Sweet Briar installs 12th president, celebrates Founders’ Day

| September 25, 2015

Phillip C. Stone was installed as Sweet Briar’s 12th president during Founders’ Day on Sept. 25, 2015.

Neither the threat of rain — which had materialized sporadically throughout the morning — nor the thunderous winds that blew through the Quad could have stopped Sweet Briar College from celebrating another, once unlikely, Founders’ Day and the investiture of Phillip C. Stone as its 12th president.

As if to stress the moment’s novelty, the College’s Board of Directors, accompanied by a bagpiper, led a charmingly unruly procession of seniors, faculty and, finally, the stage party through the cheering crowd.

As Sweet Briar’s advanced choir sang the last fading notes of “Locus Iste,” College Chaplain Matt Gaventa welcomed students, alumnae, faculty and staff, as well as many special guests.

“I am so glad to be here — again!” he said, referring to his last official address as chaplain at commencement in May.

He went on to tell a story from the Old Testament in which Moses asks God for water because his people are dying of thirst. Directed by God, Moses ends up finding it in the desert, “in sight of the elders of the tribe,” Gaventa said.

“That last phrase is the key to the whole thing,” he explained. “Yes, this is the story of a miracle — the waters of life in the unlikeliest place — but more so, this is the origin story of the elders of the tribe. … It’s an entirely new job, with entirely new responsibilities, made just for them. So yes, this is the story of a miracle. But the miracle brings with it a whole new set of expectations for the people who witness it. The miracle doesn’t just change the rock and the water. The miracle changes who its witnesses are called to be.”

Back in May, Gaventa added, “we were a people thirsty in the wilderness. But today, we gather as the elders of the tribe, transformed by what we have seen, and called upon for the new task at hand.”

After a brief introduction by Dean Pam DeWeese, President Stone — as usual, greeted by standing ovations — took time to recognize some of the people in his and the College’s life who had made a difference or offered their support in the last few months. First up was his family, whom he asked to stand; then the Board of Directors; followed by presidents emeriti Elisabeth Muhlenfeld and Barbara Hill, who were both present. Stone also thanked the presidents of Lynchburg, Randolph and Hampden-Sydney College, all three of whom had come to celebrate with him.

Finally, the board of Saving Sweet Briar was recognized with standing ovations from the crowd and a “Way to go!” from the president. Stone then enlisted Sarah Clement, chair of Saving Sweet Briar’s board of directors, to present special resolutions to two parties integral to the College’s survival: Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer and Richmond-based law firm Troutman Sanders.

And perhaps none of it would have been possible without the battle cry delivered at commencement by one of Sweet Briar’s most fervent cheerleaders and believers: Columbus, Ga., mayor Teresa Pike Tomlinson ’87, chair of the College’s new Board of Directors.

This time, Tomlinson was here to crown the new president.

“It’s a celebration, as surreal as it is sweet,” she said.

Reflecting on her speech in the spring, which invoked Winston Churchill, she reiterated its most crucial lesson: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never!

“We stood all alone four months ago,” she added, fighting back tears. “To many it seemed that we were finished. … Very different is the mood today. … We have only to persevere to conquer. We are here today by force of will and faith.”

Stone, she said, showed “an unshakeable commitment to higher education and excellence.”

As Tomlinson bestowed on him the Presidential Medal, the bells rang 12 times, accompanied by roaring applause and cheers.

“We are very conscious here at Sweet Briar that we are making history,” Stone said. “Making history means taking control of one’s destiny … and creating a new reality.”

Rejecting the fatalistic mood currently prevalent among critics of liberal arts colleges — and higher education in general — Stone reminded the community that Sweet Briar was special.

“It’s hard to find any precedent for alumnae saving their school,” he said. “At Sweet Briar College — you know the rest — the impossible is just another problem to solve.”

And, he added, “[not] since the death of Indiana Fletcher Williams has such generosity been poured on these grounds.”

But he also cautioned that the saving was not over.

“We made history by participating and continuing to participate,” he said.

“I call on us to stay the course as we make history. We need to make history that matters. It must have content. We must give it some value. We must give it some substance. Now the challenge is: How do we not only save the College, how do we make it flourish and save it for noble purposes?”

Sweet Briar, he said, could not “rest on its laurels of having made history by proving that a small women’s college can stay alive through the efforts of its alumnae and friends.”

Sure, it was an impressive accomplishment — but not enough, he said.

“We must have the values of Sweet Briar preserved in history. We must demonstrate that liberal arts, private liberal arts residential colleges are going to survive and remain part of the fabric of higher education for America. We are going to provide leadership for America.”

The College, he added, must “face the future boldly, creatively and with excitement.”

Optimism was critical, he said, as was a commitment to helping students reach their fullest potential academically and socially.

President Stone receives a gift from Lt. Col. Michael P. Solovey.

“In one hundred and fourteen years, we want people to gather here for Founders’ Day and look back at our time and say, ‘They made history!’

“We want this unbelievable rescue to be followed by a burst of energy, creativity, growth and renewal,” he concluded. “If we do this, we will truly have made history. This is our time. It is our place. We will save the College, we will assure the vision endures; we will keep the faith of the founder. At Sweet Briar College, the roses still bloom.”

As has become a ritual since Stone took office on July 2, students answered his speech with an emphatic “Holla, Holla, Holla.”

On behalf of the alumnae, Tomlinson then presented Stone with a special gift: “Giving Us Wings Since 1901,” an artwork by Lt. Col. Michael P. Solovey (VMI ’96). Sales of prints made from the piece had contributed a significant amount of money to Saving Sweet Briar, she said. Now, the artist had decided to donate the original to “commemorate the continuation of this very special College.”

Drops of rain sprinkled overhead as the choir, followed by Gaventa, made a final appearance.

“Friends, colleagues, fellow elders of the tribe,” began his benediction. “Go into this day, into this hour, into this season with courage. May you this day, and every day to come, honor this place, this people, and this story, with imagination.”

You can watch a video of the whole ceremony here. Read coverage of the service at Monument Hill here.

Janika Carey

Photos by Ray Barbour



Category: Academics, Founders' Day, President