Leadership & Governance

What Did They Save When They Saved Sweet Briar?

Phillip C. Stone, Sweet Briar College

August 13, 2015

Video produced by Julia Schmalz
President Phillip C. Stone discusses what students and faculty can expect this fall and how he'll work with alumnae. Part 2 of 3.

The alumnae of Sweet Briar fought to keep their alma mater from closing. It is now up to Phillip C. Stone and his administration to decide what they were fighting for. If nostalgia saved the college, how much change will the alumnae be willing to stomach as the new administration tries to reposition Sweet Briar — in a hurry — to be sustainable in the future? “We’re not going to be a museum,” says Mr. Stone in the second part of an interview with The Chronicle. At the same time, he says, history has everything to do with why the college was worth saving at all.



STEVE KOLOWICH: Welcome to the second half of our conversation with Dr. Stone, the president of Sweet Briar. Tell me about what you expect Sweet Briar to look like when students return here later this month. For the students who were here last spring, what will be missing as far as courses, professors, extracurricular activities, and what will be familiar?

PHILLIP C. STONE: We're trying to be fully open. As you know, the new administration was not elected until the evening of July 2, which is a holiday weekend. And so we haven't had a lot of time. But in 30 days, we've been able to completely replace the senior-management team, hire enough faculty to start school tomorrow if we needed to.

STEVE KOLOWICH: How many is that?

PHILLIP C. STONE: Well, about 70 faculty members. And we also have recruited at least 300 students to make up a student body. So we've said to the faculty, all our students who are seniors must graduate on time. All courses will be taught needed to graduate.

So in that sense, I don't think the students will notice a lot different. They may find some of their classes are smaller. There may be some classes not taught that are not required for degree advancement, simple because enrollment will be down. Or we're having faculty pick up another course that is needed more.

The riding program continues. We are back in the NCAA. We are back in the athletic conference. We are scheduling games, even though they had all been canceled. We are trying to pick up all the activities and salvage as much as we can.

It will look different. For example, there won't be a full schedule in athletics, in intercollegiate competition in our conference, because people had dropped us from the schedule. But I think our students are going to get a really good experience in athletics because we are in fact scheduling games. And we may have to go to some different teams to have them fit us into their schedule — maybe some club teams, even.

So I think the students will have almost everything they would've had. Food service has been replaced with one that we think is really strong. And I think they're going to come and say, Hey, food's better. We expect them to say that.

The campus is going to glisten. You've been visiting our campus. You know that we have several dozen alumnae from all over the United States here working. They're polishing brass. They're polishing doorknobs, washing windows, painting, just to show that they are anxious to have the students see the campus at its most beautiful.

So I think the students will notice probably a dorm or two that might not be used because we'll have smaller enrollment. We use that as an opportunity to do some refurbishing and maintenance issues. So we take them offline according to that need.

So I honestly think the students are going to have a full experience. We do not expect them to see much different.

STEVE KOLOWICH: Talking about the alumnae — nostalgia can be a very powerful thing. As we've seen, the alumnae organizing and suing to keep the college open, replacing the board, hiring you — it certainly shows the resilience and spirit of the alumnae and how they feel about Sweet Briar College.

It also puts you in kind of a unique position because you were hired and the board was selected by the same alumnae who organized to keep the college open and who clearly have a very intense relationship with what they remember the college to be, what their experience was. Do you feel like this could make it difficult in the coming years to make major changes to Sweet Briar if it becomes necessary to do so in order to position the college to be sustainable in the future?

PHILLIP C. STONE: I think there's always institutional inertia and pushback. We're used to doing things the way they've always been done. In Virginia we pride ourselves on that tradition, that we don't change anything until the case is compelling. So we have that to work with.

I will not be restricted in the ways I hope to lead because the alumnae also know that I don't need a job, that I've had two careers, and that I came into this with a desire to help save Sweet Briar, and was here three weeks before the reference was ever made to salary or contract. I worked my heart out the first three weeks and didn't even think about whether I'd be paid.

And so they know why I'm doing this. And it is not some kind of career path for me that I need to be beholden to anyone. If I'm restricted unduly, just have to say, someone else will do this better.

But the alumnae are not even threatening that. They're not even implying that. They're really saying, We have all this energy, all this passion, let us help. And a harder job, I think, is to sustain that, is to really say to them, All right, you've raised all this money. You did win the litigation. You saved the college. And now you're in here cleaning and polishing.

What will you do when school starts when you go back to your regular activities? Will you keep contributing? Will you keep applying this passion for your alma mater? I think they will. I've never seen anything quite like what they've done so far, so I have no reason to think that it's short-lived.

So I think the bigger problem will be, How do you channel this passion, this energy, into a coherent management of the college? Because we can't go in all directions.

