Sweet Briar to have another academic year; what does it mean?

Sweet Briar CollegeSweet Briar College is not closing this year, according to an agreement brokered by Virginia’s attorney general over the weekend.  The college will operate for the 2015-2016 academic year, based on donations and some freed-up endowment funding.  This is a big story, with some great potential, but also fragility.

The agreement includes these crucial money details:

Saving Sweet Briar would commit to deliver $12 million in donations for the ongoing operation of the College for the 2015-2016 year… The Attorney General would consent to the release of restrictions on $16 million from the College’s endowment for the ongoing operation of the College. Saving Sweet Briar and the Bowyer Plaintiffs believe that these funds would be sufficient to operate the College for the 2015-16 academic year.

And a major purge of Sweet Briar leadership: “at least 13 members of the Board of Directors of the College would resign, and at least 18 new members would be elected to the College’s Board of Directors.”  And the current president will resign; “It is anticipated that the new Board will appoint Phillip Stone, who has agreed to serve as the new president.”
As the Sweet Briar announcement puts it,

the Board of Directors decided that new leadership should be allowed the opportunity to operate the College for another year with the hope it will be able to find long-term solutions for ongoing sustainability.

Then there’s this major improvement for staff: “Faculty and staff of the College will be eligible to receive certain negotiated severance benefits and may be offered employment by the College following the aforementioned change in leadership.”

The agreement still needs approvals to proceed, but there it is.

What can we learn from this?

We can appreciate the power of motivated, innovative, and organized students, both current and alumni. (hashtag #SweetBriarSaved)  (And feh! to older folks grumbling about kids these days.)

We can be thankful for an easing of the sufferings of the whole Sweet Briar Community, especially current faculty, students, and staff.

On the other hand, how firm is this arrangement?  In other words, can it last beyond this time next year?

I ask because I’m not sure that a nonprofit college can keep itself alive by drawing heavily on its endowment and relying on donations.  It would take extraordinary effort to replenish both – and then to do it again, and again?

Moreover, I don’t know how many new students (and their tuition monies) would apply to Sweet Briar after this year, especially after years of steady enrollment decline.  Nothing in the MOU addresses the problems leading to that decline: rural location, lowering appeal of same-sex education, concerns over the value of liberal education, etc.  As a University of Richmond legal scholar wondered,

“It’s going to take a whole lot of very hard to work to make it happen. In two months, new classes will begin. So they need to do a whole bunch of things and do them very quickly. Retain classes. Get an incoming class. That may be the most difficult thing, because it’s so late. . . .

Here’s another concern.  Let’s say Sweet Briar can operate after next year, winning new students and moving forward.  Will the college be able to continue its recent drive to increase its diversity, to recruit nonwhite students?

And yet I continue to be in awe of the power of motivated students.  Perhaps, just maybe, we’re seeing a return to a much older form of higher education.  Think of the medieval and early modern model, whereby students and faculty would pool funds to keep their assembly together.  It’s as far removed from the professional university of today as one can get.  Does it have a future?

More thoughts from me as events unfold.


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1 Response to Sweet Briar to have another academic year; what does it mean?

  1. ellenandjim says:

    As my younger daughter graduated from Sweet Briar in 2006 after spending what I fear might be the happiest four years of her life (in many ways since her younger childhood this is as yet true), we are watching eagerly. We gave modest donations — me and her. I don’t pretend to know a lot but I do have a feel. The president while Izzy was there, Elizabeth Muhlenfeld did broach and they talked of going co-ed to solve problem of lower enrollment and need of more funds, but the alumnae were strong and did not want the nature of the school to change. Izzy’s good experience depended on it being all girls and small. Many more roles in drama available; leadership roles fall to girls and she enjoyed a couple; it was like a single sorority with all girl traditions; they self-select. Muhlenfeld tried to extend curriculum to be more genuine science, not so liberal arts but in fact the strengths of the long time staff were in liberal arts and girls didn’t go for the science and math. Izzy had been pushed from math (which she is very good at) way back in second year high school. Business courses didn’t seem to appeal. Cost: parents paying full price resented scholarship students (like Izzy). Then the equestrian part of the school was so important for money while making place bipolar (metaphor). Still she held it together because she believed strongly in the all-women’s experience. The new president was a man. Rumor hath is there was a huge offer of money for the property from Disney.

    You point to problems getting the thing going again. Yes. Some of the really finer teachers were older and they were being pensioned out. Who will replace them – for a year? will the girls coming streaming back? This was not good publicity — they have to reach out on the feminist basis of keeping the few fine high achievement all girls schools going. Yet it is elitist – very expensive so for the privileged unless you have a scholarship. Self-selection, girls who want all girl education, and parents who want that for their daughters (Muslim backgrounds) will help.

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