Remaking Sweet Briar
New president focuses on the next chapter at the historic women’s college
There’s a lot riding on the shoulders of Meredith Woo, Sweet Briar College’s new president. More than two years after alumnae swooped in to save their beloved liberal arts college from closure, the path to sustainability remains challenging.
Woo, a Korean-born American academic, isn’t one to step lightly. Barely four months into the job, she’s charging ahead with plans for a new academic calendar, a retooled curriculum and a transparent pricing policy.
“We hope to take the lead in making it possible for middle-class people to realize that small, private colleges actually may give you more bang for the buck, and that we may be much closer to public universities in terms of pricing,” says Woo.
Her overarching goal is to remake Sweet Briar into a relevant model for the 21st century.
Located on a campus of 3,250 rolling acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Amherst County, Sweet Briar has long enjoyed a reputation for solid academics, small classes and bucolic beauty. Those strengths, though, weren’t enough in March 2015 to persuade the school’s then-board of directors to keep the 114-year-old college open.
Citing financial challenges, dwindling enrollment and an unsustainable tuition discount rate, the board announced that the school would close in August of that year. The decision ignited a firestorm, with alumnae, faculty and friends of the college creating a nonprofit — Saving Sweet Briar — that raised millions of dollars in donations and battled in court to keep the school open.
While Sweet Briar managed to survive, the college lost ground. During a period when the fate of the college was not known, many students left for other schools, and some faculty departed. Phil Stone, a former president of Bridgewater College, came out of retirement in July 2015 to lead Sweet Briar after its near closure. He stepped down this May, when Woo took the post as the school’s 13th president.
If Stone was the soothing senior executive needed for a period of troubled waters as the college clawed its way back, Woo is the energetic change agent for the future.
“We’re remaking Sweet Briar College. We’ve been very forthright about that,” says Teresa Tomlinson, chairwoman of the college’s board and an alumnae. “I think Meredith put it best in her interview with the selection committee. Change is essential, but you must be true to your DNA … That’s why we knew Meredith was the perfect fit. She has that balance where she’s bold enough to make the changes that need serious change, and she’s wise enough to see the things that we need to keep.”
While alumnae and others have stepped up, donating $43.8 million from 2015 to 2017 — the largest two-year total in the school’s history — Tomlinson says alumnae generosity is not the long-term answer. “We asked them to help us in this three-year period, to give us the time to reassess and get in long-term leadership.”
Sweet Briar’s annual budget was $35.4 million in fiscal 2014 before the closure attempt, says Tomlinson. Through efficiencies and other innovative steps, the budget was reduced to $28.3 million in fiscal 2016, alleviating the need for “heroic fundraising and former levels of students,” she adds.
Woo has years of experience as an academic administrator and faculty member, with stints at the University of Michigan, Columbia University and Northwestern University. She’s also a former dean at the University of Virginia, where she worked from 2008 to 2014, leading the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
U.Va’s President Teresa A. Sullivan says, “Meredith Woo has a long record of service as an academic administrator and is an accomplished academician in the fields of international political economy and East Asian politics … Sweet Briar will benefit from her experience and leadership.”
Virginia Business interviewed Woo at the college in June. An edited transcript follows.
Virginia Business: You officially took the reins on May 15.. How do you like it so far at Sweet Briar?
Woo: I love being at Sweet Briar. The community has been incredibly welcoming, so it already feels like home. I suppose one thing that I wasn’t expecting is the fact that this is the first time in my professional life that I’m in an environment which is predominately women; not only in terms of students, but also in terms of university leadership. And it’s fascinating. We often say that women, much more than men, are “other-oriented” and that they care about their surroundings and other people, oftentimes more than they care about themselves, that they have deeper commitment. I have actually found that stereotype to be completely true. So, it’s been wonderful to be in this community.
VB: How big is your staff here?
Woo: We have about 164 staff members.
VB: Everyone knows the story of Saving Sweet Briar. This group was able to raise funds and provide the leadership to save the college. Yet some people are saying that Sweet Briar isn’t out of the woods. How is the school doing now in terms of enrollment for the fall class?
Woo: Personally, I do not think there is a magic number for Sweet Briar or for any other school. We are a small school. If we have 500 students, we will create an environment that is suitable for 500. If we have 600, we’ll do so. If we have 800, we’ll do so. I think that it is a matter of where you find equilibrium and what you do to make sure you have a sustainable situation with the number that you happen to have. I feel very confident about the sustainability of Sweet Briar, and we [will] move forward.
VB: Can you give us any information on the size of the incoming freshman class?
Woo: In the case of Sweet Briar, the fluctuation over the summer is fairly large. I will let you know once I feel confident in the number.
