Leadership & Governance

At Sweet Briar, a Bittersweet Commencement

The End of an Era

May 17, 2015

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz
Sadness tinges the joy of graduating seniors at what is likely to be the last graduation day at the Virginia women's college.

While “Save Sweet Briar” banners have been omnipresent on the college’s grounds this spring, only one could be found on Saturday, on a barn far from the commencement activities.

Saturday was a day to focus on the graduates, but the heartbreak over the institution’s impending closure was present during what may be the last commencement for the women’s institution. Citing fears of disruption, President James F. Jones Jr. did not attend the ceremony. 

The commencement speaker, Teresa Pike Tomlinson, a 1987 graduate and mayor of Columbus, Ga., described the closure as a failure of leadership: “What is so poetic, so tragically beautiful, is that Sweet Briar, in what some say is her last aching breaths, is providing you a leadership lesson of a lifetime.” The full commencement address appears below.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Sweet Briar College 2015 Commencement Speech

What an honor and privilege to be here today on this hallowed ground speaking to this class of remarkable women.

Many have asked me how I intend to deliver remarks under the circumstances that bring us to this place at this moment. I say, as each of you do, too: No one loved this place more; no one more honors the impact this great institution has had on countless lives, communities and professions. Anyone of us could do this, anyone of us would do this for the dignity and eternal grace of Sweet Briar College.

My remarks today will not be based in nostalgia or in emotionalism. Today we celebrate an institution which for over one hundred years has empowered women to lead lives of significance: medical professionals, jurists, entrepreneurs, educators, authors, elected officials, leaders of every sort. We celebrate you, Class of 2015, perhaps the last brigade of women Sweet Briar will send out to help change the world. And, I will tell you this: the world is hungry for you — confident thinkers, problem solvers, solution makers. If you were in the halls of Congress, this world would be a better, more functional place.

Your liberal-arts education and the nurturing academic environment you have come of age in makes you particularly able. And, with that ability comes the responsibility to make your mark as a lasting insignia of the Sweet Briar College legacy.

What is so poetic, so tragically beautiful, is that Sweet Briar, in what some say is her last aching breaths, is providing you a leadership lesson of a lifetime. The truth is: Had you been at the table, had you been called to action, we would not be here today at the proposed end of an era which is in desperate need of continuance. The reason why is because you have the asset, the antidote, our Alma Mater was looking for.

Your greatest asset right now, other than your superior liberal-arts education, is your inexperience. You do not know how things “have always been done.” You are unencumbered by the box of experience and expertise. You have the agility of mind and the ingenuity that diminishes in us with each passing year. Sit at any table in life knowing that you have an asset that cannot be easily replicated by your more senior colleagues and associates. It will make you bold. Embrace it, and therein you will find conviction, courage and faith.

The rose you have earned and will now bear signals to the world that you are original. This Sweet Briar single-sex educational experience makes you so. Your choice of Sweet Briar College tells a fascinating story of individuality. You do not follow the herd. You are emotionally and intellectually self-reliant. You take serious things seriously. You value relationships and experiential learning, something you cannot get online or in auditoria of mass education. You value logic and deductive reasoning, sorely underused disciplines today.

People are intrigued by this Sweet Briar experience, and they know immediately that you are ready and able. It has been the calling card of my life to great positive effect, and it will be in yours.

‘Ah, Ms. Pike’

After concluding my Sweet Briar educational journey on a day like today nearly thirty years ago, I attended Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. Now, for those of you that will be attending law school, let me give you the scoop. Most will tell you to wear a baseball cap to prevent any eye contact, sit as far in the back as possible and do not let the professor notice you. At least that was the protocol for survival at Emory. I missed that message, however, because as a Sweet Briar graduate, I came to Emory with a love of learning, a confidence in ability and a willingness to engage. So, I sat on the front row, bright-eyed, coffee in hand and ready to go. I could not wait to see my professors’ brilliance on display. Each day I was bursting with observations from the reading assignment and eager to hear the observations of my classmates who day after day remained mute. You could feel the fear in the room.

One day I was in my Civil Procedure class with a curmudgeonly professor. After class I bounded to the instructor’s well with the youthful enthusiasm of a 22 year old to ask a burning question. The professor glared at me with disdain and hissed: “Ah, Ms. Pike. I have never met a graduate of a women’s college that didn’t think she had the most important thing to say.” “Awww, thank you!” I replied. It was literally hours later that I stopped mid-step and realized: “I think he may have been trying to insult me.” And, ladies, that is the effect of this great institution. It takes you in your most formative years; it instills in you the unquestionable importance of your voice, and it demonstrates the power of your well-armed, uncompromising mind.

You are now programmed to trust that ingenuity of your inexperience and to revel in it, and therein you will see solutions no one else sees. You are uniquely equipped to find the door out of the dark tomb. We could have used you at the table in these proclaimed last days of our beloved Alma Mater.

Our lot may appear cast. (Not by us, but by others that we allowed to hold the reigns.) But, all of us, all schools, all organizations, all enterprises whatsoever need take heed. A great lesson is afoot. A lesson of perseverance, courage, righteousness and effective decision-making.

