An Interview with Phillip Stone: Leading Sweet Briar in Good Company

Phillip-Stone

Image Credit: Sweet Briar College

When I spoke with Phillip Stone on July 2nd, it was the day that the Sweet Briar settlement agreement, reached through a mediation process and approved by the court, was finally ordained for the passing of the torch. The old board was to step down and the new board was to meet at 5:00 pm, whereupon they were expected to get Stone on the phone and elect him as their new college president.

“When that happens,” he said, “like the Velveteen Rabbit, I’ll be real.”

The analogy is apt because any president of the new Sweet Briar would have to know that he or she is to be “made real” only through the heartfelt election of its stakeholders. Those stakeholders are now represented by a board that includes a number of those active in saving the school from the trash heap and, though Stone has long been Saving Sweet Briar’s choice for president, a relationship will need to be negotiated between a board that will likely fully expect to be activist and a president used to a more traditional role.

Stone was a president of Bridgewater College for 16 years, but in 2009 had retired to practice law with three of his children. Then he heard about the former board’s decision to close Sweet Briar:

“When the announcement was made, I was quite shocked and, frankly, in that I had a lot of company. A friend of mine who was also involved in higher education called and said, ‘What do you make of this?’ And, as we were talking, he said, ‘Don’t you think it could be saved?’ And, I said, well, who knows all the facts, but on the face of it you’d certainly think that you could. They have a nice endowment, beautiful grounds and so on. So, a couple weeks later, one of his acquaintances in the firm representing Saving Sweet Briar called me to say, ‘Oh, we read your CV and looked up your credentials, and we heard about you from so and so, and we wondered would you be open to being president of the college if the Saving Sweet Briar effort is successful to take control of the college?’

“Brashly, I agreed. At that point, we were still some weeks away from the end of school and it seemed, even though it was a long shot, that they would get governance control. It seemed as if Saving Sweet Briar had a realistic chance if they could gain control…before the students dispersed and the faculty started taking jobs and so forth. But as I saw the graduation date getting closer and closer, I started to get a lot more anxiety. And, then, later, because of the legal machinations in this case with the Supreme Court reversing the trial judge and so forth, I was asked if I would act as fiduciary, but the understanding was it would be appointment by the court to run the college. At that point, they went into mediation and, to the credit of everybody involved, reached a settlement that allowed for a president, and I was still there and willing.”

Stone said that once he was offered the job, his plan was to show up on Friday morning to begin communicating with the campus community. His expectation was to rehire the entire faculty, which had been given letters of termination effective on June 30th. This, he says, would be a necessary first step in a situation in which perfect alignment of resources to needs might be difficult for a while.

“We already know that the enrollment is going to be a real challenge. We didn’t finish recruiting the freshman class, and a lot of the other students have transferred. We almost certainly will have more faculty and staff doing it this way than we must have. But, I need to make sure that we’re open for business and I don’t have the luxury of taking two or three months to purge the list of the people we really need and the people we do not need—and, frankly, until the students show up, it’s hard to even know that. So I’ve said it’s just a cost of transition. It’s a cost of taking over, to honor the expectations of current faculty and staff as to their livelihoods, and during this coming year as they work and get paid, we can make adjustments if we need to make any, but right now I want them all and that’s what I’m saying to them.

“People are wondering, are you really supposed to come in and just kind of get the lay of the land and then close it now, or are you supposed to come in and decide whether they made a good judgment to close it? And, so, part of what I have to do is to establish the trust relationship that I came in to run it. I don’t want to be involved in closing schools. I’ve got better things to do. I don’t need a job; I didn’t apply for a job. I’m coming in with the attitude that we’re going to save Sweet Briar and keep it running, and that’s what we’ll be working on. Faculty and alumnae and others have been energized by the efforts to save Sweet Briar and keep it open, and now we have to hunker down and help all that gain a more coherent momentum.

“It is an extraordinary situation and the Saving Sweet Briar effort is proof of the resource that is embodied in the energy of the stakeholders, that it’s not only a hypothetical resource—in fact, we’ve seen it lived out. It is a resource. Even as the former board thought they were doing everybody a favor by keeping this close to the vest until the decision was made, because of all the interruption that occurs, as it turns out they missed out on some of the best energy and the greatest resource they had available to them in an effort to keep the school open.”

As NPQ was getting ready to publish this interview, we heard that the new board had elected alumna Teresa Tomlinson, who expressed strong feelings about the necessary value of inclusive governance as this year’s 2015 Sweet Briar commencement speaker. But implementing this turnaround will no doubt be not only exciting and fun but tough work. To quote from Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit,

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”

The stakeholders at Sweet Briar have proven their fierce love for the college and that they have the chops and skills to get the job done if it can be. Stone believes it can, and he is digging in to help make a collective vision that’s not only real, but collectively owned—and that will be something to watch.