It was supposed to be a relaxing retirement for Sweet Briar College President Phillip Stone.
In 2010, he stepped down as president of Bridgewater College, where he had served for 16 years after 24 years of practicing law in Harrisonburg. He formed a family law firm with three of his children where he said he didn’t plan to “work that hard” and just wanted to help his kids out.
“I’ve worked nights and weekends my whole life; I didn’t plan to do any of that,” Stone said.
But plans changed when Sweet Briar came perilously close to the brink of closing in March 2015. Stone, who will step down from his position at Sweet Briar this month, came out of retirement to help save the struggling rural college and its 3,250-acre campus.
Stone said he was shocked by the administration’s decision to close the 115-year-old, all-female school and believed it could be saved. So did alumnae. Within hours of the announcement, savingsweetbriar.com was launched, and money came pouring in to fund the fight.
“I was so shocked. There had not been so much as a hint of this. Nothing,” Teresa Pike Tomlinson, a 1987 Sweet Briar graduate and now the chair of the current SBC Board of Directors said of the attempted closure.
The previous administration had announced Sweet Briar would close due to “insurmountable financial challenges,” but with an endowment of $77.4 million, engaged faculty members and “remarkable students,” Tomlinson said the answers didn’t add up to her and other alumnae who wanted to save SBC.
Alumnae, joined faculty and fought back, filing a legal challenge to keep their beloved alma mater open. Along the way, they realized they would need a president to guide the course if their college was resurrected.
Stone was recruited because of a resume that includes his prior college presidency, a long legal career, and his past chairmanship of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the NCAA Division III Presidents Council.
Stone had also served as president of the Virginia Bar Association.
On June 22, 2015, when Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr. ruled in favor of Sweet Briar supporters to keep the college open, Stone was there and ready to step into his new role as president.
Nancyellen Keane, a 1978 SBC graduate who Stone later hired as vice president for administration and general counsel, remembers following him out of the courtroom into a “sea of cameras” after the legal victory. Stone proclaimed Sweet Briar could be saved and voiced his commitment to liberal arts colleges, and spoke about the value of the education at an all-women’s school.
“As soon as I heard those words, I knew we were back,” Keane said.
Less than two weeks later — on the evening of July 2, 2015 — Stone was officially the SBC president.
Then it wasn’t just nights and weekends — it was 16-hour workdays and regular cross-country flights.
But the new Sweet Briar president was walking into a multitude of unknowns.
“When I got here in July… I had no idea whether I would have students, what kind of faculty, what kind of staff would still be here; I had heard food services had been terminated, the riding program was being transferred, the junior [travel] abroad program was being transferred,” Stone said.
The president’s house still was occupied by his predecessor, James F. Jones Jr., so Stone unpacked his car and moved into one of the 38 rooms in The Elston Inn & The Conference Center located on campus.
Stone’s first order of business was to have information technology staff post a statement to the website telling employees they would be rehired after their unceremonious releases.
“I didn’t know who was here; I didn’t know if I was hiring five people or 300 people,” Stone said.
Without early access to Sweet Briar’s financial statements and other information, he was flying blind.
“I had no audits, no faculty list, I did not know a soul on campus and certainly did not know where my office was,” Stone said.
Senior staff that had remained to help with the closing, were dismissed.
“I concluded that it would not help me to have them here. They had lost all their credibility with the constituency; the community here lost all confidence in them. I’m sure they were really good people [and] meant well, but I had to be realistic about our chances for success,” Stone said.
And, he had a plan — three, actually — for 10 days, 30 days and 90 days. Stone said he made the plans early, drafted by hand, because he knew things would come at him fast once he started.
He was right. Before he arrived on campus there were “hundreds and hundreds” of emails to him.
In the early 16-hour workdays of Stone’s presidency, he said he set aside 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. to reply to emails, but to his frustration, he would leave with more messages in his inbox than when he started.
“For the first time in my life, I felt like I’m not getting it done; I am drowning,” Stone said.
Things started to fall in place as Stone tackled the immediate issues in his 10-day plan.
Accreditation was at the top of that list since the previous Board of Directors had informed the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that SBC didn’t have enough money and the institution would close.
“I knew enough about SACS [to know] that I had better take care of it quickly,” Stone said.
Early on Stone called Belle Wheelan, president of the accreditation association, to tell her Sweet Briar had “lots of money” and wouldn’t be closing despite the previous notice.
“How much?” Stone remembers Wheelan asking.
“I don’t know, I haven’t been able to count it,” Stone replied.
Stone said Wheelan gave him until Sept. 1, which allowed SBC to avoid sanctions as donations rolled in. By Sept. 2, 2015, the Saving Sweet Briar organization had delivered $12.1 million.
Next it was time to deal with the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. With no athletic director, Stone called to say he wanted back into the league, though he didn’t know how many teams or players he had.
Staffing needs became more clear when faculty provided Stone with a list of those staying, those who could be convinced to stick around, those leaving and adjunct professors who could be brought in.
“They couldn’t have been kinder to me,” Stone said of how he was welcomed by faculty and staff.
Without senior staff, Stone had to fill those ranks, and soon — school was set to begin in August.
