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Vision & Gratitude

Looking Back with Sheila Culbert

By Becky Purdy

After 16 years as head of school at Loomis Chaffee, Sheila Culbert will retire on June 30, just over a month after delivering the Commencement address to the Class of 2024. Under Sheila’s leadership, the school has undergone major transformations while remaining true to its founding principles and century of history, as many who have worked closely with Sheila and witnessed her leadership attest. We sat down with Sheila recently and asked her to reflect on her tenure as Loomis Chaffee’s seventh head of school.

Becky: You often talk about the school’s Founders. Was their vision one of the things that drew you to Loomis in the first place, and do you still draw from that?

Sheila: Absolutely. We’ve got an amazing founding story and one that is easy to be proud of. It’s nice that this is not a school that was set up for the elite. This was a school that grew out of tragedy, but one where [the Founders] wanted some good to come from the “harvest of their lives.” That wasn’t going to happen for their children, and so they decided to help other people’s children. The Founders’ story really drew me to Loomis Chaffee, but also the financial aid, that there was such a commitment to financial aid. We found over the years that financial aid is very much in the DNA of our alumni, of our faculty. I’m very proud that if you ask faculty what their priorities are, financial aid will come at the top of the list. That says a lot about the kind of school we are.

Q: There have been many changes in the school during your tenure — the addition of the centers among them. What was your vision for the centers, and how does their operation today compare with that vision?

A: It started with the Henry R. Kravis ’63 Center for Excellence in Teaching in 2010. With a school like ours, where there’s such an emphasis on teaching and teaching well, it seemed to me to make sense that we should have a center that was dedicated to excellence in teaching. At the same time, there was a committee that was looking at global education. Global studies is one of those tailor-made areas where it’s so obviously interdisciplinary. It calls for an overarching kind of organization, a place where people from different disciplines could come together. And [former Trustee] Joel Alvord [’56] came forward to say he wanted to fund it. He was really interested in environmental issues. Ultimately, we found a nice synergy between global and environmental studies, and the work of the Alvord Center has been thriving ever since.

The Norton Family Center for the Common Good opened in 2012. I had heard that some students had actually come to fisticuffs in the dormitory over a difficult conversation [about world events]. And it occurred to me that we ought to be teaching our students civil discourse, that no matter how strongly we disagree with somebody, a place like Loomis should be a place that allows for difficult conversations to take place in a civil atmosphere. And while that was going on in the classroom, so many important conversations for teenagers happen late at night when there aren’t adults present. I thought that there was room for us to create a place where we could model that kind of debate. And Chris Norton [’76] was chairman of the Board of Trustees at that time and was really interested in this idea, and so the funding came together for that.

The Center for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is our newest center. The Founders wanted a school that reflected economic, political, and geographic diversity, and our mission has been to support all of our students no matter their background. This has been a priority for the Trustees and the school for as long as I have been here. Given our success with the interdisciplinary centers model, the Center for DEI made sense and allowed us to recommit to our diversity goals and to make sure that we were doing what we said we were doing, that we were living up to our mission. All students, no matter their background, nationality, race, or religion should feel respected and that they belong at the school.

What I was hoping for is that these centers would be able to provide an interdisciplinary umbrella for faculty and students who were interested in some of those edges where disciplines interact with each other. And I think they did that really successfully. 

Q: The Pearse Hub for Innovation [PHI] was another big addition to the school. How did that come about? 

A: The PHI really came about from a number of different sources that all came together in a rather wonderful way. Nat [Follansbee, former associate head of school for external relations,] and I had visited a number of schools on our travels and had seen some really interesting maker spaces, and we wanted to incorporate something similar at the school. We were also hearing from some students and parents that our computer science offerings were not sufficient. Finally, the Board of Trustees met at Dartmouth one summer. [Chair of the Board of Trustees] Duncan MacLean [’90] has a connection with the engineering program there, so we spent some time at the meeting visiting their lab spaces and talking to their dean. We had initially thought about transforming the lower level of Brush into a space that could hold a program that had some computer science, some innovation stuff, engineering, robotics — but then the construction of the Scanlan Campus Center provided us with a massive amount of “found space” in the lower level. John [’58] and Sally [’58] Pearse, who had developed a software business and were very interested in innovation, provided funding. It was a lot of the right things coming together to create a wonderfully innovative space.

Q: Has the PHI lived up to what you envisioned it would be?

A: I have been super impressed with the I-Tri [Innovation Trimester] and its success, also with the number of classes that go there for one thing or another, the innovation classes, and others. And I can imagine all sorts of ways that it will continue to grow. The PHI will continue to evolve depending on the ideas of the faculty who work there.

Q: Another major change during your tenure was the intentional shift in the boarding/day student ratio from roughly 54 percent boarding/46 percent day to 70 percent boarding/30 percent day. How did that come about?

A: Much of my interview before I even stepped foot on campus was about this dilemma that the school was facing. And so it was very clear that I was hired with a charge, and that charge was to either make the hybrid [boarding/day] model work or to change it. And it was very fortuitous how it all came together. Just before I got here, the school had surveyed parents, faculty, students, and alumni and had a wealth of data that made it clear that the hybrid model wasn’t working for anyone. The students weren’t happy with it. Their parents weren’t happy with it. Everybody thought that the other group had it better. And so I quickly concluded, “All right, so we have to change the ratio.” How do you do that? At the time, the easiest way to do that was simply to get smaller as a school. So we said, “OK, we’ll get smaller.” And that was in 2008 [when the global financial crisis hit.] We had less revenue. Our endowment plummeted. We had to cut expenses everywhere. We had to completely restructure the budget anyway. We restructured it with fewer students, and we modeled out what this would look like over a number of years. The initial model was not to increase boarding students because we didn’t have the space to do that, [so we had to] cut [the number of] day students. We were going to go from a school of more than 700 to a school of 650. And we did go down to 650. And then Elizabeth Richmond [’80] and the Richmond family came through with the money for Richmond dormitory, which changed everything. All of a sudden, we had a little capacity. 

Q: From the outside, it seemed like the enrollment number just started creeping up.

A: When we were 650, we realized we couldn’t do what we wanted to do as a school. We couldn’t do it all. We couldn’t recruit the athletes we wanted. We couldn’t recruit the students we wanted. We couldn’t have the musicians that we wanted. So we said, “OK, we have a new dormitory. We can add 50 more boarding students.” And then we weren’t quite where we needed to be, so we were going to put 12 students on the second floor of Gwendolen Hall, where the health center had been before Richmond Hall was built with the new health center. Then Sandy Cutler [’69] came to us with money for another big dormitory, Cutler Hall. And that allowed us to go back to be at 725–735 students. That’s the number that comfortably fits the faculty and the students we want to have. It’s a good number. So while the impetus was, “We’ve got to get the boarding/day ratio right,” the fundraising allowed us to do it in a different way than we had planned. 

Q: Are there other changes at the school that stand out to you?

A: Well, I think admissions. The admissions numbers are very strong. If you think about the quality of the school today, so much of that hinges on what the admissions officers do, and it is a virtuous circle. The admit rate my first year was around 45 percent. And today it’s 17 percent. Applications have gone up from about 1,150 when I got here to about 2,500 last year. Yield was 47 percent and is much better, 54 percent, today. 

The quality of our faculty and students has only strengthened. I’ve always been impressed with our faculty. I remember from my first interview there was a seriousness of purpose and a commitment to the life of the mind that I was really attracted to. My admiration has grown, particularly after seeing their professionalism and the outstanding work they did during the pandemic. And our students are interesting, committed, passionate, and funny. I have always enjoyed my interactions with them.

And, as I walk through the campus a lot, I think it looks beautiful. And I credit [Director of the Physical Plant] Lance [Hall]. Lance has had a vision of what this campus could look like. You look at the great buildings he put up, yes, but he also pays attention to the simple things, like putting in the campus entranceways. They just make a difference. They make us look better. And he worries about curbs and pavement in a way that other people don’t. And it all adds up. But this is very much a shared enterprise. Fundraisers, people like Lance, the faculty. It’s not any one person.

Q: There has been a lot of continuity in your senior team here, hasn't there? 

A: It’s been incredible stability. We have gelled as a team. We trust one another. We work well together. We understand what our priorities are, and we’re all, I think, pulling in the same direction. There’s not a lot of confusion about what our priorities are.

Q: How have you kept your administrative team together and effective?

A: I had a great mentor at Dartmouth. I worked with [former Dartmouth president] Jim Wright, who unfortunately died in 2022. He paid so much attention to relationships and being present. If you had a meeting with him, whoever was meeting, he was always on time. But he also gave you his full attention for that full time. You can’t have a relationship if you’re not present. He also would meet regularly as a team. And that’s something that I’ve tried to do, to make sure that I’m touching base. We meet regularly as a team, and I expect them to be not just concerned with their particular area, but have a sense of responsibility for the whole school. That, I think, is really important. You get that by meeting regularly and sharing those problems so that the head of HR has something to say about the way that the dean of students is being run, for example. I’m a big believer in the wisdom of crowds. The more people at the table who are talking, the better off you’re going to be.

