10 Questions: Lawyer Phillip Stone helps revive Southern institution
When Virginia lawyer Phillip C. Stone took the helm at Sweet Briar College, bringing it back from the brink of closure took skill, expertise and sheer determination.
The fall semester is in full swing at Sweet Briar, a 115-year-old women’s liberal arts and sciences college nestled in the verdant foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. On any given day, students are hurrying past rose bushes and gracious white-columned buildings on their way to class. They’re training for equestrian competitions, meeting friends, conducting experiments, researching theories. The scene is so busy and so bucolic, it’s easy to forget that just last year, Sweet Briar’s leadership had decided to close the college down, citing fatal financial problems. But a group of determined alumnae refused to let their beloved alma mater go. Protests and lawsuits ensued, all culminating in a summertime settlement that ensured classes could remain in session—at least in theory. When Stone, Sweet Briar’s newly appointed president, arrived on July 2, 2015, the campus was quiet. Too quiet. There were no professors. Few staff. No students. Even the horses in the college’s fabled stables were gone. But Stone had experience in small college turn-arounds: Under his leadership, Bridgewater College, about 80 miles northeast, had increased its enrollment 78 percent and raised more than $40 million for its endowment. So, as Sweet Briar leaders had been doing for more than a century before him, Stone rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
Q. Congratulations on a successful 2015-2016 year. How does it feel?
A. Thank you. We’ve been through the ringer, but we are alive, we are celebrating, and we’ve had a flawless academic year.
Q. Your “Day One” situation sounds pretty dire. What were the initial challenges you faced when you came to Sweet Briar, and what did you do first?
A. When I came to the campus over the July 4th weekend in 2015, my first act was to arrange for the technology people to post an announcement on the website to rehire all faculty and staff, sight unseen. I had hundreds of emails that first day. In those first few weeks, I put an interim team in place and worked with faculty leadership to identify who could be convinced to stay. In some cases, entire departments were gone. That gave us about five weeks to get a new food service, get our renowned horse-riding program back, get our junior-year-abroad program back and get our sports teams back on game schedules. There was also the little matter of recruiting students. We had none. I was working 16-to-18-hour days. People were feeling sorry for me. They brought me pie.
Q. Did you have a mantra or something that kept you motivated?
A. “Impossible is just another problem to solve.” We have this mantra printed on a big banner here on campus, and I put it on my email tag line.
Q. What was it about this job that attracted you? I mean, you are in your early 70s, you’ve established a wonderful law practice with three of your children who are also lawyers, and you’ve had a successful and distinguished career. Do you have a connection to Sweet Briar?
A. I had no connection to Sweet Briar, and I had only been there once, several years before, for a meeting. But I love Virginia, and this was an important Virginia institution. I knew Sweet Briar’s great reputation, and I knew one of their former presidents. I thought: This can’t be permitted to happen, that a wonderful liberal arts women’s college with a great reputation and a great endowment and no public information about any stress or financial difficulties would go under, especially without a fight to do everything possible to save it.
Q. Is this the kind of job where law experience has been helpful?
A. I think there are many lessons from an active law practice that are transferable. We pride ourselves on being problem solvers, but we know we can’t spend forever working on them. I think that the ability to pick up a new file and say, “What’s this about?” serves you well when you enter the collegiate environment because there’s something new happening every moment.
Q. How was the mood on campus after that first year?
A. People love this college. We’ve tried to really enhance the sense of community, build morale and add to the beauty of the campus—make it sparkle more. The alumnae have been so invested. They not only saved this place; they’ve given generously. Faculty tell me they’ve enjoyed teaching this year more than any other year in their career and the reason is: We’re one team, one community. And the students are thrilled that they’re here at such a pivotal time. They know they’re making history.
Q. What are your goals going forward?
A. The two obvious objectives are to get money and to get students.
Q. And you’re on your way to achieving both—enrollment will be up this year by about 100 students over last year, the endowment remains untouched, and you’ve just raised $10 million. The equestrian team even won its conference championship again.
A. Yes. At this point, no one is wringing their hands and wondering if we will make it another year.
Q. Speaking of years, are you planning to lead Sweet Briar into the future?
A. I said when I got here that, especially with my age, my job isn’t to lead this college indefinitely. I will be here another year, but a search is being conducted now to name my successor.
Q. What will you do next?
A. I might fully retire. I might go back to my law firm. My kids are still holding down the fort and even claiming that they’ll be glad for me to join them again. But without all this excitement, I hope I can adjust!
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Making the Grade: Lawyer helps revive Southern institution.”