Letter to the Community: Follow-up on Curriculum Communications

December 19, 2017

Dear Sweet Briar Community,

As we approach the holidays I hope you are reveling in the company of loved ones.

I write today in the hope of providing greater clarity on the current curricular restructuring. This process, as part of the ongoing efforts to position Sweet Briar among the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges, is complex and difficult, and I thank you for your support.

While most alumnae, faculty, staff and students understand that we must muster our courage and intelligence in the quest make Sweet Briar relevant for young women today, there is no gainsaying that it involves loss. It involved loss of beloved professors and colleagues — about 10 tenured and tenure-track faculty members as well as two non-tenure track adjuncts- who have done so much to impact our lives and the community. We salute them, and we will work relentlessly with them throughout the coming semester to ensure that the recent changes can become important catalysts for them for a better future.

Since September when we announced forthcoming restructuring, the faculty has worked extremely hard to deliver on the promise of a new core curriculum to replace general education. The core they have delivered is a vast — I underscore, vast — improvement on the general education curriculum that is the bane of every college, except that nobody can deliver a change as comprehensive and effective as our faculty has done. Our ideas for our “centers of excellence” already have received endorsement from a number of national foundations. And the current streamlining of the majors from 40 to 16 (plus a self-designed major and pre-vet, pre-med and pre-law tracks) has long been anticipated.

Currently we have one full time faculty for every three or four students; with restructuring of the curriculum we hope to move, eventually, to a more sustainable ratio of eight to ten students per faculty.

In the coming months, we expect to have discussions in the following areas:

We have noted an important trend in the instruction of English. Young women today — both at Sweet Briar and elsewhere — are intensely interested in expressing themselves creatively, with clarity and persuasive power. They are also global and contemporary, and interested in the comparative and global literatures of the Anglophone world. This is an area that we will invest in, and we can do so through our major program of “English and Creative Writing.” Just how we create a marquee program in English and creative writing that is more focused and the envy of the nation will rest on the creative energy of our faculty.

The other issue is Modern Languages. Currently we only offer two languages — French and Spanish — as separate majors; French has no majors and Spanish very few. We must embrace broader modern language instruction beyond these two European Romance languages and use the advanced pedagogy of language acquisition that has transformed language learning from the time when I was in the college classroom. Today we know so much about the psychology and even neuro-science of language acquisition, not to mention various platforms that connect our students to their peers around the world. I look forward to discussing these innovations with faculty here, as well as at other institutions, in the context of the consolidated major, Modern Languages, with separate proficiency tracks.

Finally, we will sunset our programs in Anthropology, Religion, and Sociology. As with our traditional majors in English and French there are few or no students who have declared these majors, and we will shepherd the very few students to complete them.

I want to personally thank the faculty who have contributed their teaching and scholarship to these academic programs, some for the majority of their career, and some who came back to Sweet Briar in 2015. I recognize you will be leaving friends and colleagues, as well as a place you have called home. We are most grateful for your commitment and will work hard to situate you well as you make transitions.

The curricular restructuring is about re-imagining our future — and about making needed investments. We have determined that over the next two years we will make about five strategic hires, in consultation with faculty. I will look very much forward to that process.

With best regards,

Meredith Woo

President, Sweet Briar College