Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why Sweet Briar College Must Not Pass Away

Image courtesy of
In the fall of 1998, Julian Bond, then Chairman of the NAACP, came to speak at Sweet Briar College.

I was a second year student at the time. As she often did when such dignitaries came to the campus, the Chaplain of the college was hosting a small tea party to give students and professors a chance to chat with Mr. Bond. I had not yet attended one of these, so I sent my RSVP and was very excited to attend.

This event yielded what I still hold as one of my greatest memories and one of the most defining moments of my life. The scene was calm and idyllic. A beautiful fall day shone crisply outside the windows. Mr. Bond sat in an armchair, a small group assembled around him on antique couches and chairs. We balanced coffee and petite-fours on delicate plates on our knees, a little star-struck and nervous. We wanted to ask questions and enter the conversation yet were afraid of saying something less than impressive in the midst of such an intelligent and accomplished person.

The topic of feminism arose. A student near me offered, "I don't considered myself a feminist. It has such negative connotations." After a moment of consideration, I countered, "I consider myself a feminist because of the dictionary definition. The word means that you believe women deserve equal rights to men, and I do. The word has been a bit vilified, but I still believe in owning this word and what it means. To me, it means something important and that's all that matters, not the connotations that others have added to it. These aren't even in the dictionary."

Mr. Bond looked at me paused for a moment, held a finger to his lips, and nodded. He then said, "Choose your own terms, don't be afraid of others' connotations. I like that. That's good." He then looked at me approvingly before moving on to a question from across the room.

The conversation moved on, but I was transfixed by that moment. I had been a little afraid to offer my own opinion, especially one that conflicted with another student's, but I had decided to take a chance on speaking my own mind. That it was heard, considered, and met with approval by our honored guest was exhilarating.

This event defines the education and self-worth that I earned at Sweet Briar College. From my first moments on campus to my day of departure, this college nurtured my intellect and my sense of self-worth. During my first semester, for example, I took an Honors Seminar called "Women and Migration in the Pacific Rim." It was taught by a visiting honor's fellow named Greta Niu. It turned out to be perhaps the most important class I was ever to take.

The first thing that Professor Niu said to us was: "Analyze everything. Don't take anything at face value, not even, and especially not, what I or other professors tell you or what you read in your textbooks. Make sure it stands up to your own intellectual scrutiny. Does the speaker have a hidden motivation? Is someone else supporting the information with monetary compensation? Is there a political agenda? This course will encourage you to stretch your own intellect and make your own determinations based on sound judgment. I expect nothing less from you. Don't borrow anyone else's words. Use your own."

I was amazed. A professor telling me to not just spout verbatim her words or those of the text? Revolutionary. I had just left a paternalistic Appalachian high school; the American History professor, for example, evaluated historical men by their "effectiveness" and women in history by their level of "hotness." I had been mocked by the teacher and giggled at by the peanut gallery for trying to argue with this.

In that moment, at Professor Niu's words, I felt liberated.

This is the lineage that Sweet Briar offers its students: to become professional, academic women
who leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of personal and educational excellence. It should come as no surprise, then, that the news of the closing of Sweet Briar was met with tears and mourning. This place is like a mother who taught us to think, act, create, and innovate. How could she be in a terminal state?

Unlike the encouragement we had always been given, however, to ask difficult questions and make our own determinations, the Board of Directors met questioning of its conclusions with disdain. They expected us to take their word as authority, to accept without question that the school was unviable and that today's students were neither choosing to attend a rural women's college nor "of the caliber of our generations."

Sadly, the dialogue between the movement to save Sweet Briar and the movement to close has been a very tense one. We expected the administration to be excited that alumnae were sending out a global call to action to save the school, yet we were met with the same sexist slurs that we've all heard leveled at us in the workplace: emotional, vitriolic, irrational. We had never expected to hear these words from those running our school.

I am pretty sure these were the terms leveled at abolitionists and suffragettes. Every day in the work place, women are marginalized, discounted, waved away, patted on the head, and sent out of the room so the big boys can make the real decisions. Is this behavior earned? Are men better off without women, right to merely humor us and marvel at how much better the world of work was before we entered their spaces?

I say, emphatically, no. Sweet Briar is still relevant. It still breathes and yearns to continue to educate because women are still met with emotional slurs when they speak in reasoned terms. Today, our own administrators, a group who has systematically taken the reins by alienating and firing those who stood by its core values, are asking us not to apply the very education that Sweet Briar gave us.

Again, I say no. I choose my own terms. I am not emotional or irrational. I have looked at more statistics and learned more about trial and trust law than I ever thought possible in just a few months and over one issue. I have read, analyzed, discussed, and evaluated, and I have determined that Sweet Briar is not dead or dying. Someone is trying to push her over the cliff, as if to collect on a recently acquired life insurance policy.

Rural colleges are not irrelevant. Women's Colleges are not irrelevant. They may be the day that women are no longer called emotional and irrational for daring to form a different opinion than men, but the Sweet Briar Board of Directors has proven this day has far from arrived.

Thank you, Sweet Briar, for helping me to develop my individualism and reason. Thank you, Greta Niu, for encouraging me to always dig deeper. And thank you, Julian Bond, for helping me to own my own terms. May we be able to use what this fine institution gave us to save her and to be able pass these values on to the next generation of students, every bit as fine as our own.


  1. Fabulous! Thank God the legacy of SBC women is not only class, elegance, and empowerment but critical thinking as well!

  2. NYT and WaPo Op-ed worthy post! Wonderful and thank you. Lovely writer's "voice." Found mine at Sweet Briar too (Class of 1983)! #SAVESWEETBRIAR

  3. Please send as op-ed to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, as Bond is faculty here at UVA . . and then to anywhere else - esp WaPo or NYT - but i would also suggest Chronicle of philanthropy which has been skewed, IMO. this essay is wonderful and should be shared widely!

  4. What a wonderful piece, Tamara! Yes, please, please do share far and wide. It deserves wider readership. Thank you for your thoughts. I remember that night with Julian Bond very, very well.

  5. Time at the Chaplain's home was among my most cherished. I agree with you about the commentary by the President and some Board members after the closure. Comments were laden with sexism, racism and classism. I wrote this blog about it: