Sweet Briar College announced a new president Monday, almost two years after its leaders said the more-than-100-year-old women’s college would have to close forever.
It was a decision that shocked not only those on campus but college officials across the country, as people asked: Can private liberal arts colleges survive?
At Sweet Briar — so far — the answer is yes.
Meredith Woo will leave the Open Society Foundation in London, where she has been director of the International Higher Education Support Program, supporting higher education for refugees from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, and creating and supporting more than 50 liberal arts colleges in the former Soviet bloc, to lead Sweet Briar.
Previously, she oversaw 11,000 undergraduate students, 1,600 graduate students and 800 full-time faculty at the University of Virginia, as the Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
“I am not innocent of the great challenges ahead,” she planned to tell supporters, but she recognized something important was at stake when alumnae saved the tiny school. “The hallmark of Sweet Briar is an excellent liberal arts education — intense, hands-on, personalized, in small classes and in the intimacy of a lovely campus. To my mind, there is no better preparation for your future in the 21st century than a liberal arts education, and particularly in a college like Sweet Briar that is focused on the development of the whole person — a whole woman, with the complex set of roles and responsibility this implies.”
It’s not cheap to provide that kind of education, she noted. So one of the first challenges will be strengthening the school’s finances without letting go of that legacy.
The college had been slated to close because of numbers: Not enough students, not enough tuition revenue, not enough demand for a private women’s college in rural Virginia.
So after alumnae fought back — with fundraisers and lawsuits, countless volunteer hours, and daisies handed to prospective students — and a settlement was brokered to save the school, the hard work of reopening a school began.
Phillip Stone, a lawyer and former college president, took over a 3,250-acre campus in July of 2015 with no students, no faculty and no staff.
Over and over, he talked people into coming back. Alumnae kept giving: The school exceeded its fundraising goal last year and expects to meet its $20 million goal this year. “Last year’s freshman class was 32, 33 kids,” said Teresa Pike Tomlinson, who leads the board. The school announced it would close at a crucial time for enrollment, just as students were making final choices about where to attend. The impact on revenue from that tiny class will hurt the school’s finances until they graduate, she said, so they have asked donors to fill in the gap until they level out.
Woo said she will draw on her foundation experience to broaden fundraising, so they aren’t just counting on the same pool of alumnae to keep the school afloat. She anticipates they will build collaborations with women’s colleges around the world.
Their enrollment goal for new students, first-years and transfers is 180 students.
They have cut the budget, and come in under budget. They made their enrollment efforts more targeted, and see more commitments, earlier, than they did last year.
Tomlinson said they held nothing back, wanting Woo to know exactly what the challenges were. She said they wondered, with her experience and credentials, if she would understand why they felt so strongly about the importance of their particular type of education — all female, small classes, liberal arts. “She knocked it out of the park,” Tomlinson said.
Speaking from London, Woo said the challenges at Sweet Briar were reflective of those faced by many liberal arts institutions, intensified, of course, by the attempted closure — and eased by the dedication of alumnae who banded so tightly together to help. “I thought it was a really excellent opportunity to do something really important for a college with an important historical, social and cultural legacy.”
She grew up in Seoul, moved to Japan with her family as a teenager and attended a Spanish Catholic high school there, then came to the United States to attend Bowdoin College. She earned a doctorate in political science and master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia.
She was a visiting scholar at the Ministry of Finance in Tokyo, and taught at Northwestern and Columbia universities, specializing in international and comparative politics with a focus on East Asia. Before working at U-Va., Woo was the associate dean for social sciences at the University of Michigan and a tenured professor of political science.
“I’m one of those people who decides where home is, rather than be given a home,” she said. She fell in love with Virginia and the friendships she made during her years in Charlottesville. “Now I’m about to come back home.”
Woo, 58, will begin April 3, working alongside Stone, with whom she talks frequently. He will preside over graduation, and on May 15, she will step in as the 13th president of Sweet Briar College.
Tomlinson planned to tell supporters Monday that “President-elect Woo is a bold change-agent in the most positive sense, stating in her own words that while change is essential in order for higher education institutions like Sweet Briar to thrive, ‘you must remain faithful to who you are — your authentic DNA.’ ” She “gets” Sweet Briar in the most profound way, stating in her interview with the search committee, and referencing the work of poet John Donne, that “Sweet Briar is a ‘little world made cunningly’: it requires a subtle understanding of its complexity and purpose.”
And she told them: “It would be a privilege to work with an organization so beloved.”