I try to keep the focus on what we're doing by saying my focus is on two things, essentially — get money and get students, because Sweet Briar can't stay small. We have to get bigger. And anything that comes my way as a new idea, as a new proposal, is worthy of consideration, because we're not going to be living in a stalemate situation. We're not going to be a museum just treading water. We want new ideas and new activities. But I keep saying, Don't take your eye off the ball. Get students and get money.

So my issue really has not been that there's a protectiveness about how we used to do things and it must be restored to the '50s or '60s. It's more: How do we contain some of this energy to channel it into a coherent form? There are ideas about how we use the acreage here, for example, for agricultural experiments. We do some things already.

At one time we had 500 milk cows on this campus. I don't think anybody really expects me to start herding again, but there are some ideas about how we might do land-to-table experiments with fresh vegetables, organic foods, and so forth. Those are kind of fun to look at, and they fit us as an educational environment. So I think the tendency is to look for creative and innovative new ways to do things, not how do we protect the good old days.

STEVE KOLOWICH: When the news broke that Sweet Briar was closing and then the battle commenced to keep it open, a lot of people were paying attention. And then the attention piled on. And at some point, you started hearing some people ask, All this for a college of 500, 600 women in the middle of Virginia? And oh, by the way, there are a number of other colleges where if it closes, the students can go and have a similar experience. What's all the fuss about?

Can you tell me why you think it's important, for reasons other than nostalgia and the specific attachments of the alumnae, for Sweet Briar specifically to remain open?

PHILLIP C. STONE: Some institutions and landmarks have inherent value. And so we could easily say that Monticello and Mount Vernon absorb a lot of money. We've got a lot of old houses in America. Why? But we see historic value. So we don't always put the value in terms of numbers or the profitability. But it is a powerful consideration for running a college. You go broke if you can't balance your budgets.

I think there's something special about Sweet Briar in the fact that we are fighting for liberal-arts small private colleges, and in this case, women's education, when it appears that the demographics are totally against us. And we could be fatalistic and say the trend lines are what they are, and there's no use fighting this. Let's use our resources to wind it down, as the prior board thought best.

But people deserve options. And as I alluded to earlier, the alumnae have been so energized by this activity that we not only are compelled to pay attention to that as a phenomenon really, but also to inquire why. And if something special happened in women's education at Sweet Briar, why would we not want to replicate it or permit it to occur for new generations of young women?

It's an option. It's an option. If we were fighting simply to keep another liberal-arts college, I think the question would be a lot more poignant. I think the one about women's education was in context of the fact there are very few left. And some people choose it, and we want it as an option.

What we'd like to do is to have people understand that women's education is not to try to keep women from having to compete with men or because they need to be protected from men. If you look at the women in our public high schools, for example, I'm sure your experience would've been like mine. The women beat our socks off.

And so I have to ask myself, if they compete so effectively until they're 18, why would they then become frightened of us? It's not that. But they go into a class here at Sweet Briar, and they are taught by Ph.D. scholar-teachers who've usually published in a class of, OK, they're very small — hard to even have economies of scale. But they're classes of seven to 15, and they can't hide the fact that they're unprepared. They are going to be engaged in scholarly, grown-up conversation.

I realize that's true of all liberal-arts colleges, but this one also has, as maybe other colleges do, what I would call a soul. When you start looking at the history of this college, how it was formed, the death of the teenage daughter who led the mother to want to start a school in her honor, and the tradition of the ghost, the house I'm living in, which I'm sure people are walking around in the middle of the night. I can hear them creaking floors and everything.

Historical house, people talking about the legends and the traditions, the stigma of having been slave property, having people here whose ancestors were slaves on this property still working here today — all that history coming together kind of forms the soul of Sweet Briar, I would call it.

If we are not to be Sweet Briar — that is, if we were to be coed, for example — then we are just another college and have to acknowledge that. There are lots of liberal-arts colleges. They're competing for students. They probably could absorb our small student body pretty quickly in just a few of them. But then we would lose this what I call the soul of Sweet Briar.

So we're not fighting to stay alive as just 3,200 acres or whatever number, even if we were smaller, and buildings and a place to work. We're really fighting for what we think of as that soul of Sweet Briar, which is women's education with its rich history and heritage. Imagine if we wanted to go coed. The name Sweet Briar probably won't cut it. We probably won't have colors of pink and green, and we probably won't be the Vixens.

So we don't just change a few things, we change the very nature of who we are. And so as we look at that we say, No, it's worth the fight to hold on to that soul. It's worth the fight to hold on to that integrity of who we are. And if that doesn't work, we'll take the risk that we don't survive at all.

But it's kind of an all or nothing for us. We want to preserve Sweet Briar as we know it, not with the same characteristics but with that soul or that core that we call Sweet Briar.


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.