VB: What is the cost of tuition at Sweet Briar now?
Woo: In American higher education, you have to be Einstein to figure out what the real tuition is. This is a deplorable situation, and I think that [going forward] … just wait until Sweet Briar releases our policy, with a tuition plan that makes us affordable … and makes us relevant for the 21st century for young women. Our effective tuition will be in ways every parent can understand when they go to our website. Right now our sticker price is $36,520. [When room and board is added, the total price for 2017-18 is $50,055.]
VB: It sounds like you want to overhaul information on the website to make things more transparent for parents.
Woo: Yes, it is very important for middle-class folks to understand what the real price is so that they understand what each school is offering … We may be the new public [school] in a world where the price of public education is going up and out of control.
VB: What do you view as the key to keeping the doors open at Sweet Briar?
Woo: Sweet Briar has great strength in STEM and engineering as well as in the arts. It can be and is a destination spot for those young women who want to study science and engineering in an environment without intimidation and misogyny. It is a great spot for the arts, especially as it is located across the street from the state’s biggest art colony [The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts]. I think that this distinction we have at Sweet Briar, combined with other very interesting innovations taking place in the curriculum, will set us apart.
VB: So the experience of the student is going to be key to the next chapter?
Woo: Academic excellence and a transformative experience will be what Sweet Briar will be known for.
VB: Not by how many students and how much money you raise?
Woo: Let me put this into perspective. If you look into colleges in the local Lynchburg area, I would say on average they raise about $10 million a year — about $5 million in unrestricted funding that can go to support basic operations and $5 for restricted purposes. [This year], Sweet Briar will probably end up doing about $17 million unrestricted, which is unheard of. Not only given the history of Sweet Briar, but unheard of in the area and Virginia for private schools.
VB: A lot of college presidents today are involved in fundraising. Is this something you enjoy or do you consider it a necessary evil?
Woo: I love fundraising, because it’s really fascinating to articulate the mission of the college to people who care. It’s intellectually challenging to make this kind of pitch, and it is always nice to meet the alumnae and other people on the road.
VB: Tell us a bit more about your vision. Are you putting together a new strategic plan?
Woo: We are already at work on that. We have a large committee of faculty, staff and students working on how to reposition ourselves in terms of curriculum. We have a committee working on how to make our calendar so much more flexible so that we can have artists, practitioners and alumnae become part of the joyful business of knowledge making and knowledge-sharing. We are coming up on a plan to create a tuition policy to make this kind of fantastic education affordable for middle-class people. We are also producing a five-year stabilization plan to make sure Sweet Briar flourishes on the basis of a very carefully designed plan.
VB: When we talk about the strengths of a small college, students say they love the small classes and getting to know their professors. Going forward will this be one of the strong selling points in your plan?
Woo: That small classroom experience that is transformative in the lives of students is the hallmark of Sweet Briar. It’s our DNA. That is the basis upon which we will continue to build our strength. I was dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia for six years. It’s a great school, but it is also a school with more than 20 students per faculty [member]. University of Virginia doesn’t have an honors college. I have to say, in some sense, Sweet Briar is like the honors for one of the finest state universities. We offer, for practically the same tuition, the kind of transformative experience in a small-class setting. I like to say we’re the honors college for Virginia.
VB: Do you think your experience as a dean at U.Va. helped prepare you to be the president of Sweet Briar?
Woo: I have had long experience as an academic administrator. I was in charge of the social sciences at the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan has 50,000 students. The University of Virginia is half that size. Both of the institutions taught me a lot … What was very useful for me being in Charlottesville for six years was the experience and knowledge about the commonwealth, and that comes in incredibly handy in leading Sweet Briar.
VB: You weren’t looking for a job when you got the call. Why did you say “yes”?
Woo: When the call came, it was intriguing. I thought almost like it was my responsibility to have the conversation. Then, I really liked the women I met. I was very impressed by their intelligence, by their passion, by their commitment. I thought if Sweet Briar produces women of this caliber, this must be a fantastic school.
VB: Who called you?
Woo: It was the search firm that the college was working with. Very quickly I met with the chairwoman of the [board of directors] of the college, who is Teresa Tomlinson.
VB: The alumnae and what they did — rescue a college after two other private colleges in Virginia had closed within the previous 12 months — did that impact your decision to take the job?
Woo: I think we are kind of past that. I don’t look back on that experience. That was then, and this is now. Sweet Briar has strong fundamentals, when all is said and done. It has a great campus, good facilities, good faculty and not a small endowment. There is no reason that with vigorous leadership that this school shouldn’t prosper.
