By Jonathan Oleisky
With a rich history of educating women, the Sweet Briar College Board of Trustees shocked the greater Sweet Briar community with its sudden announcement last week that the college would be closing its doors this August. Within minutes of the formal announcement social media responded with a massive outpouring of grief, sadness and sheer anger. Alumnae around the country expressed profound confusion that the decision seemingly came out of nowhere.
I was at work when my older daughter (who had visited Sweet Briar as part of her college search) called me with the news. She knew that the closing had a special meaning for our family, as my wife is a proud Sweet Brian alum. Just like her fellow alum, my wife was both saddened and shocked to hear the news.
Over the past 114 years Sweet Briar has built a national reputation for excellence as an outstanding liberal arts school that had a laser focus on women’s education. A small school, with under 700 students Sweet Briar is located in rural Virginia on a beautiful, 3,000 + acre campus.
Like other small liberal arts colleges, Sweet Briar has been engaged in a fierce admissions marketing campaign to win the hearts and minds of young women and convert them into full pay students. While their marketing efforts have been well intentioned, they clearly have not been as effective as the college leadership would have hoped.
After the Board of Trustees voted in a special meeting to close the college, details of this highly secretive process began to spread across social media. One Board Member said, as part of a Facebook discussion, that the entire Board had been asked to sign an NDA (a non-disclosure agreement) and had worked for 18 months to explore a wide variety of options to try to keep the college open.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Sweet Briar twice over the past 25 years, both for alumnae reunions with my wife. As a big supporter of single sex education for girls and women, Sweet Briar is indeed a special place that deserves to be saved. While I understand that the Board of Trustees felt the tide had clearly turned against the college, one must ask why the secrecy with regards to the decision to close? Yes, the endowment is currently $85 Million (which is not at all large enough) and enrollment has not grown in recent years. Those are two major challenges for any college to deal with. Nevertheless in 2013 Forbes College Financial Grades gave Sweet Briar an A with a ranking of 88th out of 900 colleges. That begs the question, what happened?
Since the closure announcement the Sweet Briar alumnae community has come alive with outrage and serious concerns about the utter lack of transparency from the Board. The one question that still remains unanswered is this; why did the President and Board not go public with a plea for funds or a creative way to keep the college open? While it clearly would have been a difficult path to choose, it is the right way to deal with such a monumental decision. Non-profits are mission driven and serve the entire community. Have the Board of Trustees and the President of the College forgotten this? Is this an example of smart fiscal management or are they guilty of incredibly poor leadership?
Eleanor Roosevelt said it best. “A women is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
In the past few days alumnae have mobilized an intense effort to save the college they love so much. $2.2 Million has been has been pledged in the past week and an attorney has been hired to explore legal efforts to keep Sweet Briar open. Alumnae have organized across the country in an effort to rally the broader community. From creating a custom hashtag, #SaveSweetBriar, to launching the website www.savingsweetbriar.com, to rallying outside of the TODAY show yesterday and having its Save Sweet Briar posters aired nationwide, the alumnae have no intention of giving up without a fight.
It is my sincere hope that the Board of Trustees and the President of the College will listen to the greater Sweet Briar alumnae community and engage in an open and transparent dialog with current students, parents and alumnae. Leadership is about making difficult decisions, however the Board of Trustees must engage the current student and alumnae community and exhaust every effort in a highly public way before giving up.
Jonathan Oleisky is the President of Kalix Communications