Meredith Woo

The last time Sweet Briar College named a new president, the circumstances were somewhat . . . unusual.

The women’s college in Amherst County had just been through a near-death experience that is now referred to on campus simply as “the saga”: The board lost faith and tried to close the school; alumnae rose up and went to court. Remarkably, they triumphed. When Phil Stone – the retired president of Bridgewater College – arrived in July 2015 to take over on an emergency basis, he found he had virtually no employees and no students. The old regime, as a parting shot, had dismissed everyone. Students had long since been told to seek new schools.

Stone spent a frantic summer of 2015 re-hiring staff he’d never met and coaxing back students who had already paid deposits elsewhere. Even when Sweet Briar opened on schedule that August, there were still those who wondered if that was just a temporary reprieve from the inevitable.

That was then. This is now. On Monday, Sweet Briar named a new president – Stone is retiring for the second time, his rescue mission completed. This time, the announcement of a new president was, well, completely normal. A packed auditorium. Students, faculty and staff cheering. Alumnae watching from around the world on a webcast.

Actually, that might not be quite accurate. Anyone connected with Sweet Briar knows acutely what almost happened, and what it took to bring the college back from the brink. So this hand-off from one president to another was still not exactly routine; it was a celebration.

The alumnae uprising that ousted the old board was historic; other small colleges had simply died quietly. However, the most dramatic part of the Sweet Briar saga may have come after that unlikely alumnae victory. It’s one that’s unfolded quietly, well out of the public eye, but helps put Monday’s announcement of Meredith Woo as the new president in context.

n The old board had been spending down the school’s endowment at alarming rates and decided to close the school before the money simply ran out. Since Stone and the new board took over, Sweet Briar hasn’t spent any of the endowment. Not one penny. The fund stands at a very respectable $70 million, which ranks it bigger than many small colleges nearby – bigger than Ferrum College, bigger than Mary Baldwin University. The conclusion seems inescapable: Sweet Briar was never really in trouble; it was just badly managed. That’s been fixed.

n One reason the old board was spending down the endowment was that it wasn’t raising enough money, or recruiting enough students. Many feared that the initial burst of alumnae enthusiasm during the fight to take over the school would fade. It hasn’t. Under the old board, the school was raising less than $1 million a year. In the last fiscal year, the school raised $28 million. Stone – who spends three to four days a week on the road meeting alumnae – says he’s on track to meet this year’s goal of $20 million. Next year, the goal drops to $16 million – as, presumably, the number of students increases. Why such success? A lot of alumnae simply hadn’t been asked to give. Now they are. “I went to see five women I’d never met and asked each to give a million dollars, and they did,” Stone says. With such prodigious fund-raising Sweet Briar has also been able to pay down nearly half of the debt it had run up.

n Increasing enrollment will take longer. Sweet Briar reopened with 248 students. This year, enrollment is up to 376. The goal is to get to 800, which will obviously take years to achieve. One thing holding the numbers down is that the incoming class for fall 2015 had been turned away. About 30 students came anyway once the school stayed open, so there’s now an undersized sophomore class moving through the system. By contrast, the school brought in 175 new students for the current school year, and deposits for next year are running ahead of schedule.

It’s no wonder then that Woo said one of the things that impressed her about Sweet Briar was that “the fundamentals are strong here.”

What a difference two years makes.

Despite all that, when Sweet Briar set about searching for a new president, board chair Teresa Pike Tomlinson wasn’t sure what kind of candidates it would get. Turns out, the Sweet Briar presidency was an attractive one. The search committee identified 43 qualified candidates; sought further materials from 29 and personally interviewed 11 candidates. Among those were one sitting college president and one former college president.

Woo stood out for lots of reasons, Tomlinson says. Her academic credentials are beyond impressive. A doctorate from Columbia. Teaching positions at Columbia and Northwestern. An associate dean at the University of Michigan, and, for six years, a dean at the University of Virginia.

However, let’s face it: Academic credentials are nice, but not always required for a modern college president. Stone was a lawyer before he was called to the presidency of his alma mater, Bridgewater College. Here’s perhaps the more impressive thing about Woo: When she was Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at UVa, she tripled fund-raising. During a recession. Stone says he expects Woo’s appointment to lead to a new surge of donations to Sweet Briar – in the form of an alumnae vote of confidence. Hiring a president of such qualifications should underscore that the school’s comeback isn’t simply temporary.

You can probably expect something else, too: More foreign students. For the past two years, Woo has been in London, working on educational programs for a non-profit that, among other things, has encouraged higher education for women “in previously closed cultures, such as Bangladesh and Burma.”

Foreign students are an important niche for other colleges but one where Sweet Briar simply hadn’t been involved. When Stone took over, Sweet Briar just had one, and she’d found the college on her own. Stone has built ties to China, and hopes next year to have 14 students from there. Woo, in her opening remarks, talked about making Sweet Briar “a women’s college of great consequence, for this nation and beyond.” Those last two words aren’t simply rhetorical.

If Sweet Briar can go from nearly-closed to world-class, that would be quite a saga.

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