Q: What are your plans for your retirement? 

A: I’m undoubtedly going to write. I like writing. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I like researching. I want to travel. I’m obsessed with photography. I want to get better at that, so I will continue to take classes and practice the skills. I also want to do volunteer work, working with schools or children. I know that I will be plenty busy. I have too many hobbies and interests.

Q: Richard [Sheila's husband Richard Wright] retired from Dartmouth two years ago. What has he been doing since then? 

A: He is part of a million-pound research project with a grant from the British government. He and his colleagues on the research team are looking at neighborhood diversity and changing ethnic geographies in the U.K. It’s getting a lot of press in the U.K. for the work that they have been doing.

Sheila and her husband, Richard Wright, stand outside the front door of the Head’s House this winter.

Sheila and her husband, Richard Wright, stand outside the front door of the Head’s House this winter. 

Three Loomis Chaffee heads of school: Sheila Culbert, John Ratté, and Russell Weigel

Three Loomis Chaffee heads of school: Sheila Culbert, John Ratté, and Russell Weigel

Q: Of all your interests and hobbies, what stands out as the first thing you’ll want to do?

A: I’d like to write this book I’ve been working on. It’s on 19th-century education. And then photography.

Q: You became interested in birding first, and taking photos of birds led to your interest in photography. What about birds especially intrigues you?

A: Well, if you walk around this campus, they’re everywhere. I’ve always had an interest in them, but I think the more time you spend outside, the more you notice them. I don’t know what it is about birds. I just find them delightful. They’re really interesting. They’re difficult to photograph. So it’s a challenge.

Q: Any other thoughts as you reflect back over your years at Loomis Chaffee?

A: Not very many people have the opportunity to come into a school that’s already great. John Ratté and Russ [Weigel] left things [in a good position] for me. I think John in particular had done a lot of heavy lifting to get the school where it was. And Russ had done a wonderful job in a number of areas, but particularly in fundraising. So it left me with a real opportunity. I felt very fortunate about that.

Q: As a historian, how would you place the last 16 years in the arc of your career and life? And how would you characterize the school’s last 16 years under your leadership? 

A: That one throws me a little bit because historians don’t generally write their own history. I don’t know how I would characterize it. I really don’t. I think that I’ve been blessed. It’s a great school.

This interview has been excerpted and edited for clarity and length.

Sheila with Linda Rossi and Sheila in her office with Student Council members

Left: Sheila with Linda Rossi, administrative assistant to the head of school, and Whitby. Linda also will retire this summer after 25 years at Loomis Chaffee. Right: In her office, Sheila shows Student Council members plans for Richmond Hall in 2012. 

Sheila at a podium - Sheila greeting students - Sheila in class talking to students

Left: Sheila addresses the crowd at the Centennial Campaign Gala in Manhattan in 2014. Top right: Sheila greets students at her first address to the school in 2008. Bottom right: Sheila leads a summer reading book chat. 

Sheila with Chief of Staff Mary Liscinsky after Commencement 2023

Sheila with Chief of Staff Mary Liscinsky, her longtime colleague and friend, after Commencement 2023. 


Perspectives on Sheila Culbert’s Leadership of Loomis Chaffee

Nat Follansbee

In all areas of Loomis Chaffee, Sheila pushed the school forward. Admissions became far more competitive, dropping the school’s admit rate lower and lower and its yield percentage higher and higher, while attracting more and more highly qualified and talented students. Through the centers and changes in the curriculum, the academic and social lives of the faculty and students became broader and richer. In athletics, Loomis Chaffee became one of the best schools in New England, nearly always appearing in championship draws and winning more Founders League titles than any other member school. In fundraising, the school notched many of its best years in total voluntary support that led to a larger operating budget, to a significantly larger endowment, and to the construction of dormitories and facilities like the Scanlan Campus Center, the John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols Center for Theater and Dance, and The Way. People — alumni, parents, students and prospective students, other schools' administrations and faculties — knew that Loomis Chaffee's increased visibility and strengthening reputation created an upward trajectory outstripping competitors.

Nat Follansbee
former associate head of school for external relations


Duncan A.L. MacLean ’90

She is a strong leader who builds consensus when necessary, but takes action when necessary. She has had to deal with many difficult issues during 16 years and always found the right path. And you cannot overstate Sheila’s leadership during the pandemic. She was deliberate, clear in her thinking, and decisive in decision-making. The other key thing about her leadership style was the way she put the students first.  