He elevated Pam DeWeese, a longtime Spanish professor at SBC, to dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, surprising her with the job following recommendations from the remaining faculty.
One faculty member Stone talked into staying was Hank Yochum, a professor in the Department of Engineering and Physics at SBC and head of Sweet Briar’s engineering program that is a point of pride for the school as women work to fill the surging ranks of science, technology, engineering and math careers.
If Yochum left, Stone said there would be no engineering program, so he found his phone number, learned how to spell his name and called him to convince him to stay. It worked. Yochum still is at Sweet Briar.
When he wasn’t hiring faculty and staff or trying to solve the many problems that he had inherited, Stone often was at alumnae events, flying and sometimes driving around the country to Atlanta, Houston, Denver, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and various other cities to promote SBC and meet with alumnae and donors.
“I went anywhere that my staff here asked me to go,” Stone said.
Phyllis Jordan, a 1980 Sweet Briar graduate, said it was that “rolling stone tour” that inspired confidence in the new administration.
“He very quickly showed that he knew what he was doing and he could turn this around,” she said.
Over the summer, faculty, staff and alumnae pitched in with needs around campus, from weeding gardens to seeding ideas. Weeks later, as scheduled, the school year began on Aug. 25.
The school had 320 students, down from 700 in the previous year, a loss of nearly 400.
Even so, Stone referred to that feat as “a miracle,” one of many he said that it took to keep SBC open.
For the 2016 school year, Sweet Briar had 376 students and a record number of 1,341 applications.
Once the new administration had access to Sweet Briar’s financial records, they finally knew what they had.
“All the money was there; the school had resources,” Tomlinson said.
She added those resources, however, had not been well managed. Stone set to work to change that, retooling the budget, renegotiating vendor contracts and logging thousands of miles to solicit donations.
In his first year at the helm, Sweet Briar spent less than 5 percent of its endowment and ended with a surplus. According to Stone, this was the first time in at least 20 years — or “maybe ever” — that it hadn’t overspent its endowment. Stone chalked both feats up as more miracles in the saving of SBC.
“At the end of the first year, we had the best fiscal results probably in the history of the college,” he said.
After reaching the brink of closure, it seemed the tide was turning for Sweet Briar.
“It wasn’t just a passion of 60 to 90 days, or six months to a year; it’s still going,” Stone said.
That fire of passion still is burning; since the attempted closure, $26.8 million has been donated to SBC.
Though he officially will exit the presidency May 15, Stone isn’t taking time to relax beforehand. He is traveling this weekend to meet with some of the 14,257 living alumnae spread across the country.
“All the way up until the last minute, I’ll be traveling,” Stone said.
With Stone leaving, incoming President Meredith Woo will be taking the reins of Sweet Briar.
A multilingual native of Seoul, South Korea, Woo has ties to the area. She was the Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia from 2008 to 2014 and most recently served as director of the Higher Education Support Program for the Open Society Foundation in London, an international organization that supports liberal arts colleges and higher education for refugees.
Though Woo declined to be interviewed for this piece, Stone and alumnae expect big things from her.
Tomlinson, who led the search for the new president, said 150 people expressed interest in the position ranging from current and retired university administrators to corporate executives and politicians. The Board of Directors identified more than 40 who were qualified, and 20 were referred to the search committee for consideration. From that pool, 11 candidates emerged as contenders and were interviewed for the position.
“One thing we were looking for was a change agent,” Tomlinson said.
Woo is expected to be just that as she develops a strategic plan to lead Sweet Briar into the future.
Tomlinson credits Stone for putting the college in a position to attract a president of Woo’s caliber.
“I think he will forever be seen as the president that saved Sweet Briar, as the president who positioned us for our future success, and he did it expertly,” Tomlinson said.
Despite the momentum of Sweet Briar, Tomlinson said there still are challenges and curveballs ahead.
“Nobody should forget that this is a very long journey,” she said.
Now Woo’s challenge will be to attract more students to the historic women’s college. The goal for Sweet Briar, which currently has 376 students, is to reach a more sustainable student body of 800. Though alumnae are aware all-female schools largely have disappeared in recent years, they still believe in the SBC mission.
“There’s this real sisterhood among the women; we’re all in it together,” Jordan said.
After the rescue of Sweet Briar, Stone said he has fielded calls from other struggling colleges seeking advice. Stone said he’s not a guru and encourages them to operate with trust and transparency.
“If it’s embarrassment that you’re trying to avoid, what can be more embarrassing than saying ‘we’re closing’?” Stone said.
With Sweet Briar still alive and a new president in the wings, Stone will retire for the second time on May 15.
He plans to spend more time with his wife, Cherrill, and their two dogs, to catch up on his grandchildren’s concerts that he missed and has a six-week trip to Germany planned, where he owns a vacation home. His children have invited him to rejoin the family law firm, and clients have work they want him to do, he said.
“Same rule: no nights and weekends,” Stone said.
His wife has imposed a new rule as well following his stint at SBC: “Don’t answer the phone.”
And while he looks forward to his time with family and free nights and weekends, Stone said he’ll miss the sense of community at Sweet Briar, his regular walks around the Dairy Loop, and the students, faculty, staff and alumnae who have welcomed him with open arms since his first day on a nearly abandoned campus.