After 114 years, Sweet Briar College, the venerable women-only college in rural Virginia, announced Tuesday that this will be its final year despite strong alumnae support and more than $90 million left in its endowment, even after several years of running a deficit.
Paul G. Rice, board chair, said that he realized some would ask, “Why don’t you keep going until the lights go out?” but that doing so would be wrong. “We have moral and legal obligations to our students and faculties and to our staff and to our alumnae. If you take up this decision too late, you won’t be able to meet those obligations,” he said. “People will carve up what’s left — it will not be orderly, nor fair.”
Well, at least the board is taking this lying down.
Rice’s excuse is nonsense, and the board’s action is an abdication of a difficult duty, not an acceptance of one. Non profits have missions, and their boards are obligated to keep pursuing that mission until it becomes hopeless, not until it becomes tough. Yes, small colleges face challenges, and single-sex education has been out of favor since the Sixties. On the other hand, feminists are making the case that co-ed universities are little better than hunting grounds where women are the helpless prey of serial rapists. Surely Sweet Briar’s niche might become an asset with some vision and leadership.
The college announced its closing without even attempting a last ditch fundraising campaign. If there was ever a setting where Rahm Emanuel’s famous motto”Never let a good crisis go to waste” holds true, it is in the realm of non-profit organizations. Asked by shocked alumnae what it would cost to keep the school open, the board answered “$250 million.” The next question was, “Why didn’t you tell us before?”
Good question. In my experience, a competent non-profit board facing an existential crisis immediately announces a do-or-die challenge to its most passionate and dedicated supporters to address it, and such efforts have an impressive record of succeeding, sometimes beyond all expectations. Any non-profit organization has an ethical duty not to surrender to adversity until every avenue of survival has been explored, and at least the best of them has been tried.
Some alums are even suggesting that something sinister is going on.
One of the more than 4,000 grads who are committed to save Sweet Briar, Alexandra Mebane, told the Washington Post, “We strongly believe something has occurred there that doesn’t add up. There’s no reason for this to come out of thin air.” Added 1993 graduate Kelly Gardner Headd:“Many of us are suspicious about the motivations behind the decision…Who benefits? Did the board and/or president have an as yet unacknowledged incentive to make this decision and with such suddenness? And to keep alums in the dark until it was too late for alternatives to closing to be considered?”
Could be, though Occam’s Razor probably applies. Most doomed non-profits go under because of weak, timid, lazy or incompetent boards, when some dynamic leadership, innovation and courage from the top could save them, as so many have been saved. 94 million dollars isn’t a lot when it comes to running an institution of higher learning, but the school only lost about 3 million dollars last year. It could keep going for quite a while even if nothing improved, fulfilling its mission and enriching the lives of many young girls by training them to be independent, courageous, bold and industrious, unlike, for example, its current board of directors. A better course than running out the string would be to use the endowment to chart a rescue strategy, employing innovations and new approaches to achieve the school’s mission.
In Forbes, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry outlines just such a course for the school, including such measures as branding, reducing extraneous course offerings, reducing tenured positions, rejecting Federal and state subsidies that increase overhead, providing equity-based loans to students rather than traditional student loans, adding online courses, or using the crisis as an opportunity to “start from scratch”:
I would not have teacher tenure. I would be a teaching school, and I would hire young instructors (read: cheap, yes, but also enthusiastic) and reward them on the basis of teaching skills, not publications or other academic standards.
Our focus would be at the intersection of the liberal arts and the social (and harder) sciences. The degree granted would be a bachelor of philosophy (BPhil) not a BA or BS. The first two years would mostly be a core curriculum of humanities (literature, philosophy, classics, perhaps with an immersion Latin course) and social sciences, including the hard stuff like statistics, modeling, financial analysis and the like. During the last two years, students would enroll in two fields of study instead of a major/minor.
The college would publish its own online magazine, written by both professors and students. Writing 5,000 words that actual people are going to want to read but is nonetheless rigorous and fact-based and profound on, say, why Cicero is relevant today, or on the impact of Evangelicalism on Latin American politics, or IBM’s business turnaround strategy, would be a tremendous college assignment for a student. It would be both a great way to promote the college and a great educational experience for the students and also a good resume builder (and a good preparation for a career).
I have another suggestion: find a new board. Put Gobry on it, and challenge him to make his theories work. Rahm Emanuel might need a job soon: he’d be a good addition. What about Hillary Clinton? She’s a feminist (cough!), cares about young women, and leads a major foundation, is rich enough to give a significant donation (as non-profit board members are obligated to do), and at her going rate for speeches, could put a big dent in that 250 million without even getting a sore throat. Let’s see, at $250,000 an hour, that’s four hours a million. At just two hours a week, 4o weeks a year, Hillary could add 20 million to Sweet Briar’s coffers in a single year; in five, she could add $100, 000, 000 in five years, all by herself!
OK, we know that’s not likely to happen, but if I were on the board, I’d still ask. You never know: Clinton might be shamed into contributing some spare change from her purse, which might be enough to fund a faculty position for a year or so. There is, in management, an ethical duty to try; you have an obligation to the mission and the institution. “This looks like a lot of trouble and work, and we’re probably going to fail anyway. The hell with it: let’s quit now” isn’t fair to the institution, isn’t consistent with the duty of a board, constitutes an abandonment of the mission, and is an embarrassment to the institution. How stereotypically girly. This broads version of leadership and fortitude would have smothered the United States of America in its crib; it would have led Lincoln to allow the Confederacy to seceded, and slavery to continue; Edison to pronounce the incandescent light bulb hopeless, FDR to surrender to Japan, NASA to proclaim the moon mission a hopeless dream, and Reagan to say nothing more audacious than, “Mr. Gorbachev, give this wall a new paint job!”
The current Sweet Briar College board’s premature surrender to adversity is lazy and unethical. It is a betrayal of the college, the mission, and its students past, present and future. It should hand over the job to bolder, more committed people who are willing to use the resources at hand to save an institution worth saving.