Monday, March 23, 2015

Reason #3 to #SaveSweetBriar

Maybe you've already read my Reason #1 and Reason #2. Reason #3 is an appeal to our collective sense of justice and fair play.

How closure was communicated
Students and staff were called into a town hall meeting, completely unaware of the life-changing news about the closure. There were no reports shared, no warning of dire financial circumstances, no rumors of layoffs preceding the meeting. Several students assumed that the town hall meeting was about more routine issues on campus. When the closure was announced, it must have felt like the drop of a bomb.

Why I feel personal empathy
 When I read about how the closure was announced at Sweet Briar, I felt sick. I work in higher ed at an institution that enjoys an excellent reputation and does well in national rankings. In 2008, during the economic downturn, the President held a town hall meeting. I attended and tried hard not to appear anxious. My heart was pounding as the President got up to speak. Universities -- prestigious ones like Princeton -- were laying off staff at alarming rates. Our President systematically went through a Powerpoint presentation with charts and numbers -- there was open-ness about our financial status and where we were vulnerable. Strategic cuts were announced, but staff were spared.  The theme was, "We're okay for now, and here is why." Our leadership was honest, open, and reassuring, and she took questions afterward.

Looking back I am ever more appreciative of where I work and we operate.

What a contrast with what Sweet Briar students, staff, and alumni experience! They were shut out of the discussions, and informing them was an afterthought.  Even if the financial situation is truly without hope (and I think that there IS hope), the handling of the closure was callous, and the Board has been largely absent ever since. The SBC community is living in a bad case study that will be a subject of analysis for years to come.

More questions than answers
I don't have a financial mind, and I can't speak knowledgeably about SBC's finances. That said, there are many unanswered questions about how the SBC Board arrived at the conclusion that SBC's financial situation was beyond hope. And the lack of transparency is suspicious. Educational consultant Jack Marshall states:
"When there's life in something that's worth saving, then you go to the mat to save it; you don't just capitulate. I found the decision troubling. It shows a lack of character to me. It shows a tired board."
More discussion of financials and controversy...
YOU CAN PLEDGE TO HELP! Go to to make your donation.



  1. Sadly, there just isn't that enough interest in single sex colleges to keep that many colleges solvent. As a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, I was an advocate of taking the college co-ed after years of "cooperation" with Haverford College. Bryn Mawr chose to stay a women's college and Haverford chose to admit women, a decision that makes it harder to attract applicants and, from the conversations I've had with current students, detracts from the student life because it has so profoundly changed the balance of the bi-college community. I do believe that Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Smith and Holyoke still have enough cache and a large enough endowment to attract enough students to maintain financial feasibility, but only because there are fewer women's colleges. Sweet Briar simply did not. An article in the Daily Beast explains it like this:

    "The percentage of accepted students who choose to attend, had dropped to 21 percent from 38 percent. As a result, the undergraduate student body had shrunk to 561 women from 611 five years earlier. To get those women to enroll, Sweet Briar had to discount heavily, giving entering students an average 62 percent discount on its $46,595 cost of attendance." (

    It simply could not afford to stay in business.

  2. Hi Liz, I have a news alert for the sweet briar situation and have read almost everything. All colleges, not just womens (though especially womens) have to think strategically about how they will survive -- changing demographics and questions about the value of higher ed will challenge all schools. Many women's colleges are thriving in more remote locations than SBC. While the President that is closing the college is being demonized (and I think he probably is kind of a jerk), the problems occurred long before his arrival and the previous Prez was likely asleep at the wheel. Many colleges have faced similar challenges and survived -- many more have closed or been absorbed into another university. I would like to see SBC have a second chance, even if it means dramatic change. I'm not an alum and I don't know what it was like to go to SBC -- but I am drawn to the idea of SBC, the beauty of the land, the uniqueness of the architecture, the sense of place. I feel enormous sadness at the prospect of having this place fall into disrepair -- it cannot be sold or sectioned off per the will, at least not without a court ruling. But who knows what could happen?

  3. Single-sex colleges have a much harder task since they draw from a much smaller applicant pool. As the mother of a daughter heading to college the year after next, I know she would sooner cut off her left arm than attend a women's college in such a remote location. The remaining "Seven Sisters" have a better shot at staying open partially because of their locations. I believe that single-sex institutions still play an important role in the educational system, but they are going to have to find a way to attract not only good students, but good students who can pay.

    That brings me to the question of tuition. In general, the rising cost of tuition (my son is at UPenn right now) is enough to make most people feel faint. Tuition, room, board and fees at many private schools is up to $55-$60K per year! And even relatively "inexpensive" private schools like Sweet Briar, had a price tag (albeit discounted to many students) of $46K. We're getting to a point where the cost/value proposition of a liberal arts degree is becoming untenable -- $200,000+. This saddens me, but when you have kids going into such extreme debt simply to get a BA, eventually the numbers will fall. Student loans are scary because they are forever!

    Not sure that I have any answers but I do wish that student loans were less punitive and that more people thought about the value and potential future application of their degrees before they made the decision to attend college.


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.