Why The Sweet Briar College Fight Matters

sweet-briar-collegeEthics Alarms has been besieged by interest in the threatened Sweet Briar College closing, with the recent post on the topic already the third most viewed essay in the history of the blog. I was surprised; I shouldn’t have been. From an ethics and societal perspective, what the controversy stands for is as important as any covered here. It is also central to the nation itself.

When a business fails, the casualties include ambitions, opportunities, dreams, financial resources, community assets, and jobs. That is serious and tragic. Non profit organizations, however, exist to turn ideas into reality, to strengthen them, bolster them, and prove that they deserve to survive and flourish. The death of Sweet Briar will also mean the loss of ambitions, opportunities, dreams, financial resources, community assets, and jobs. Far more important, however, is that it will mean the death of an idea, or at very least the serious wounding of one.

This is why non profit boards should not be, as they so frequently are, merely comfortable curriculum vitae-stuffers  and networking forums for prominent dilettantes. Non profit boards are stewards of ideas, and they must also be willing and able to be warriors in defense of those ideas, if an idea is imperiled. It is not a job for the faint of heart, and the consequences of failure, or, as in the case of Sweet Briar, fearful and premature capitulation, are catastrophic, not just for the organization, institution and its constituents, but the entire U.S. culture.

Sweet Briar exists to nurture a particularly vital idea, the mission of training young women

“…to be productive, responsible members of a world community…to become active learners, to reason clearly, to speak and write persuasively, and to lead with integrity…[in an]educational environment that is both intense and supportive and where learning occurs in many different venues, including the classroom, the community, and the worldwithin a residential environment that encourages physical well-being, ethical awareness, sensitivity to others, responsibility for one’s actions, personal initiative and the assumption of leadership. In small classes, students receive the attention that encourages self-confidence and the improvement of skills for life and livelihood. Sweet Briar continues its commitment as an independent undergraduate women’s college in order to devote its resources to the education of women in the full range of the liberal arts, including those subjects that have been traditionally considered as male domains.”

This is an idea with value and the power to change lives and the course of history. In the Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall of  Honor, there are strong, remarkable women like Irena Sendler, Edna Gladney, Lena Horne and others who possessed the character and courage to accomplish great things despite beginning life in cultures that subordinated and stifled them. The world would be unimaginably poorer without their contributions, and the idea behind Sweet Briar is nothing less that this: we should not wait for remarkable women to emerge through the lucky convergence of genes, upbringing and circumstance, but actively nurture them. If one Edna Gladney can accomplish so much, imagine what a thousand might do.

Last week, I wrote about the amazing Julia Sand, whose ability to express herself with passion and persuasion allowed a solitary woman confined in a wheelchair to make a significant President out of a fearful, unprepared man thrust into office by a tragedy. Julia Sand could write. The idea behind Sweet Briar is to make certain that when a Julia Sand is needed, one, indeed many, will be prepared to answer the call of destiny.

Julia Sand seems like a Sweet Briar grad to me.

Ideas are more precious than money, dreams, reputation, or even lives. And they often have to be fought for, sometimes against daunting odds. Sweet Briar College represents such an idea,  and the board of that institution is in the process of teaching the toxic lesson that when ideas are threatened, it is acceptable to shrug and surrender, and move on to easier tasks.

That lesson is false, and more than false, dangerous. When ideas die, we all lose, and lose more than we will ever know.

Ideas are not just worth fighting for. We are obligated to fight for them. When a good idea dies, the world edges closer to darkness.


31 thoughts on “Why The Sweet Briar College Fight Matters

  1. I admit to mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I recall when VMI and the Citadel were the targets of a coordinated campaign to force them to admit women.

    Yet nobody gave a thought to the fact that many of these women’s colleges are practicing what amounts to discrimination against men, and that since the Supreme Court was used to force the Citadel and VMI to allow women… many women’s colleges still exclude men.

    So, on the one hand, I feel terrible for the alumni and those who work at those colleges. They are losing jobs, they are seeing the place they went to school shut down – there is a real sense of loss on a number of fronts. On the other hand… I still find it difficult to mourn an institution which excluded men simply because they were men.

      • Neither VMI or the Citadel are private institutions. There was a strong movement to take VMI private before the “co-ed” vote of the Board of Visitors, but the Board was having none of that. The Foundation didn’t want to lose control of the endowment money.

    • Yes, the big difference is that VMI and the Citadel were public institutions, whereas the remaining women’s and men’s colleges are private institutions. There are no remaining public institutions that are single-sex (at least of which I am aware) because of issues of discrimination.

      That said, there are private women’s and MEN’S colleges, and there is still absolutely a place and a need for single-sex education. And in the same way I am fighting for my alma mater (Sweet Briar), I would want to fight for other men’s and women’s institutions.

