Sweet Briar President Announces Plans to Retire in 2009

| April 28, 2008

Elisabeth Showalter Muhlenfeld announced on April 26 that she will retire from her position as president of Sweet Briar College in June 2009.

She will leave a community deeply grateful for 13 years of distinguished service, during which she guided Sweet Briar through both good and difficult times. She has chosen this time in large measure because of a successful strategic plan implemented four years ago that has allowed the College to flourish.

Elisabeth Muhlerfeld

In a letter announcing her plans, Muhlenfeld points to “long-deferred projects and aspirations” and a desire to spend more time with family as personal reasons. More importantly, she said, the time is right for Sweet Briar.

“I know that a period of fiscal stability and creative energy is an ideal time for the College to undertake a presidential transition,” she wrote.

Sweet Briar’s board chairman, Dr. Virginia Collier, noted there is never a “good” time for such an extraordinary person as President Muhlenfeld to retire.

“However, largely due to her leadership, the College is in excellent shape, with new or updated facilities, outstanding academic programs, nationally known faculty, highly effective, cohesive senior administrators and sound finances,” Collier said. “As a result, the College is well positioned to meet the challenges of the future.”

Since 2004, Sweet Briar has steadily increased enrollment even as other single-sex institutions made the difficult decision to become co-educational. It has reduced endowment spending and, in 2006, wrapped up a $111 million capital campaign.

Sweet Briar also became one of two women’s colleges in the country to offer engineering degrees. The College enlarged its curriculum in other ways, adding master’s programs in teaching and education, an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, several new undergraduate majors, and certificates in equine studies and leadership.

In her letter, Muhlenfeld said the 2003-04 strategic planning initiative, called Shape of the Future, concluded with a recommitment of Sweet Briar’s role as a women’s college and a reaffirmation that 21st-century, liberally educated women must be well-equipped for professional life.

“As a true scholarly community, we have become more collaborative and interdisciplinary, conscious of our obligation to help students understand how to integrate everything they learn. The academic quality of a Sweet Briar education has never been higher,” she wrote.

The College also has expanded its facilities with the opening of the Florence Elston Inn & Conference Center, Prothro Commons and renovations that turned an old dairy into a studio arts complex, a train station into laboratory and classroom space, and a water plant into a nature center and laboratory. As the end of Muhlenfeld’s tenure approaches, a 53,000-square-foot fitness center will be nearing completion.

Muhlenfeld became Sweet Briar’s ninth president in August 1996. She arrived from Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she taught for much of her career and left as the founding dean of undergraduate studies.

She entered higher education after graduating from Goucher College in 1966, teaching high school for several years and raising a family. She completed a master’s in English at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1973 and a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina in 1978.

A student of Southern writers, she is the author of four books and many articles and essays. Muhlenfeld also is active in many professional and civic organizations. She speaks frequently on numerous topics including issues affecting undergraduate education, and she advocates for women’s colleges.

She and her husband, Laurin A. Wollan Jr., have four adult children and six grandchildren. Reflecting on her decision to retire, she said her growing family and personal aspirations tugged against her commitment to Sweet Briar’s future.

Muhlenfeld noted Sweet Briar will embark on a new capital campaign in the next few years, a six- or seven-year commitment of a president’s time. “This is an ideal moment to attract a talented new leader to Sweet Briar, who will be able to get to know the alumnae and friends of the College,” she said.

Finally, she recognized that many Shape of the Future initiatives are still early in their development and need nurturing.

“I realized one day that there would never be a moment when I could say, ‘Well, everything is done, and there are no new projects that interest me. Every new project, every challenge interests me.”

Jennifer McManamay

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