Sweet Briar, a Year Later
Sweet Briar College’s new president, Phillip C. Stone, stopped by The Chronicle last week, just a few days after giving an upbeat state-of-the-college speech on the campus, a dozen miles outside Lynchburg, Va. Quick with a smile and a handshake — and just as quick with answers to questions from five reporters — Mr. Stone said Sweet Briar had received nearly 1,200 applications for this coming fall and hopes to enroll 200 freshmen and 40 transfer students.
But he was blunt about the challenges still facing the tiny college for women, whose former leaders announced a year ago that it would close because of "insurmountable" financial challenges and "intractable" admissions problems. After alumnae led a fierce battle to keep the college open, its new board asked Mr. Stone, a lawyer and a former president of Bridgewater College, in Virginia, to take over.
Last fall Sweet Briar had just 236 students, although a couple dozen more have returned this semester, he said. The best-case scenario for reaching 800 students, the current goal, is that it will take three or four years — and the college must get by on severely restricted revenue in the meantime. Among other steps, a reconstituted admissions staff will emphasize Sweet Briar’s engineering program and its ability to turn young women into leaders. And the college will be recruiting in China.
Sweet Briar must also take a hard look at becoming more efficient, Mr. Stone said. The student-faculty ratio needs to get up to 12 or 15 to one from "seven or eight to one," and the college has to ask whether it’s supporting too many programs. And while the president said competition with other institutions means that he’s stuck with big tuition discounts, the college needs to compensate by earning more from housing, food, and fees — including for horseback riding, a favorite Sweet Briar activity.
In the meantime, the college hopes that tremendous interest among alumnae and others will lead to strong fund-raising results. The goal for this academic year is $30 million — on top of the $12 million that alumnae raised last spring to prevent the college from closing. Mary Pope Hutson, a 1983 graduate who led that effort, is now the vice president for development.
Mr. Stone took office in early July and immediately set about replacing all of the college’s senior staff members, who had either left already or were closely linked to the previous leadership. Nearly half of the faculty had left as well. He is particularly proud that Sweet Briar nonetheless reopened "flawlessly" at the end of August, and that the remaining faculty members and new hires have made sure that every senior can take all of the courses she needs to graduate on time.
But he’s also concerned that when all is said and done, the decision to close will have cost Sweet Briar "between $30 and $50 million," including lost revenue, the severance deals offered by the previous board, and legal fees. It will take a whole lot of hard work, he said, "just to get us to a place where we have a chance."
Plenty has been written about students’ demands for changes that they hope will make American and Canadian colleges more welcoming for classmates from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Now the University of Oxford is abuzz over similar demands, the most prominent of which — that a statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed from a niche high in a wall at Oriel College — has been rejected, prompting students to issue more demands.
Rhodes, who attended Oriel in the 1870s and left the college money in his will, was a founder of the giant diamond-mining company De Beers who entered politics, became prime minister of what is now South Africa, and was instrumental — through his British South Africa Company — in creating what is now Zimbabwe. An unabashed white imperialist who wrote in his will that the British "are the first race in the world," he also left money to create the trust that offers Rhodes scholarships.
Oriel administrators responded to the student campaign, called Rhodes Must Fall, by saying that after several months of discussion, the "overwhelming message we have received has been in support of the statue remaining in place." But the statue will get "a clear historical context to explain why it is there."
A spokesman for the university administration said it had again invited Rhodes Must Fall representatives "to join other students in this effort to achieve an ever-more-inclusive university community" — and especially to increase enrollment of minority students. The student group, meanwhile, is calling on the British university to "acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire," to "recontextualize iconography celebrating grave injustice," and to end the "outright racism people of color face on campus."
Closer to home, by the way, Brown University’s faculty approved a new name — Indigenous Peoples Day — for the holiday known elsewhere as Columbus Day. The change responds to a campaign by a student group, Native Americans at Brown.
‘Work This Out’
The academic year’s latest governance brawl is a doozy — a highly public fight between members of Suffolk University’s Board of Trustees and Margaret A. McKenna, whom they hired in May as the Boston institution’s president.
The Boston Globe reported that a standoff followed a trustee’s request that Ms. McKenna resign. She declined, but Andrew Meyer Jr., the board chair, told the newspaper that there were enough votes on the board to fire her, and reportedly also told her not to speak publicly about the rift and not to try to use any university resources to save her job.
Board members told the Globe that Ms. McKenna was "abrasive," that she had made unauthorized decisions that put the university on track to run a deficit, and that she hadn’t raised as much money in her first months in office as they expected. The trustees even said they had a replacement in mind — Martha Coakley, the former Massachusetts attorney general, who subsequently said she did not want the job.
Last week, Suffolk’s Faculty Senate issued a statement supporting Ms. McKenna and calling on Mr. Meyer to resign. Meanwhile, the president and Mr. Meyer had a four-hour meeting and said they were working on a joint proposal to put before the board. They did not elaborate.
For good measure, Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, chimed in to say that Ms. McKenna was doing "a great job." But he added: "I don’t think it’s good for any university to have these squabbles on the front page of the paper. My message to the board — and I’ve been talking to them — is to sit down and have a conversation and figure this out, work this out."
But That’s Not All
Airbnb refunded a $150 penalty that an Emerson College student who rented out his room three times in January had incurred after college officials made him cancel forthcoming reservations. Emerson said its housing contracts prohibit students from renting out their rooms. … A University of Chicago molecular-biology professor, Jason Lieb, resigned after an investigation into sexual-harassment allegations concluded that he should be fired. … The College of William & Mary said a student had contracted the Zika virus in Central America but was expected to recover fully.
Stanley Maloy, dean of the College of Sciences at San Diego State University, writes to correct a January 22 item in this column that referred to DNA and then said that "amino acids encode" human traits. "This phrase is incorrect," he says. "DNA is made up of nucleic acids, and the strands of these nucleic acids encode the amino-acid sequence — amino acids make up proteins which carry out cell functions, they do not encode these functions."
"Although this may seem like a picayune technical point, in fact this is a core principle of biology emphasized to freshmen in general biology classes, and it has critical impact in genetics and genomics."
Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at email@example.com.