The Waning of Sweet Briar: A Cautionary Tale

On March 3, Sweet Briar College abruptly announced that they would be closing at the end of the academic year after more than a century of offering a female liberal arts education. Citing “insurmountable financial challenges,”officials at the school announced to students and faculty that an $84 million endowment was not enough to save the school, according to the Washington Post.

The Board of Directors voted unanimously to close the college and stated, “We voted to act now to cease academic operations responsibly, allowing us to place students at other academic institutions, to assist faculty and staff with the transition and to conduct a more orderly winding down of academic operations,” according to Paul G. Rice, the board chairman.

In an all-student email on March 5, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admissions Gary Sherman said that St. Mary’s College was already in contact with Sweet Briar and would be visiting with prospective transfers on their campus this month. St. Mary’s is one of over 150 colleges that have visited the campus to try to attract the scores of lost students looking for another institution, eager to profit from Sweet Briar’s misfortune.

However, even as the college’s assets are divided up, a new alumnae group Saving Sweet Briar has raised $3 million and threatened the school with legal action unless it makes its finances public, according to the New York Times, although administrators at the school insist that the school will close despite their actions. They claim that Sweet Briar would need a $250 million endowment to survive the financial crisis and that considered alternatives, such as becoming coed or merging with another school, are not viable.

The activists, however, are not convinced. Tracy Stuart, a 1993 graduate, said, “Something doesn’t smell right. You just don’t close a college like that without warning.” History professor Katherine A. Chavigny sees the college as a victim of years of mismanagement and says that the board “just threw in the towel.”

It remains to be seen how the saga of Sweet Briar College will turn out, it should serve as a clear warning to our administrators. As a graduating senior, I have seen three college presidents, five Public Safety Directors, and so many other administrative changes that it feels like hiring at this school is similar to a game of russian roulette with every fifth hire ending up “moving on to new opportunities.” I was here during the budget deficit when low enrollment cost the college $3.5 million in tuition fees. The college’s current crisis has left the student community reeling from the gross mishandling of the mandatory sexual assault training that was found to have violated IRB standards.

Despite all of this, I am hopeful about our current administration’s potential. Admissions numbers are up, Dr. Jordan has proved to be an impressive new president, and we don’t have any students living on a cruise ship. However, I hope that we can see Sweet Briar’s downfall as a cautionary tale. As a fellow small liberal arts institution, we are just as vulnerable to death by mismanagement. We can only hope that our administration will be more transparent if we were to suffer the same fate as Sweet Briar.

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