By Baylee Anne Worth
President Phillip Stone and Chairwoman Teresa Tomlinson met with the campus community on Friday, February 4th in Wailes to hold the first of many Town Hall Meetings. In this meeting, the leaders of Sweet Briar College’s Board of Directors encouraged the attendants to ask the questions they had regarding the state of SBC and to be answered in a complete fashion. Naturally, the meeting opened with President Stone’s remarks on the strength of our alumnae and the, quote, “heroines” that make up the student body. He stated that the process to save Sweet Briar is a “series of miracles,” and that he hopes the Board can provide the kind of disclosure the community needs. Stone also addresses the importance of alumnae donations to the school, in order to ensure that they will never have to coordinate such large donation efforts ever again. One of the most important points President Stone made in his opening statement was that Sweet Briar is not lacking in funds and is not in direct danger of closure, but is doing well and moving forward.
After the meaningful introduction and welcome, the questions began. These are the questions brought forth by the attendants, and a summary of the response provided.
Q1: What are the steps we are talking to rebrand the college for the 21st century student we’re expecting to come in?
A1: Mayor Tomlinson explained that the reputation is spreading about Sweet Briar College and our “rebirth era,” as well as the branding of our alumnae base. President Stone followed her comments, explaining his ‘Rolling Stone Tour’ and the pitches he has used with the alumnae he met. He emphasizes the importance of Sweet Briar’s liberal arts degree, as well as the concepts of leadership that are so central to life this college. There will be a shift towards more conversation about core issues, and these issues will slowly be addressed and consulted on by the community. Stone assured that Sweet Briar will remain a women’s liberal arts education of high quality that places an emphasis on leadership.
Q2: Is anything being done to protect our forests and land? […] What about working with farmers and Farmer’s markets?
A2: In short answer, yes. There are many conversations happening about how Sweet Briar can optimize their land. Dean DeWeese spoke to the grants that the Environmental Science programs are receiving, potentially 1.5 million dollars funding the program, as well as the return of Dr. Tom O’Halloran. Teresa Tomlinson stated that there could not be a better time to be a women’s college with so much land, and called on Biology Professor Linda Fink to explain the growth of the program. Professor Fink stated that there has been continual interest and care in conserving the land and that she has more optimism now about its prospects than its has had in recent years.
Q3: How will the new visioning [read: changes within the college] align with communication channels between the board and faculty? How will they hear about development and challenges and how that will affect their practices?
A3: Teresa Tomlinson stated that this was a question they are working to solve themselves, as the Board of Directors is trying to ensure that they are not adopting the same practices as other colleges. The Board of Directors is working to meet with the Academic Committee each time they are on campus, and are taking a fresh look at how those interactions are outlined within our new administration. President Stone continued by saying that he meets regularly with the Faculty Committee and Dean DeWeese, as well as continually making himself available to any faculty member that has questions or concerns. He assured that the communication between faculty and administration will remain open.
Q4: Is there potential for a staff member to serve on the Board of Directors?
A4: Teresa Tomlinson made clear that the Board of Directors do not want to add representatives to “check off a box,” they want there to be real and meaningful representation on the Board and looks forward to the opportunity to have that. President Stone added the noticeable value and importance of the support of the Amherst and Sweet Briar community, saying that the Board wants the people to call them out if they do not consider all viewpoints or make a decision which does not make sense. Stone made a call to action, stating: “We have got to do a better job of acknowledging the dignity of every person on this campus.” Stone urged the community, to show our appreciation and respect for those that also make up our community, including but not limited to the staff and members of the town of Amherst that frequent Sweet Briar’s campus.
Q5: What are we doing different in marketing? Is there a different plan for the future? What is our estimated yield? Is there a plan available for the community, whether it be a short term plan for this coming year or a long term plan for the coming years?
A5: Sweet Briar has hired a new marketing director, and is utilizing an online social media service to help the college, while the Next is Now campaign is in full swing. There is a more comprehensive plan going forward, and there is a short term marketing plan while things are changing and while Sweet Briar is in the process of hiring more permanent staff. The marketing study done prior to the closure was aborted by the closing itself, and was cited as not assisting the board, but their staff is still trying to receive data from it. There have been changes in admissions materials, and Sweet Briar is in very favorable conditions. The goal is to have an influx of 250 students each year, and we hope to be somewhere within the 200 range for next year – but it is too early to tell.
Q6: How many applicants have Sweet Briar as their first choice?
A6: Steven Nape stated that the source of the application is a good indicator. There has been a dramatic shift from the Common App to the Sweet Briar app. There has been a 40% drop in applications coming directly from the Common App, and instead, students are now applying directly from the Sweet Briar website. There have been many pictures within social media of acceptance letters, and that is also a good sign as students are excited to receive these letters.
Q7: What is the ballpark of Asian applicants and what structures will be on campus to make them feel welcome?
A7: Everyone will be respected, and the campus will celebrate diversity, as our numbers are extremely low for international students in comparison with other institutions. Admissions is starting from scratch and doing this alone, as they do not have the ability to hire people to do the recruitment themselves. President Stone will be heading to China in the near future to discuss our school.
Q8: Does the board plan on posting their minutes and financial statements for everyone to access?
A8: The board will post their bylaws and financial statements, but will not post any minutes.
Q9: Is there a possibility we [read: alumnae, faculty, or students] can come sit in on Board meetings?
Q9: The town hall meeting is providing the community with all the Board can, as sitting in on a meeting does not allow open engagement. The Board does not want to tell people that they have to leave and come back whenever a closed session is entered, as the involvement of the person sitting in on the meeting would be extremely limited anyways. President Stone has been having open conversations with faculty and staff, and wants more of that communication. More meetings with faculty will be created and opened to the public to allow those in the community to come and hear the information.
Q10: What are we planning on doing to improve keeping students at Sweet Briar?
A10: President Stone cited the changes in the food, and the increased effort to show the commitment of the school to its students. No student has left because they did not like the school, and more people came back in the spring than would usually be expected. Stone is aiming for a better Sweet Briar experience, and hopes this will positively affect the retention rate.
Q11: Will Sweet Days of Service [volunteer event led by alumnae last summer to improve campus] be alumnae driven in the future?
A11: Alumnae will be heavily involved. Due to the lack of staff last summer in the Alumnae Relations Department, the alumnae were coordinators. Alumnae Relations now would like to do the coordination to allow for more beneficial projects and cohesiveness throughout the Days of Service.
“There will always be a market for strong, female leaders – and that is what Sweet Briar produces,” Teresa Tomlinson stated to the attending community. This institution will continue to produce these leaders, and the passion of the Board members is easily detected. While trust can be difficult to instill in the men and women taking the former roles of those who attempted to rob the Sweet Briar community of their stability, as well as rob young women of their education, this community must recognize the effort the board has put in place to build this trust. It may not be easy, but it is vital in order for the Board of Directors to continue being efficient and rebuilding this beloved institution in the honor of Indiana Fletcher Williams and her daughter. The Board recognizes the importance of Sweet Briar, and as all students have heard repeatedly for months – Sweet Briar will exist in perpetuity. In the words of General Krulak, a member of the Board of Directors, “Let’s be directed by the stars and not by our wake.” Let us decide as a community to move past the tragedy faced, and look to the future. This community is doing the impossible, just as Sweet Briar women have always been said to do. Let us move past focusing on the prior administration and the many ways we have been wronged, to recognizing the worth of the members of the administration and Board of Directors that see our value – and fight for it.