VB: There is so much emphasis today on the STEM fields and STEM jobs. What is the value of a single-sex liberal arts education in the 21st century?
Woo: I ask the question in a different way. I ask myself, “What are some of the real big problems that the world faces that Sweet Briar can provide at least partially some answers?” One of the issues has to be the problem of insufficient representation of women in the dominant industries of the 21st century. Engineering and STEM might be one example where there is insufficient representation of women leaders. I think that Sweet Briar can be part of the solution in that sense.
VB: There aren’t many women’s colleges left. When you are asked by prospective students, “Why should I go to an all-girls school?” how do you answer that question?
Woo: I think that an environment where you are constantly encouraged, empowered and can express yourself to the fullest without unnecessary baggage is a great thing.
VB: Are you in the process of creating a new leadership team? What do you look for in leaders?
Woo: We have moved pretty fast in the past month to form a new leadership team … We merged a couple of divisions. [For example], finance and administration is now one unit. We have merged admissions with marketing and communications so that they become one unit. I have eliminated general counsel from the cabinet portfolio so that we have fewer vice presidents, and I think that we have a much nimbler and better structure as the result of it. Normally, in a leadership position in the cabinet, I would be looking for people who are seasoned professionals. For Sweet Briar … I am also looking for people deeply committed to the institution and who are passionate about the prosperity of Sweet Briar.
VB: As you look back over your career, did you have any heroes or heroines who inspired you?
Woo: My heroes and heroines all come in one mold. I like people who are resilient in the face of tremendous adversity.
VB: A lot of universities are trying to recruit more foreign students. Will Sweet Briar be moving in that direction?
Woo: Diversity is very important for Sweet Briar and college students. When you look at small, liberal arts schools, it’s quite normal to have a student body that is upwards of 20 percent, even 25 percent foreign students. We definitely need to make greater effort in that regard. I do believe that Sweet Briar is very attractive if we market Sweet Briar properly to foreign students, because it is affordable, it is a women’s college in a world where women’s enrollment in college is exploding, it is in a safe environment, and we offer two things foreign students are often looking for: strong STEM and engineering and strong arts.
VB: Are there any particular places where you would like to do more recruiting?
Woo: The obvious areas would be probably Southeast Asia, could be Northeast Asia and parts of Latin America.
VB: What is the percentage of foreign students now?
Woo: I don’t know what we have now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road that we have 15 percent to 20 percent.
VB: In terms of higher education, do we need reform in this country?
Woo: I think higher education, or liberal-arts education in particular in our case, needs to become very relevant for the 21st century. It doesn’t mean that we need to focus on skills acquisition. But it does mean that we need to create the kind of curriculum where students learn how to ask the right questions or students know where to go to find part of the answer or students can figure out how to design projects, how to implement them, how to fail, how to get up, how to fail, and how to succeed again, and bring the project to the finish line. I think those attributes, which enable people to bring various aspects of knowledge together and to collaborate, are what I think one needs to do.
VB: Before you came to Sweet Briar, you were working in London with Open Society Foundations. Tell us about that experience.
Woo: It was a wonderful experience. I had two offices, one in London and one in Budapest. I had a large staff and a budget of about $27 million that I could give out to higher education institutions around the world. We focused on providing higher education to people who were marginalized, oppressed and otherwise disadvantaged. During my two-year term, I focused a great deal on providing higher education, as best we could, to the Syrian refugees in the Middle East, focusing on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. We also focused on providing higher education to one ethnic group — arguably the most oppressed in the world — called the Rohingyas, who reside in the northwestern part of Burma. We created sort of an underground railroad for those young women and provided a higher education experience for them. We also created the first Ph.D. program in the social sciences in Palestine, supporting Birzeit University in Ramallah, which is in the occupied West Bank.
VB: Anything else you want to tell me about that experience?
Woo: It gave me a bird’s eye view of what global higher education is like, what the needs are. The enrollment of higher education around the world has exploded. The quality, however, didn’t catch up. There is a massive need around the world for really good higher education, the kind Sweet Briar provides. It also taught me that there is really great potential for innovation in higher education to provide the kind of education that people need in the 21st century …
VB: We hear a lot today about students who have taken on debt and then can’t find jobs. How important is it for a college to make sure that a student with a degree can get a job?
Woo: To get a good job, you have to know how to think. If you actually look at income of a business major and compare it with an English major, there is no discernable difference. People think that somehow, if you study accounting as an undergraduate, that guarantees you a really well-paying job. The evidence shows you that this isn’t true. An English major who knows how to write and knows how to think is going to earn just about practically the same amount as an undergraduate business major.
Full disclosure: Virginia Business Publisher Bernie Niemeier is a member of Sweet Briar’s board of directors.