Leadership & Governance

Where Do Sweet Briar, and Other Liberal-Arts Colleges, Go From Here?

Phillip C. Stone, Sweet Briar College

August 13, 2015

Phillip C. Stone talks about the pressure he feels to succeed for the sake of all liberal-art colleges and what his institution might look like in five years. Part 3 of 3.
Video produced by Julia Schmalz

Appropriately or not, Sweet Briar is now viewed as a canary in a coal mine by other small, liberal-arts colleges that are also worried about survival in the new century. In the third and final part of a Chronicle interview, Phillip C. Stone explains why he sees something greater at stake in his job as president of Sweet Briar than the survival of a single liberal-arts college in Virginia. He also talks about what Sweet Briar might look like in five years — assuming, of course, that it is still open.



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.

Now that Sweet Briar is in the spotlight, and I think it's fair to say that one of the reasons why it's attracted so much attention has less to do with the fact that it's a women's college and more to do with the fact that a lot of other colleges that are small, rural, liberal-arts traditional colleges see something of themselves in Sweet Briar. Do you feel like you are fighting a proxy war on behalf of liberal-arts colleges in this, and does that put a lot of pressure on you, personally, and on the college, in general?

PHILLIP C. STONE: It does. I mean, I feel like a failure is not just a personal failure, institutional failure, but I think it will make such a devastating statement about higher education. Not that our failure would mean that we were the best available and, therefore, if we couldn't do it, it couldn't be done anywhere. But because the heroic efforts are being made. And if they're not successful, in this context, I think a lot of private colleges are going to say, How much longer for us?

I know a good number of private colleges. Presidents have told me that — start looking at your own financials. Started looking at their own demographics. Trying to explain to their board why this was not in the future for them. So I know it's frightened the higher-education group — private higher education. As we look at that, I'm such a student and disciple, really, of liberal-arts education that I would fight for Sweet Briar for that alone. If it were not a women's college, I would still fight for a liberal-arts education.

In this country, we're very utilitarian. We want to know what works. We want to know what makes a dollar. We want to know how things are useful.

And that's all good. I mean, it's made us a great country. But sometimes we need to be thinking about what is the nature of a human being. And why do we love art, or why don't we? And why do we appreciate music? And what does it mean to be a human being?

I love the example of the ancient Greeks. I chaired the President's Council of the NCAA Division III years ago, and I had to write President's Letters, that kind of thing — a newsletter. And I would usually refer to that Greek ideal of the merger or the integration of mind, body, and spirit. And I think that model is still a good one. I like it. I'm really devoted to it.

And so when I look at a place like Sweet Briar — even though many of our liberal-arts colleges have had to adjust with new majors and new career paths to keep up with things, I think that's good. You know, even fields like [INAUDIBLE] economics was thought to be voodoo education when it started. Sociology had a hard fight to get accepted, psychology. And now, they're a part of the liberal-arts discipline.

STEVE KOLOWICH: And there are some business-oriented programs here at Sweet Briar.

PHILLIP C. STONE: Exactly. And so this college has done a good job, I think, of saying we have a liberal-arts foundation. Everyone will graduate as a liberal-arts student. But then let's make sure that we also have career preparation. We're one of two women's colleges in America, for example, with an engineering program.

Now I know folks can say, with 500 students, and maybe 300 this year, engineering? But it makes a great statement to defeat the caricature that might still linger about women's colleges' being for people who wanted to go into the liberal arts and weren't too much interested in the field of technology and engineering. This makes a good statement. We're going to keep that engineering program, and we'll make it stronger.

So that's an adjustment we've made. I think that the Sweet Briar experiment, though, really reflects a kind of creativity that I hope other liberal-arts colleges are doing more of, which is to have a student come in and say, I'm interested in physics, and I'm also interested in ballet. Can I put a major together that helps me advance in both those areas? They might never dance professionally. They might not stay with physics. They might be a corporate manager. But they're going to have a way to vent that passion they're feeling and develop both artistically and intellectually in a holistic way in a liberal-arts environment. That, we think, is worth fighting for. And we want to keep that.

STEVE KOLOWICH: Predicting the future at this stage is difficult. Using your imagination and imagining Sweet Briar in five years, what are some of the possibilities that you see? You've talked about possibly some academic programs that take advantage of the agricultural landscape or the possibilities of that landscape, self-designed majors, possibly. There's still the question of whether, at any point, there could be male students here. What do you think is within the realm of possibility, assuming Sweet Briar is still open in another five years?

PHILLIP C. STONE: I do assume that. I'm saying openly that we will be here for the next 114 years, and then someone else can promise the next 114. We need to be at about 800 students. And that needs to be accomplished in five years. That's not as remote as it seems in terms of time because we have a small freshman class, maybe as small as 40 or 45 because we didn't recruit a class this year. Making its way through the enrollment figures for four years. And so getting back to 500 and then past it is daunting, and it takes a little time.

We're going to be about 750 or 800 students, I really believe when we get there, we can balance our budget. I do not think that's full strength. I do think we'll have to get larger. At 800 we don't have to build anything. So it's a fairly inexpensive way to grow. So we need to do that. I hope this creativity I mentioned will continue. That's really important. And a lot of times it's not a matter of money. It's a matter of creativity and letting people do things they know how to do.

An example? In my office today there's a beautiful old book, put together by one of our biologists who's interested in salamanders. I knew nothing about salamanders. But when she tells me how they parade to their breeding grounds, I can almost imagine them. And she's taken me out in the fields to show me all these things. She collaborated with a member of the art department who did the illustrations. And it's a fabulous little book.

Now it's not real expensive. But look at the creativity caught up in a biologist and an artist getting together, saying, How could we help the reader interpret this material in a better way? I just think so much of that's going on here at Sweet Briar. So I want us to do more and more of that — the creative efforts, the collaborative efforts.

And I think we'll still be a women's college. I think we might have found other ways to use our property. It may be that there will be another institution for students here. For example, a K-through-12 school might be located here — a private school. The ground-to, land-to-table agriculture experiment — we might try that. Nothing's on the drawing board to do. I'm just saying that we're wide open to all those.

And so as we think of our future and we think of the opportunity to recruit a more global or international student body, and continue the creativity, women's education, and liberal arts, we really think we are going to be a magnet for really good students. And I'm optimistic about it. I'm too old to be naïve or idealistic. But I really believe we're going to succeed.

STEVE KOLOWICH: Dr. Stone, thank you so much.

PHILLIP C. STONE: My pleasure. Thanks for your interest.

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.