A Leadership Lesson of a Lifetime

I have a confession to make. I cannot sing. I cannot draw or paint. I literally have some sort of impairment that prevents me from learning a foreign language, as my beloved Sweet Briar French professors, Mr. and Mrs. Van Treese, will gladly attest. But I can lead. I was double-dipped in it. For good or bad, that is my gift. It has necessarily meant that I spend many of my days on the civic battlefield. When those who are not able need a voice, they reach out. Those up to no good somehow always cross my path.

Many years ago, I was involved in some serious litigation of great proportions. No one in the case was younger than my father. It seemed everyone had gone to an Ivy League college or law school, and I was a thirty-something-year-old Sweet Briar-educated lawyer from Columbus, Georgia who dared to shed a light on things many felt best left in the dark. By all accounts this case was not going to go well for me. I knew that. Moments before a critical hearing began, I went to the only place I could be alone — the women’s restroom — and I stared into the mirror. There a test of leadership was born, one I use to this day and I commend to you. I asked:

(1) Am I being reasonable? (2) Have I worked as hard as anyone possibly could on this matter and educated myself to all pertinent information? (3) Have I listened to, thoughtfully considered, and respected contrary views? (4) Are my motives pure? Do I just want the best right thing to be done, whatever that may be?

What is incredible about this litany is that it tests the foundation of justifiable righteousness, and on this basis, I knew I could say something bold and necessarily controversial. I had been fortified with courage by the answers to my test. I declared that I would go into the courtroom and say what others wanted to dance around and avoid. And, I did. People sat slack-jawed as I explained what was going on. The judge’s attention was transfixed. My worthy adversaries had no reply but to fumble about. One finally uttered, “but, Judge, this isn’t the way we do things.” I, though, had convinced the judge that maybe it was time we did do things this way, and justice was done that day.

Transparency and candor are fresh, unexpected and attention getting. People love the truth. They seek it daily on the internet, television and social media. People want the world to make sense, to see how the dots connect, and you can help with that. Dazzle people by giving them the well-vetted, yet unvarnished, truth upfront. People will believe in its authenticity, and they will soundly believe in you for delivering it.

After all, when you are a leader you are merely a vessel of information, a conduit of action. People confuse that all the time. They wrongly believe a leader is the “be all and end all.” Leadership is not about power; it is about service, and that service derives from those you are leading — those who have placed their faith in you — not from some divine superiority of thought or exclusivity of process.

Leaders understand that solutions come from the most unlikely place. The solution may come from your perceived “enemy”; it may come from those perceived to be uninformed; it nearly always comes out of no where. And, that is why inclusiveness is so important. The larger you make the conversation, the more impressive the results. Now, there are people out there thinking: “No way. I am not about to tee up some broad conversation with a bunch of people I do not know to discuss possible solutions when I know the short list of what is viable.” I understand that sentiment, but you are going to fail as a leader if you follow it. If your ideas are so good, if your short list so miraculous, then test it against the critical eye of stakeholders. If you cannot do that, I suggest that you know your motives are not pure. You are not looking for the best solution: you are looking for the solution most comfortable for you. And, that, friends, is not leadership.

If you have hidden your hand, put your finger on the scale, or denied the voice of others, the result is as illegitimate as the day is long, and you will certainly lose respect and credibility among those you chose to exclude or ignore. Invest respect in others, and in good process, and it will return to you many fold.

Leadership takes courage, not recklessness. Innate fear is what makes a person in a leadership position slip into secrecy and insular decision-making. If such a person can just get the three like-minded thinkers in the room, they believe they can make all the decisions without the mess of broad input, or, God forbid, controversy!

Yet, it is amazing what you can accomplish when you surrender to the temporary chaos and the controversy of solution-making. There, in all that choppy water, you find the current to the calm on the other side. If you hold firm to the justifiable righteousness of your effort, you will either prevail on the course you have planned, or you will drift to a better point.

The Impostors of Triumph and Disaster

Look, Sweet Briar College is not the only school to have been brought to the brink of closure. Some have tumbled over, as it appears have we. Others pulled back and found a new way. Famously, the Harrow School for Boys in Britain was once threatened with annihilation. Faced with the ravages of World War II, the unrelenting bombing of London, and threats too horrific to imagine, the Harrow School feared it could be shuttered. The alumni that could be gathered came to pay a final homage to their beloved Alma Mater. However, ten months later, with the threats and challenges still abounding, a ray of light appeared. The Head Master called back its most celebrated alum, the nation’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to encourage the boys and the staff forward. There, Churchill gave these words of encouragement to the Harrow School:

Another lesson I think we may take, just throwing our minds back to our meeting here ten months ago and now, is that appearances are often very deceptive, and as Kipling well says, we must "…meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same."

You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. … But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period — I am addressing myself to the school — surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: Never give in, never give in, never, never, never. In nothing, great or small, large or petty. Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.

Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say… that we have only to persevere to conquer.

