When Meredith Woo took over as president of Sweet Briar College in 2017, the nonprofit Virginia women’s institution was seen as a troubled place. Alumnae wrestled the college back from the brink of closure but still faced financial problems, leading to a warning from its accreditor.
Woo recently she announced that she was leaving from her role as president of Sweet Briar in the spring of 2024. She spoke with Higher Ed Dive about her tenure.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
HIGHER ED DIVE: When you took over as president, Sweet Briar was still in the news for trying to close in 2015 and there were some accreditation issues due to financial stress. I was wondering if you had any doubts about the role.
MEREDITH WOO: When I came here in 2017, I wish I could say that I did my due diligence and that I studied the finances, studied the academics and all the institutional aspects of the college as much as I could and made a sound decision to lead the institution into the future . In fact, it wasn’t. Because no matter how hard I tried to understand the college situation in 2017, it wasn’t that easy to understand what was going on.
But for me, joining Sweet Briar and choosing to lead it was an act of faith. Sweet Briar is not only a very good college, but has served as an important cultural, social and economic pillar for Central Virginia for a very long time.
A college is not just a commercial enterprise or even a non-profit entity. It is really a very important national treasure, often for a country. Sweet Briar fulfills a very important role in the education of women. There are a lot of women on college campuses today. In fact, there are more women than men in universities. But there is a role to be played by all-women institutions that provide a truly empowering education for that small segment of women who could really benefit. And so for me it was the conviction that this institution has the right backbone, the right building blocks, and that with a little creativity and imagination we can make it work.
And about that creativity and imagination: During your tenure as president, you made several changes to the college, some of which may have helped its longevity. What do you think have been the most impressive changes?
One is the kind of change that is focused on the business, that is done immediately to become sustainable. So the very first thing I did was what you might call a very comprehensive college reset – academically, financially, and budget-wise.
Academically, that meant getting rid of all our gen ed and creating a new kind of gen ed in the form of a very narrowly structured core curriculum for women’s leadership that talks about liberal arts excellence, but being very intentional about making women leaders go through four years of very good education.
In order to attract students, we decided to change the regime of our finances. So instead of having a regime of very high sticker prices and very high discount rates, we decided to make our tuition very transparent, but also deploy over 200 different scholarship endowment accounts to provide our students with reasonable merit scholarships. And so it was a very radical change that was a tuition reset, almost a 40% reduction in tuition to make our tuition affordable.
When I first came here, we had less than 200 students. And we had 85 faculty members with 45 majors. And so we cut the number of majors in half and also adjusted the number of faculty and staff to make it reasonable or appropriate for the student body that we had. None of this was very easy.
The second set of changes were much more structural and consist of two things.
One was the step-by-step creation of a five-year action plan that sought to highlight the things Sweet Briar is or could arguably be better at than anyone else. And the other one worked on the infrastructure of the college.
In the future five-year plan, we have highlighted five things where we can really differentiate ourselves. One agenda is to make our core leadership curriculum as good as it can be.
Second, to make our sustainability efforts very high. And that’s a very interesting thing, because Sweet Briar’s campus is without a doubt one of the most beautiful in the country.
The third thing is that we are the only fully ABET accredited engineering program that has only female students in the class. In a classroom free of misogyny and intimidation, our students thrive.
The fourth thing that Sweet Briar is really good at is we have the oldest equestrian program in the country. By far the best equestrian program among liberal arts colleges. We will honor this legacy by building meaningful academic programs around it. So that it can be a program that is truly comprehensive in terms of athletics, career path and academics.
And then finally trying to make Sweet Briar a destination in Virginia and across the country.
And while we are doing this, we have lost no time, especially during the pandemic, to invest in buildings, infrastructure and land. Sweet Briar College is one of the very rare colleges where the entire core of the campus is a National Register Historic District. We invested in creating 20 acres of vineyards, wildflower meadows and an apiary, and created a 27,000 square foot greenhouse where women learn to produce the food they eat.
Sweet Briar has a very engaged alumni network, and they were very active in fighting the attempt to close in 2015. What was it like working somewhere with such an engaged alumni network?
It’s wonderful. You know, a lot of people said after 2015 that the kind of support and passion that the alumni showed and the amount of money that they gave was going to dissipate very soon. This has not been confirmed.
Graduates are absolutely excited about the future. And even though we’re going through a very long, stable transition, to the point where you can talk about a stable transition, the graduates are with us, they’re gung-ho. It was truly a privilege to work with such dedicated women.
You mentioned academic restructuring. You cut the number of majors in half and cut the number of teachers. And you said it was challenging. Were there any deviations from this plan when you implemented it? And do you think it was right?
Well, sometimes you do something not because it’s right or wrong, but because you have to. And we were in a situation where we had no choice. We either do it or we are not viable. It is simply not possible to maintain the number of courses and staff we have with less than 200 students. But you rely on the fact that you do it with the utmost intelligence, with all the dedication and passion you have for college. And then eventually, as enrollment grows, we can expand the rest of the staff as well. And that actually happened.
Next fall we will have something north of 500 students coming to us. And then I think we’ll get to 600 soon. Six hundred is probably what Sweet Briar always had as a record. And we’ll probably stop and take a deep breath and ask ourselves, “Do we want to build another dorm now or not?”
Why are you leaving the position of president and where are you headed?
I loved being president of Sweet Briar College. And we have a very slow transition ahead. I will be here as long as it takes, depending on the pace of the search for a new president. And I don’t really think about where I’m going. I am completely 200% focused on my job and making sure Sweet Briar is well placed.
I think it’s really time for me to pass the baton to the next leader. As the prophet says in Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season.” And I feel that this is the season to hand over that great job to the new president.