Sweet Briar College, in the coming months, will face what is arguably the most important decision in the school’s entire history: the choice of its next president to succeed the retiring Phillip Stone.
A year ago at this time, the closure of the 114-year-old all-women’s college was imminent, despite a pitched legal battle to overturn the board of directors’ decision to shutter the institution. Then, on June 20, 2015 — a Saturday afternoon, came word from the office of Attorney General Mark Herring that a settlement had been reached that would turn the keys of the college over to Saving Sweet Briar Inc., the alumnae group fighting to save the college.
The new president was set to be Stone. One of the top attorneys in Virginia, Stone, of Harrisonburg, had a rock-star reputation in the world of small colleges. He had retired in 2010 as the president of Bridgewater College, having turned around the Rockingham County school and setting it on a growth path for the future.
He was lured out of retirement by the challenge Sweet Briar posed. One of only 44 all-women colleges left in the country, Sweet Briar had seen its enrollment decline over recent years. Fundraising was lagging, and interim president James F. Jones Jr., who saw no viable way forward fiscally for the school, persuaded the previous board of directors to vote to close the venerable institution.
The alumnae, faculty and students were blindsided but, after only a couple of days of shellshocked stupor, rallied to save the school. Millions of dollars were raised in mere weeks; top lawyers were engaged to scour the will of the school’s founder for the basis of legal action to challenge the closure. And then, on that Saturday afternoon in June 2015, came the news of victory.
Phillip Stone’s mere presence on campus, his calming and reasuring demeanor and his professional credibility and influence were of the utmost importance in those early days. Reaching out to faculty (both those remaining and those who had already left), to current students and to those who had been offered admission and persuading them to take a leap of faith and be part of making history at the new Sweet Briar College. Reconstituting the top administrative team. Reaching out to donors and friends of the college.
In many ways, Stone’s revival year at Sweet Briar has been like trying to drink a sip of water from a firehouse.
So what characteristics should the next person tapped to lead Sweet Briar exhibit?
A passion for education in an all-women’s setting, for one. Study after study has shown the advantages of such a setting for many young women. Then, a vision for what a small, single-sex college in the 21st century could be, coupled with a personality to make that vision a reality. Finally, humbleness of spirit but strength of character to inspire and lead the college community through the many new challenges of the coming years.
Sweet Briar’s future is bright indeed.