The situations of Sweet Briar College and Harrow School for Boys are different, no doubt: One involved a troublesome debt level (though increasing assets), a greater than desirable draw on an increasing endowment, and a several year decline in student enrollment though a dramatic increase in student applications; the other involved global war, human decimation, economic collapse and a struggle beyond tolerance. One wants to throw in the towel, the other persevered.

Ladies, please know that giving up is always on the table. Successful leaders, however, are defined by those that do not choose it. They choose to persevere. If you can keep a fixed vision of what is possible, you will never drown in the morass of doubt and defeat. Simply to persevere is to conquer doubt and defeat. If you join us at the table, we will persevere.

Our Candle Burns at Both Ends

A little over 114 years ago a remarkable woman stood right here and, in the discord and uncertainties of that male-dominated era, she saw the possibilities for a world filled with strong, educated women. We are born of that vision. We are products of that legacy.

And, yet, the false narratives that women’s colleges are no longer viable, rural colleges are no longer viable, or that Liberal Arts colleges are no longer viable were bought into by too many, and contributed to what threatens to be our Alma Mater’s downfall. The false narratives permeated and provided comfortable excuses for the inability or unwillingness to find a path forward. Look at how these false narratives were ratified by many in the early days of the announcement of our impending demise. “Of course!”, some acclaimed, “women’s colleges are a luxury of the past and have dubious relevancy.”

Now, we need to admit something to ourselves. Upon hearing the startling news of the proposed closure of Sweet Briar College, too many of us hung our heads for a moment and accepted its defeat. For a split second, we, too, lost faith in the vision bequeathed to us. We temporarily accepted the doubts of others — that Sweet Briar wasn’t as strong as we thought, it wasn’t as valuable as we thought, Sweet Briar couldn’t cut it in today’s world and at today’s standards. For a tick of the clock, we hung our heads, and Indiana Fletcher Williams wept. Until we caught our breath, that is, and realized these are dangerous false narratives for the sake of excuse and obfuscation. We are the proof that these narratives are untrue.

Nevertheless, this terrible time, this unnecessary waste has come to pass.

The Old Testament tells us that Queen Esther had come to a particular position in the kingdom for such a time as this, and Mordecai reminds her that she need not think that her position protects her, for as goes the fate of those like her, so will she go. So, let me be clear, I have heard more alarming dog whistles about women who go to women's colleges in these past two months than I have ever heard in the male-dominated area of the law I practiced, or in Deep South politics. We should be troubled by that. When we allow the evidence of the extraordinary results produced here at Sweet Briar to be diminished and demeaned by these trite references, so goes all our fates. To all women, and men who respect women, to everyone who takes the education of women seriously, whether you cried at the news of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai or rejoice when you see Mika Brzezinski excoriate some pompous fool on Morning Joe, then you need to know this business about Sweet Briar's days being done because it is not relevant anymore is a statement of ignorance and offense. Our fates are tied to one another, to these young women graduating today, and to the legacy of Sweet Briar College. And, we should make it our charge to live our lives in a way that reflects the worthiness of the college’s mission. In doing so, the extraordinary value of this education and the burning candles of our lives will continue to cast unabated a lovely, but powerful light.

Farewell, for Today

Ladies: We were each built for our own lives, but what we share is this incredible place and learning experience, and I tell you that you are well-equipped to do anything you desire to do, to accomplish any result, to compete with the best the country has to offer. Because of the training you have received at Sweet Briar College, because of your understanding of respect and relationship, because you are programmed for endurance, not quick fixes, you, too, are uniquely equipped to tackle the tough issues and find solutions no one else sees or has the courage to fathom. If only you will join us at the table.

This bittersweet day some come to prematurely mourn our dear Alma Mater, who has served us well and fulfilled her mission until thwarted from doing so. We swim in the pride of her legacy and are blessed to have been touched by it. We are so proud of this graduating class of Sweet Briar College. We charge you today to take all you have learned and experienced and make the world regret we ever put Sweet Briar College in jeopardy. Make strangers stop and say: “if only we had more like her.” Let us today vow to support women’s education at every turn so that none fall victim to easy, false narratives of predestined failure. And, as to those who have led us to this regrettable point, let us endeavor to forgive them — forgive their lack of transparency, their lack of inclusiveness, their lack of perseverance, and their failure of faith — because, truly, they know not what they have done.

As I close, there is a special leader that I want to thank today, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. I spoke with Attorney General Herring yesterday, and he asked me to share two important messages with you. First, he wanted me to convey his hardy congratulations to the class of 2015 for your accomplishments. Second, he wanted me to tell you that he will continue to work with those who love Sweet Briar and care about its legacy and its future in hopes that we can reach the best possible outcome.

Godspeed and best wishes to you, Class of 2015: Sweet Briar College’s latest graduates.

— Teresa Pike Tomlinson, Sweet Briar College, ’87

 

Julia Schmalz is a multimedia producer. She tells stories with photos, audio, and video. Follow her on Twitter @jschmalz09  or email her at julia.schmalz@chronicle.com