Leadership & Governance

How Sweet Briar Plans to Keep Surviving

Phillip C. Stone, Sweet Briar College

August 13, 2015

Phillip C. Stone, the new president, thinks he can succeed where others have failed. Part 1 of 3.
Video produced by Julia Schmalz

Sweet Briar survived a brush with death. Now the college needs to figure out how to survive in the world, something the previous administration thought impossible. Phillip C. Stone, the new president, thinks he can succeed where others have failed. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Stone explains that fear of sexual assault and city crime could make a rural women’s college an attractive option for students and parents worried about campus safety.



STEVE KOLOWICH: We're here at Sweet Briar College, in Sweet Briar, Va., with Phil Stone, the new president of Sweet Briar College. Thank you so much for joining us today, Phil.

PHILLIP C. STONE: It's nice to be here. Welcome to Sweet Briar.

STEVE KOLOWICH: It's beautiful here. It's also in the middle of nowhere. Previous administrations struggled to persuade students to come here, to the extent that they felt that the college had become unsustainable and moved to close it. You've essentially doubled down on the vision of Sweet Briar as a rural, beautiful, bucolic women's college. What makes you think that you will succeed where others have failed, as far as getting students excited about coming here?

PHILLIP C. STONE: Well, I'm reminded of the fact that the Garden of Eden was a pastoral, rural setting. So we're not afraid of being in a rural, natural setting. We think it has to be an asset. It's a beautiful campus of over 3,000 acres — needs to be seen as an asset.

If we are trying to compete with the urban sites and urban activities, that's pretty hard. But what we do is turn this into something that is particularly attractive, the horse-riding program, for example, the trails, the walks, the beauty, the fact that it is an environmental lab for students and faculty.

There are lots of things about this campus that are very attractive, so we don't see it as a negative that we're remote from large cities. We're satisfied we're going to do well here. Not only we have a good setting for the people who are here, we think we have a campus that sells to an increased pool of students.

So we don't plan to restrict ourselves to the traditional pool of women interested in women's education. And we're going to attract interest, we think, partly because we are in the setting we are. Security, for example, is a big deal to families both in this country and other countries. It's pretty nice to be able to say you have over 3,000 acres and a very secure environment.

STEVE KOLOWICH: Now when you say that you are looking to appeal to new groups of students, not just women who are interested in women's education, what do you mean by that?

PHILLIP C. STONE: We've not been as effective as we should have been recruiting international students. The market is global. There are students in China, Nigeria, India, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, various places in the world with families able to pay for an American education, who want an American education, but who want their daughters in a protected environment.

One of the sad things about our own society is that we are perceived to be — and probably are — fairly violent in some of our areas, in terms of just physical safety. Sweet Briar's really a safe place. So if families are thinking about their daughters coming to the United States, many of them are going to be reassured having them attend a school on such a beautiful and safe campus. So we want to go with international students.

The other is, as you've seen from the tremendous attention we've received from all over the United States in this issue of closing and reopening, this college has some cachet. It has a reputation. We want to make sure this story of our rescue sells. And a lot of students, I think, are going to be interested in women's education because they've now heard of women graduates — the alumnae — stepping up and saving their college.

Most people react the way, I think, I do. I can't imagine another college seeing that happen. We see other colleges go down, and there's a sad song and a sense of anguish, but none of these rescue efforts. That's pretty rare. And the way it was done here was particularly heroic.

STEVE KOLOWICH: Are you actually formulating a proactive campaign to promote the story of the last six months at Sweet Briar?

PHILLIP C. STONE: Absolutely. We see that as a tremendous testimony to women's education. We ask ourselves rhetorically — and then, we're going to try to provide an answer for our prospective students — what was different about Sweet Briar that produced this kind of passion, this kind of energy on the part of our alumnae, some of whom have been out for 30, 40, 50 years? And yet, they had this special bonding, with each other and with the school.

If that is unusual — and I really think it is — we ask ourselves, Did something happen here at Sweet Briar to produce that energy and that devotion and that bonding? And we think that is also the case. So we want to be able to say to people, This is a testimony to women's education. Women blossomed and flourished here, as leaders, as people who take responsibility, as people who take the initiative to get things done in a way that is almost unmatched in other schools.

STEVE KOLOWICH: You talked a minute ago about security and the idea of, essentially, selling the idea of a "safe" college campus in America. A lot of private, liberal-arts colleges are very safe, as far as the way that they insulate themselves from the outside world.

However, an issue that has come up a lot over the past year or two has been the issue of sexual assault. Do you think that the attention that's been paid to sexual assault and the threat to women on some campuses over the past several years makes a women's college a potentially more attractive or safe-seeming option?

PHILLIP C. STONE: I really do. I think that so many of the assault incidents occur in the coeducational environment. And sadly the culture in higher education — for a long time, not just in recent years — has been this kind of rite of passage of intoxication, partying, and perhaps pairing off with someone you barely know and just thinking of it as party time. So that young women often either were not aware that they were being assaulted — because anything from the date-rape pill to intoxication — too embarrassed to come forward, or thinking that was part of the culture and they must not get it very well if they opposed it.

I think now that women are much more mature and are going to take care of themselves in a better way. And I think they're saying, even if they're partying, they're entitled to be left alone and to be treated with dignity and respect, and they're to make their own decisions about sexual activity. In a women's college, they're focused on other things during the week.

And one of the things that I think is really nice about women's education is that women — who mature more quickly than those of us who are male — at adolescent age really want to be grown up more quickly. And they're not as into partying during the week as I think a lot of us were as guys. And so they're glad to party on the weekend.

But they usually are able to restrict that in a way that makes them more disciplined, I think, about the culture they're stepping into when they leave a more mature, disciplined environment to one that's really a party environment, when they're visiting guys or having dates. I think it's safer here.

Video produced by Julia Schmalz

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.