A former University of Virginia dean with an international backstory will lead Sweet Briar College in the next chapter of its recovery efforts.
Meredith Woo, dean of U.Va.’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences from 2008-14, was introduced on Sweet Briar’s campus Monday as a “bold and strong change agent in the most positive sense.”
“She gets Sweet Briar in a profound way,” said Teresa Pike Tomlinson, chairwoman of the board of directors and of the presidential search committee.
Woo will succeed Phillip C. Stone, who stepped in to lead the private women’s college at its 11th hour and last April announced he would retire after this academic year. She will begin working with Stone on April 3 and become the college’s 13th president on May 15.
Two years ago this March, the previous leadership announced plans to permanently close the women’s college in Amherst County because of low enrollment, prompting a successful revolt by alumnae to reverse the decision.
Woo said she had received a full accounting of the college’s financial challenges as well as what “shades of pink are acceptable.”
A native of South Korea, Woo described falling in love with Sweet Briar’s beauty in the same way she was drawn to Bowdoin College when she saw a picture in National Geographic of a house in Maine while she was a student at an international school in Tokyo.
She arrived at Bowdoin, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, holding her “F1 student visa with white knuckles.”
Pledging to “embrace the world,” Woo drew applause when she said the “genius of this country” can be found in its openness to immigrants.
She emphasized the safety of the campus — twice repeating the word safety. The college has been recruiting international students by highlighting its secure location and single-sex environment.
Woo has been in London most recently as director of the Higher Education Support Program for the Open Society Foundations. The program works to support more than 50 liberal arts colleges in the former Soviet bloc and support higher education for refugee populations in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
At U.Va, Woo oversaw 11,000 undergraduate students, 1,600 graduate students and 800 full-time faculty. Total enrollment at Sweet Briar this academic year, including study-abroad students, is 376, about 50 more than the previous year.
Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Ga., credited Woo with nearly tripling philanthropic support as Arts & Sciences dean at a time of steep appropriation cuts from the state.
Woo has an undeniable passion for women’s education, Tomlinson said. “She believes when you educate women you educate generations.”
A women’s college, Woo said, is “not about access. Women can go to any college they want.”
But a women’s college focuses on empowerment and leadership, she said.
Woo holds a doctorate and master’s from Columbia University. Her specialty is international and comparative politics with a focus on East Asia.
Her husband, Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago, and son, Ben Cumings, a recent Bowdoin graduate, accompanied her at the live-streamed event.