Duncan A.L. MacLean ’90
Chair of the Loomis Chaffee Board of Trustees, current parent


Christopher K. Norton ’76

Upon first arriving on campus, Sheila began asking questions about who Loomis was and then, what needed to change. It was an exciting time watching her unravel decades of beliefs with a simple maxim, “Why can’t we do things differently?” Sheila’s early days required a certain amount of acceptance from those around her. Pushing an organization to change is never easy. However, I have found that the world steps aside for someone who knows where they are going. Sheila had a vision and we all bought into it.

Leaders are dealers in hope. Sheila has given us a great sense of purpose by opening a conversation around shared values. The world is shrinking and forcing our differences to become more pronounced. Sometimes we feel conflict between our individual beliefs. Sheila has allowed these differences to ferment. Learning to open one’s mind to new ideas and confront a world littered with conflict, breathes life into a community. Through the art of resolution, Sheila has given us all a lesson about respect and dignity so that we each can thrive as individuals.  

The arc of history will look fondly upon the memory of Sheila’s tenure. Loomis is more confident, more resilient, and ultimately, a more empathetic institution. I am excited about our future.

Christopher K. Norton ’76
former Chair of the Board of Trustees, parent of alumni


Elizabeth Richmond ’80

Always keeping the vision of the Loomis family as her true north, Sheila has guided the school into its second century with grace, determination, and a focus for where our students are in this complex new world of technology and innovation. … It will be clear when generations look back at the history of LC that Sheila understood fundamentally that changes in our world should not be ignored or reduced but rather acknowledged, incorporated, and promoted to allow our students to thrive in the face of that change. 

Elizabeth Richmond ’80
Trustee and parent of alumni


Webb Trenchard

It is hard to be succinct in capturing Sheila’s impact on Loomis. There are certainly some concrete changes — facilities enhancements/additions, campus beautification, programmatic additions such as the centers — but so, too, are there some habits of mind that have become ingrained in our community. Some of those that are top of mind for me are a complete dedication to making the student experience as transformational as possible, a campus-wide willingness to be flexible and willing to try new things, and a belief that adults and students alike can (and should) aspire to improve and to get better. … She has been unapologetic about her ambition and aspiration for Loomis, and that has had a profound impact on the school’s trajectory.

Webb Trenchard
Associate Head of School



A School Transformed

Under Sheila’s tenure, the Island campus and the school’s programming have changed significantly. Major construction and renovation projects have touched every quadrangle and corner of campus over the last 16 years, and the establishment of five interdisciplinary centers has bolstered and expanded Loomis Chaffee’s innovative educational offerings. Here are some of the changes.

Aerial view of the Loomis Chaffee School

Major Construction Projects:

  1. Clark Center for Science & Mathematics renovation
  2. Katharine Brush Library renovation, including creation of classrooms and offices on third floor
  3. Richmond Hall, 2014
  4. Cutler Hall, 2016
  5. Tennis Courts, renovation and addition, 2016
  6. Scanlan Campus Center, 2018
  7. Rockefeller Quad redesign, 2018
  8. Howe Hall renovation and addition, 2020
  9. Batchelder Hall renovation and addition, 2020
  10. Covered Ways repair and renovation, 2020–21
  11. Palmer Hall renovation, 2022
  12. John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols Center for Theater and Dance, 2022
  13. Ratté Quadrangle completion, 2022
  14. Campus Way completion, 2023
  15. New dorm under construction behind Warham Hall, expected completion by fall 2024
  16. Baseball and softball dugouts, (not in aerial) upper turf field, solar array, 8 houses purchased, 2 houses built

At the Center of It All:

  1. Henry R. Kravis ’63 Center for Excellence in Teaching, 2010
  2. Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies, 2012
  3. Norton Family Center for the Common Good, 2012
  4. Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI), 2018
  5. Center for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, 2021


Photo of Richmond Hall and the Scanlan Campus Center

Dorm construction and renovation: Two new residence halls were constructed (including Richmond Hall, left), and a third project is under way. The school also renovated and modernized three of its century-old dorms, with more slated in the near future. Scanlan Campus Center: Construction of a campus hub (right), including new dining halls, an expanded servery, a new student center, the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI), and a variety of function spaces, was completed in 2018.

John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols Center for Theater and Dance

John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols Center for Theater and Dance: One of the newest projects to be completed was construction of the Nichols Center, which opened in 2022 and contains the updated Norris Ely Orchard Theater, a new Black Box Theater, an expansive dance studio, state-of-the-art production spaces, and a welcoming lobby.



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