Alumnae saved Sweet Briar College. Now one of them will lead the school.
Mary Pope Maybank Hutson, a 1983 graduate of Sweet Briar College, will be the 14th president of the private women’s school near Lynchburg, Va.
Eight years ago, the president of Sweet Briar College abruptly announced the more-than-century-old school would shut down. Horrified alumnae rushed in to save the small private women’s college in Virginia — and they did.Now, after a national search, one of those women, Mary Pope Maybank Hutson, will be the school’s 14th president, college leaders announced Thursday. She’ll be the first alumna in the role.Hutson is not an academic, like many who rise from faculty to dean to provost to president. But she hopes to turn the skills she used in jobs across the country and overseas — including fundraising, historic preservation, policymaking, and conservation and nonprofit management — to steward the nearly 3,000-acre campus near Lynchburg, Va., and ensure a strong financial grounding for its future. The school has about 460 students.A graduate of the class of 1983, Hutson has been heading efforts to raise money for the school since 2015. Under her leadership, Sweet Briar has raised more than $140 million.That money was initially an existential challenge: The school’s then-president said the school faced insurmountable financial problems and needed to shut down forever.Now, funding is an effort to drive forward and ensure Sweet Briar’s sustainability.Hutson was one of thousands of alumnae who hurried to help save the school, raising enough money to meet the terms of a legal settlement that kept Sweet Briar open in 2015. She joined the board, then was recruited by the school’s new president, Phillip C. Stone, to join the administration. (She had most recently worked as the executive vice president of the Land Trust Alliance.) She served as senior vice president for alumnae relations and development. After the school’s 13th president, Meredith Woo, stepped down in June, Hutson took on the role of interim president while a national search was underway for a leader. Hutson “just kept rising to the top,” said Mason Bennett Rummel, Sweet Briar’s board chair. “She has been so successful in the fundraising which has sustained this college, and she has redesigned and restructured and really rebuilt the enrollment and recruitment process, which is showing really great gains.” Increasing enrollment is key to ensuring sustainability, Rummel said, so they are less reliant on philanthropy.“They really have to get bigger,” Stone said. In the summer of 2015, when the school reopened, there were zero students; by the fall, 240 had re-enrolled or come for the first time.Their goal over the next few years is to get the student body to 650, from about 460 now.The school, a tiny women’s college on a sprawling campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain, with multiple buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, is unusual. But its challenges aren’t. Liberal arts colleges across the country are facing headwinds including rising costs and shrinking demand, making nontraditional, entrepreneurial leaders an appealing option for some.Stone said college presidents are often advised that they should spend at least half of their time fundraising — and that Hutson has proven success at that. “It was amazing to see how well she could do it,” he said. “She’s had spectacular success.”A fundamental challenge for everyone in higher education, Hutson said, is “building enduring institutions.” She said the college will be looking at maximizing auxiliary revenue, such as summer camps or its well-regarded riding center.Rummel said she was anticipating questions from faculty about Hutson’s lack of academic experience, but said she is confident in the school’s curriculum, deans and faculty. “That’s part of college,” she said, but there’s much more: “College life, college sustainability, the historical aspect of this place and its legacy. And that’s what Mary Pope’s really good at: thinking about the big picture, and Sweet Briar’s place in the higher education landscape, and especially for women’s education.”Hutson praised the work of Woo, the previous president, in homing in on the school’s areas of academic strengths, including female leadership, engineering, arts and design, and environmental sustainability.Woo described Hutson as brilliant, with an unwavering commitment to the school. “Creative and strategic, she is a preternatural problem-solver, gifted at finding elegant solutions to highly vexing problems,” she wrote in an email.Rummel said Hutson’s decades of dedication to Sweet Briar were persuasive. “She has committed her life to the school,” Rummel said.Hutson said this is all grounded in her years as a student at Sweet Briar, “where I was encouraged to be a leader, and encouraged to give back.”