Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The college that refused to die

Someone in New York greeted me recently by saying, "How's it going at the most famous college in the country?" That may be a slight exaggeration but there certainly has been an astonishing amount of coverage in the major newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post) with evocative photographs and almost breathless text.

I met Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, who gave the commencement address at Sweet Briar College in June, and I'm not sure I have ever seen a woman with such stunning oratorical and political gifts. She's been the Winston Churchill of the rescue effort, mobilizing words and sending them to war. She is now the new chairman of the board at SBC.

Teresa Tomlinson giving her speech at Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar, in my day and no doubt afterwards, was always known for its powerful alumnae support. I had almost forgotten that. The alumnae are now the saviors of the college. This tiny, rural, Southern liberal-arts college, often the recipient of jokes about its name, its May Court, and its supposed "riding major," was a powerhouse after all. It makes me proud of women. I think quite a few of us alumnae are a bit ashamed of the way we played dead when the announcement was made about the college closing. I have not been feeling emotional or nostalgic about Sweet Briar for decades, but that's changed now; this paragraph from the Roanoke newspaper brought a mist to my eyes:
"In a strange, wonderful way, what nearly killed Sweet Briar might make it stronger. It certainly gives the school a big, fat talking point. Other colleges have closed and their graduates weren’t able to save them. Sweet Briar’s did. Stone [new president] says he’s gotten inquiries from prospective students and faculty who were interested in the school because of what happened, not despite it. 'There’s something special here,' Stone says."
I am only sorry that the new president is a man. I was always so proud of the fact that almost all the presidents had been women, including especially the founding president and the four presidents after her, till 1970 when there was a man for a few years. His wife drove a lot of people crazy. My cousin Ross Dabney, who was professor of English for many years, writes in his memoirs that she complained to him about Isaac Bashevis Singer being asked to speak at Sweet Briar. She thought he was too rarefied. When asked whom she would prefer, she suggested (to the speechless horror of Prof. Dabney) Barbara Walters.