Where There’s a Will, There’s No Way?: Saving Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar College has been recently likened to a setting from an American Girl book, which is true enough, I suppose.  It is, indeed, a beautiful and serene space, almost idyllic and out of time, one full of young women (and their horses) whom, by trying to better themselves, hope to better their world.  So it’s more or less the school that Felicity Merriman, and her Penny, would attend in a heartbeat were they alive (and real) in 2015.  And that’s a terrific thing; Sweet Briar is a safe place where girls are allowed to become women, and prepared to meet a world more contentious than they deserve.  And I can attest to that personally, as a former member of the University of Virginia faculty (and a UVa alumnus), I taught Sweet Briar students during summer sessions, and, as a historian and equestrian, have been to the college a number of times, and found the members of its community as bright, earnest, and engaging as any I’ve encountered at Brown or Harvard.  Not to slight Wellesley or Smith, both splendid places, but I think that Sweet Briar was made as much for the fathers of today’s Felicitys as it was for the modern Felicitys themselves.

That’s why, as someone quite familiar with the college, I was especially distressed to learn that it is to be shuttered like an English country house at the end of a shooting season when the current term comes to a close due to “insurmountable financial challenges,” but without the ceremony, one suspects.  Goodbye students, faculty, and staff (and equine residents)—the doors will be locked and keys likely turned over to lawyers and accountants come June by a vote of the Board of Directors.  To note that the decision appears abrupt is to muddy the picture.  Without a doubt, the school has been in serious financial trouble for some time.  The enrollment has dipped and the terms of the Will that created it, and current unrestricted endowment funds, do not lend its administrators much painless flexibility.  The writing was, as they say, on the wall, when the Board chose expedience over courage in washing its collective hands of the place, its 114-year history, its tens of thousands of alumnae—and the Directors’ responsibility to them all.

Other observers have reflected on this or that aspect of the story, as if it is already a matter for reflection, rather than for action.  Is it a harbinger of the fate of small liberal arts colleges across America?  What will the soon-to-be unemployed faculty and staff do in an already crowded academic job market?  And what about the horses?  Frankly, I’m not terribly concerned about any of that, except for perhaps the horses.  Colleges everywhere are in the midst of dramatic change to curricula and methods and staffing in order to remain both solvent and effective as institutions of higher learning, embracing, for example, digital and distance learning.  Even the seemingly most secure universities, such as my current institution, Harvard, are acting in bold and creative ways to expand and ensure their reach.  And Sweet Briar’s faculty might be considered as paid lower than their counterparts at other institutions, but with light class loads, little to no publishing requirements, a relatively low cost of living in the region, and an average salary still higher than the median national household income, I don’t think too many people, inside or outside of the “Ivory Tower,” are going fret much about their fates.

That brings us to the most important part of the Sweet Briar situation: the students—past, current, and, hopefully, future.  Having worked with a number of Boards of Trustees and Directors of different sorts, in my experience they are often an institution’s worst, but most pampered, enemies.  More often than not, they tend to know very little about their charges (other than what senior administrative staff allow them to know) and, an even more insidious factor, have no real, personal stake in whether their involvement results in success or failure.  In Sweet Briar’s case, the conclusion is painfully obvious, regardless of the names on the letterhead: this Board—not the faculty or staff or, most certainly, students—failed to discharge its responsibility, yet can simply walk away.  The students and staff are not so lucky.  Instead of immediately closing the doors of the school to, according to the Directors, save the students from a future of consistently lowering standards and a diminished experience, they should instead have admitted their own, personal defeat, resigned en masse, and turned over the leadership of the institution to a set of people with the vision, creativity, and willingness to implement the sort of change, however painful it might be in many quarters, that Sweet Briar requires–the college community itself, which includes the people of the surrounding area.

As my grandmother might have said, the President and Board came to the conclusion that the only way to open this nut was to use a hammer.  And what’s worse, it was done in the name of the students, who don’t seem to have had much say in the matter at all.  Sweet Briar has unique strengths that could be maximized and weaknesses that can be addressed (my grandmother, from whom I learned almost everything good and decent about life, would not have acknowledged that the word “insurmountable” even existed).  Again, other schools are facing similar challenges with nowhere near the same special qualities to help address them (the equestrian program alone is the envy of schools across the East Coast).  For example, more aggressive and creative marketing can target enrollment, and faculty can teach more classes that enroll part-time and non-traditional students, both on-site and online (which sure beats being unemployed).  To continue dispensing my grandmother’s old Chesapeake wisdom—if something is wrong, stop whinging and do something about it.  If that fails, pick yourself up, learn from the failure, and try something else.  But always try.  Where there is a will, there will be a way.  And as any rider whose horse has a big heart knows, no obstacle is entirely insurmountable.

For Sweet Briar, there is an unsurprisingly intense will, at least outside the current Board room, to make sure that its story does not end in 2015.  The #SaveSweetBriar campaign is just beginning and has developed encouraging momentum.  So I suggest that the current President and Directors be thanked for their time and sent on their merry way, leaving the college to those whom actually care about its future—and whom, if they cannot find a way, will almost certainly make one.

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