicated to the sweet remembrance of Dear Daisy by her sorrowing parents, James Henry and Indie Fletcher Williams.’ They were sorrowing parents — in the present progressive — that is, they were in grief so deep and profound over the loss of their only daughter that it nearly incapacitated them.”
The Greek playwright Aeschylus, Woo added, once wrote about the kind of pain Daisy’s parents must have experienced: “And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Born almost exactly 150 years ago, Daisy lived a life of privilege, Woo noted — and she would have continued to do so had her life not been cut short.
“She was being groomed to meet at the highest level the demands of the time for someone of her social standing,” Woo said. “But even from the perch of great wealth and privilege, she would have been witness to a most complex and baffling part of history, both here in the United States and abroad. Daisy still would have lived in the South of Jim Crow. Daisy still wouldn’t have had voting rights, well into her middle age. In fact, she would have lived at a time when women would have fought, failed, fought and failed again, before finally gaining their rights.”
Daisy also would have witnessed what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the Age of Extremes, Woo added. “This Age of Extremes was defined by massive wars including atomic bombs, communism, fascism, the Holocaust and mass exterminations.
“However terrible our recent problems — the brutalities of terrorism, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, nuclear proliferation in North Korea, the antediluvian Taliban and ISIS wanting to rule Afghanistan and maybe the modern world as well, and the refugees from the destruction of entire countries as in Syria, Iraq and Libya — they don’t compare with the large-scale brutalities of the organized madness of the 20th century that Daisy would have witnessed, had she lived to be an old and wise woman.”
Sweet Briar students, Woo added, are fortunate to have been born and raised outside the Age of Extremes.
“So, your citizenly duty is to make sure that these extremes and the organized madness of the 20th century remain in and of a most unfortunate past. Much as I hope some of you will one day attain the wealth that Daisy would have inherited, it is true that what you have inherited is perhaps more valuable: an open age where you can learn, grow, experiment, and ultimately find out what works for you. It is an optimistic age where, in spite of all our economic difficulties and political differences, all things worldly are open to you. As written in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ the world is your oyster.
“At Sweet Briar, we prepare you, so you will have your very own oyster — and eat it too.”
Naturally, Woo had no trouble finding concrete examples — thousands, to be exact — of what it is Sweet Briar women might become when they leave the College.
“Thousands of Sweet Briar alumnae fought for or rooted for Sweet Briar, so it will continue to produce, as it has done for over a century, women of consequence,” she said. “They are women of great intelligence, experience and energy — and above all, indomitable will.”
The alumnae’s revolution two years ago made history in American higher education, Woo said, though she was not sure what to call it — given catchy phrases like “War of the Roses” and “Revolution of the Roses” were already taken.
“Whatever it is called, it altered the role of stakeholders in the American college: alumnae are no longer people who simply send checks in December and May — although I would still urge you to do that. They are protectors and guardians.”
Unlike other revolutionaries, Woo added, Sweet Briar alumnae didn’t just shake up the status quo. They have been back year after year to tend to their college, spending several weeks in July and August to weed, mulch and paint for the arrival of students.
This led Woo to another point, one that has been contested loudly in recent years: the relevance of women’s colleges. Woo sees two related trends she wants to address as Sweet Briar’s president — the growing number of women in higher education worldwide (but their absence from leadership positions), and the declining quality of education at colleges.
“Universities and colleges are bellwethers, they are incubators of leaders and the promises of the future. Around the world, they are both doing well — they are exploding with students — and really, not so well,” Woo said. The reason for this is many governments’ declining support of education, she added.
“What is to be done about the questionable quality of higher education, and about the women who are enrolled, often in greater numbers than men — even as the halls of their governments, political parties, not to mention their board rooms, remain eerily bereft of women?”
Leaning forward, Woo lowered her voice. “Women’s colleges are a good idea,” she said conspiratorially. “It is one whose time has come, and not gone. Around the world, people look to the United States — and excellent small women’s colleges like Sweet Briar — to meaningfully provide the kind of education that allows women to find their place in the sun (or to have their oyster and eat it, too).”
Turning her attention to Ahmad and his work at AWU, Woo reiterated his plea for women’s education. “When you educate women, they will in turn educate their clans, their families and their societies.”
It’s easy to see why Sweet Briar’s mission is dear to Woo’s heart, but it probably isn’t what got her interested in the job — not entirely, anyway.
“I am preternaturally attracted to people who are resilient and tough — like women at Sweet Briar — and who say ‘no’ when they are told to say ‘yes,’ because in their gut they believe it is the right thing to do,” Woo said. “I read somewhere that more real intelligence resides in your gut than in your brain; the Sweet Briar women are probably Exhibit A in this regard. …
“I have in my heart a complicated understanding about those intelligent voices said to reside in the gut, voices that defy all principles and rules, that defy powers-that-be who tell you what you can’t do. That is why I am in awe of the women at Sweet Briar, and deeply honored to lead this venerable institution into the future. With you, I am determined to show through example how higher education can be transformed when all our stakeholders are unified with the singular purpose to create a future that is open, exciting and new.”