Prof to Sweet Briar Prez: Stay away on graduation day

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The fight to save Sweet Briar College in Amherst heads to the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Norm Shafer The fight to save Sweet Briar College in Amherst heads to the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Norm Shafer

When the Sweet Briar College class of 2015 walks the stage at commencement on Saturday, May 16, hundreds of their family members, professors and friends will be present to see what may well be the school’s last graduation ceremony. Sweet Briar Professor Marcia Thom-Kaley is urging one person to stay away.

“Your presence at graduation will only serve to continue to divide us,” Thom-Kaley writes in an open letter to Sweet Briar Interim President James F. Jones, suggesting that his presence will likely prompt angry responses, which would take focus away from the new graduates. “You will force us to choose between our love for our students and our innate belief that wrongdoing should never be celebrated nor ignored—on any level. Indeed, you will ask us to turn away from our deepest calling as teachers and behave in a manner in which we would never ask our students to behave—quiet, complicit, apathetic.”

The 114-year-old women’s college in Amherst County has been at the center of a higher education controversy since Jones and the Sweet Briar board announced on March 3 that the school would close at the end of the spring semester. The decision is being challenged by three separate lawsuits brought on behalf of alumnae, faculty and students, and has prompted one Pennsylvania-based whistleblower to accuse college leaders of fraud.

While she wrote the letter as an individual, Thom-Kaley said she believes the sentiments she expresses in her letter represent “the majority of the Sweet Briar community.”

Jones, who is scheduled to give opening remarks and the invocation at the smaller Baccalaureate Ceremony on Friday, May 15, does not appear to have been swayed by Thom-Kaley’s request.

“The president is going to preside over the commencement on Saturday,” Sweet Briar spokeswoman Christy Jackson said in an email responding to C-VILLE’s request for comment on the letter.

Story updated at 4:32pm with response from Christy Jackson.

Full text of Marcia Thom-Kaley’s letter:

Dear Dr. Jones:

As you know, this Saturday will mark the 106th Commencement Ceremony of Sweet Briar College. We, as a community, will celebrate the young women who have blossomed over the course of the past four years—the women who have been our students. We have educated, nurtured, and grown deeply connected with them during their time at Sweet Briar.

These women have struggled over the past nine weeks, more so than any graduating class in the history of the college.  They have become divided due to a civil war of sorts which has threatened their solidarity and stolen many of their “memory making” moments. They have watched as their beloved faculty have been torn asunder and attempted to comfort and encourage their sister underclass women. Indeed, they have been called upon to rise in strength and courage beyond what many of them could have dreamed possible.  They are, indeed, Sweet Briar women.

As we prepare to disperse after graduation and continue to await the court decisions before us, I ask one favor of you on behalf of the academic community you were charged to lead:

Please reconsider your resolve to attend Commencement on Saturday, May 16. 

Graduation should, truly, be a time of celebration for our graduates and their families.  It should also be a time of bittersweet gathering among people who have endeavored to become better simply by knowing what an outstanding academic environment can achieve on a small campus—community.  Your presence at graduation will only serve to continue to divide us. You will potentially subject yourself and your family to open criticism, verbal assault and disdainful treatment. You will force us to choose between our love for our students and our innate belief that wrongdoing should never be celebrated nor ignored—on any level.  Indeed, you will ask us to turn away from our deepest calling as teachers and behave in a manner in which we would never ask our students to behave—quiet, complicit, apathetic.

True enough, some would call this behavior “respectful” and would point out that in polite society we are often asked to hold our tongues because, sometimes, speaking up is just not worth the effort or, perhaps, it is the “right” thing to do given the circumstances. How can it be right, though, to go quietly when we consider what is at stake?  Keeping our opinions to ourselves hardly seems appropriate at this point when our opinions have given rise to social media assuming a new place of importance in our lives. Protesting quietly seems to be a contradiction in terms to me, and I am not quite sure I understand the point.

I do believe, however, that we can have the Commencement Ceremony our graduates deserve if you will grant us this one favor. In doing so, you will show us that you do, indeed, care about us as a community. Regardless of your apparent commitment to closing our beloved home, please consider giving us one last space to grieve together for what we have endured these past nine weeks; give us one last opportunity to truly celebrate our students without interruption. Finally, give us one last opportunity to be the family we have become.