Resurrected from the brink of closure in 2015, Sweet Briar College officials are working to sustain and strengthen the private all-women’s school and keep it alive for years to come.
Those efforts were on display Saturday at a town hall-style meeting in Wailes Lounge.
Current President Phil Stone and Teresa Tomlinson, chair of the SBC board of directors, were at the helm of a meeting that shared updates with the Sweet Briar community and provided a forum for stakeholders to ask questions, propose ideas, and hear about the present stability of the college.
The town hall comes after a three-day board of directors meeting, which ran Thursday-Saturday, and offered availability to speak with President Stone, Chair Tomlinson and other board members.
“This is their opportunity to get to hear what’s important to you, what your concerns are, [and] your opportunity to ask some questions that may be on your mind, to pose some ideas, and to let us know what is important to you,” Tomlinson told a group of about 50 stakeholders in attendance.
The report from Stone indicated that Sweet Briar is on the right track for recovery.
He pointed to the hiring of Meredith Woo, announced as the new SBC president on February 6. She will officially join SBC in April and work with Stone before assuming the presidency in May.
Stone, who was hired in July 2015 during the closing drama, plans to retire this summer.
“Sweet Briar College is so competitive, that we get the best,” Stone said of Woo’s hiring.
A South Korean native, Woo most recently worked in London as the director of the Higher Education Support Program for the Open Society Foundations. Prior to that, Woo was the dean of the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences from 2008-14.
Coming in under budget for the last school year was another success highlighted by Stone.
Stone also noted a new partnership with Google to enhance the engineering program.
“You’ve probably heard of Google,” Stone said, joking that SBC was lending Google its reputation.
The partnership, per Stone, will create job, internship, and curriculum development opportunities.
Despite the revitalization of Sweet Briar after nearly closing, challenges remain.
“We’re doing pretty well right now, but we want to do even greater things,” Stone said.
Stone cited a need to boost the endowment, recruit more students, raise funds, and to consider salaries and benefits for faculty and staff, which he suggested were underpaid for their contributions.
Despite that notion, Stone added that it was unlikely that SBC would be able to immediately address pay due to other concerns about stabilizing the college after its recent near collapse.
The meeting ran slightly over an hour, with roughly half the time dedicated to audience questions.
Claudia Chang, an anthropology professor at SBC, asked about international student recruitment.
According to William Allen Jr., Sweet Briar vice president for enrollment management, the college is working with Capture, a higher education recruiting firm, to target international students online.
Stone said SBC is working to develop a relationship with schools in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Leah Haes, a Sweet Briar graduate student, asked about the development of a transgender admissions policy, after a survey about transgender policy was reportedly circulated last year.
Stone replied that he believed the admissions statement, while broad, is comprehensive. It notes that any qualified woman is eligible to attend Sweet Briar and that SBC does not discriminate.
However, that admissions policy does not appear to have been tested, according to Stone.
“We have not had it come to us in a particular case,” Stone replied.
Tomlinson added that SBC is monitoring transgender policies at other colleges.
“We want to make sure that we’re at the forefront of social development,” Tomlinson said.
As the meeting concluded, Tomlinson reassured the audience that the SBC reset is on track, and that the school is charging ahead with a “major fundraising challenge” to be launched in March.
In closing, Georgene Vairo, vice chair of the board of directors, said that the threat of closing had allowed the Sweet Briar community to regroup and rally around the common cause of saving SBC.
“We’ve gone way beyond turning lemons into lemonade,” Vairo said.