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On Campus: Sweet Briar College Almost Closed. What Will It Take to Thrive?

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There is an old African proverb. that if you educate men, you educate individuals. But if you educate women, you educate the nation. And the reason, obviously, is that because women will educate their families, and eventually spread the education throughout the society.

I remember delivering these women to the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The women were shy, shellshocked and in some ways frightened, although full of hope for the future. Very soon, they just thrived. For them to speak English, to learn how to debate and speak in public, and learn all the wonderful things that you learn in a liberal arts college, was so empowering. The next time I saw them, they were even in your face a little bit — very assertive and confident. And I thought, my God, this is the kind of thing that happens perhaps in an all-women environment, but may be difficult in a coed environment for these women.

M.J.: You went from a global perch to one narrowly focused on a particular type of education. What prompted you to return to Virginia and assume the presidency at Sweet Briar?

M.W.: The decision to take the job at Sweet Briar was an odd one since I have been a product of — at least in terms of teaching and management — big research universities. I was working at the Open Society Foundations on a two-year leave from the University of Virginia. After two years, I had to fish or cut bait. And at that moment, I got a call from Sweet Briar College.

I knew that it was an excellent school that produces remarkable women. Sweet Briar is also an interesting part of American cultural history. The architect Ralph Adams Cram designed the campus. When you look at the original design of the campus, you can’t help but think that Sweet Briar was born as a great college. The ambition was to turn it into a significant American liberal arts college. It is unthinkable that one would relegate a wonderful place like this to the dustbin of history.

M.J.: There’s been a lot of discussion related to the business model of higher education. And one of the reasons cited for the near closing of Sweet Briar was its financial situation. What are your thoughts on the financial model for small liberal arts colleges?

M.W.: Well, we will thrive on the basis of great excellence and


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