Founded in 1901, Sweet Briar College is the legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams, who left her entire estate to found an institution in memory of her only daughter. Daisy Williams died at the age of 16 in 1884. At the time of Mrs. Williams’ death in 1900, her estate consisted of more than a million dollars, and over 8,000 acres of land, including the Sweet Briar Plantation. The first board of directors determined that the College should be free from denominational control and that it should maintain the highest academic standards. Sweet Briar would unite classical and modern ideals of education and, in the words of its founder, prepare young women “to be useful members of society.”
Sweet Briar opened formally in September 1906 with 51 students, including 15 day students. Its A.B. degree, granted for the first time in 1910, was immediately recognized by graduate programs at leading universities. Three of Sweet Briar’s first five graduates went on to pursue advanced degrees.
By 1921, Sweet Briar held membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the American Association of University Women, and the American Council on Education, and was approved by the Association of American Universities. Its chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the Theta of Virginia, was authorized in 1950 and remains one of fewer than 300 chapters nationwide. In 1952, Sweet Briar became a charter member of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC).
An early leader in international study, Sweet Briar established an exchange program with the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1932. In 1948 it began administering the renowned Junior Year in France program, now known as JYF in Paris. In 1984, Sweet Briar established a similar program in Spain, now known as JYS in Seville.
In 1978, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts opened to fellows. The center is affiliated with Sweet Briar and located at Mount San Angelo, a nearby estate belonging to the College. Today, the VCCA is one of the foremost working retreats for artists in the world, and the only one with direct ties to a college or university.
In 1995, 21 of the College’s buildings were listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic District.
Sweet Briar College celebrated its centennial in 2001 and moved vigorously into its second century, both in terms of its physical facilities and educational programs. In 2002, the College completed a new quad around the Student Commons Courtyard, which links residence halls with student services, dining facilities, a bookshop and cafe, and student organizations. In 2006, a new studio arts facility was opened, followed in 2009 by a 53,000-square-foot fitness and athletics facility and the Green Village, apartment-style housing for 60 students. In November 2014, the College dedicated a state-of-the-art 16,000-square-foot addition to the Mary Helen Cochran Library, along with renovations to the historic 1929 building. These new facilities exemplify Sweet Briar’s commitment to an educational environment that is integrated, intentional and rooted.
Sweet Briar periodically participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which is designed to assess effective practices in higher education. Sweet Briar’s survey results - including the most recent from 2016 - consistently highlight high levels of student interaction with faculty, academic advisors and other College staff; engagement in career planning and academic performance with faculty; interaction with faculty outside of the classroom; and frequency of discussions with others of diverse views and backgrounds, especially political and religious beliefs. Over time, the College continues to compare favorably in the survey with peer institutions on these and other efficacy measures - including writing, speaking and critical thinking; experiential learning; leadership experience; and indicators of academic rigor, such as time spent on reading assignments.
Sweet Briar’s leadership in student engagement is reflected its in mission statement, adopted in 2004. The statement refocuses the College on its first principles, while recognizing that students who will become “useful members of society” must, as liberally educated women, be well equipped to move into professional life. The College inaugurated its first graduate programs, a Master of Arts in Teaching and a Master of Education, in 2004. In 2005, Sweet Briar became only the second women’s college in the nation to offer a program in engineering. The B.S. in engineering science is ABET-accredited.