      • The Canadian colleges that direct that women speak first in class—which is artificial, and unfair to men, might want to reflect on a more direct and less offensive solution to the problem they perceive…

    • VMI and The Citadel are Publicly Funded institutions funded by taxpayer dollars. Sweet Briar College is Private, and founded in 1901. In the Last Will and Testament of Indiana Fletcher Williams (see http://www.archives.com). It is against a covenant in the Will to either sell the school and its property (save ‘cy-pres’, and a Judge must rule on that exception) or allow men to attend this college, founded for women by a woman. The BOD and new Interim President voted to close the college without seeking advice from or telling Alumnae, Staff, Faculty or Students. #SAVESWEETBRIAR, and please sign the nice Petition @ http://www.change.org.

  2. I think a part of me is saddened by the loss of any post secondary educational institution, but another part of me thinks that male admittance sex segregated schools have been on the ropes for years, and with very little pushback… It hits me as too little too late to pick SBC as the line. And this is why it’s so important to fight against injustice, even if it doesn’t effect your demographic specifically. Martin Niemöller called it.

  3. One of the most egregious aspects of the board’s failure is that not only were they in charge of donors’ contributions, but they were in charge a family’s entire estate, donated to this cause in memory of their only child, who died at age 16. This family gave everything they had, down to the plates and furniture inside their home, to found a women’s college in their daughter’s honor. The will specifically stipulates that the land shall never be sold, nor used for any purpose other than as an institute of higher learning for women. How the board & president aim to get around this, I don’t know. The fact that they are trying galls me. Not only that, but a classmate of mine just finished funding a $50k scholarship endowment in memory of her 3-year-old son, who died of cancer. This money came at enormous personal cost to her, and muscle-deep giving among many who respect her for raising tens of thousands more for childhood cancer research. The purpose of the scholarship was to help students whose families have been hit by the high costs and emotional devastation of cancer in the family; to relieve at least part of the stress those families suffer. The school took her money a handful of weeks ago, without ever mentioning that the scholarship set up in her child’s honor will never be used to send a single student to school. It’s hard to square these things with any description of fiduciary duty, disclosure ethics, or even basic morality.

    • Fascinating to me to see the vitriol expressed at the Board of Directors, charging them with everything including fraud, breaches of their fiduciary duty, and other crimes of treason. The Board is composed mostly of Alumnae, which I assume have a strong connection to the College and, if Board norms are resident here, probably are the largest donors to the College (Boards usually comprise 25 to 30% of total giving to an institution.) So I guess I would like to hear what their process was, and what data and expert assistance they received on the way to make their unanimous decision. Maybe it was the more difficult enrollment process, with fewer acceptances. Maybe it is the performance in freshman retention and graduation rates, which are substandard and have been resident for over a decade. maybe its just the small scale of the institution with large numbers of staff and assets relative to students. Despite the fact that $80 million or so of endowment sounds so large, its probably half or one third of whats required for long term survival. The performance metrics of Sweet Briar are, plainly speaking, not very good and have not been for a long time. Some of the data underlying these conditions are publicly available, including financial statements, and the administration has signaled strongly their difficulties for several years. I think that it would be constructive to understand the specific steps that the Board and the administration have taken, and what remedies they analyzed before coming to the decision. Its not just coeducation…its everything including adjustments to the curriculum, further cost cutting, boosting enrollment efforts, accelerating a capital campaign. and as a last resort, handing the keys to another institution. It would be good to see what the Board saw and understand the inputs to the decision. Based on this analysis, I guess that the dissenting alumnae can take a view as to what a new slate of directors might do to remedy the current situation. But until there is broad knowledge of the remedies the current board has pursued, the campaign to save the college is probably an under informed and emotional exercise.

      • Please.

        1. Alumnae? Where did all those men on the board come from, then?
        2. (Boards usually comprise 25 to 30% of total giving to an institution.) Not colleges. Other small non-profits ideally, but not colleges.
        3. And maybe if you can ask that many questions, the process was not nearly transparent enough.
        4. The faculty, alumnae and greater community were not kept properly involved in the process. The proof is the widespread surprise.

  4. Jack,

    In my humble opinion, this is one of the best things . . . if not THE best thing . . . you’ve ever written across both websites. As I read it, I can’t help but hear the passion in your voice and a chorus of ‘Glory Glory Halleluiah’ playing quietly in the background.



  5. Luckily, this particular idea has thousands of people fighting for it right now at #SaveSweetBriar. The Sweet Briar Community agrees the board acted prematurely. We have a lawyer, a non-profit and a fundraising campaign. This is not the first time a college successfully overturned the decision of the board. We are hoping to add SBC to the list of successful legal precedents. If you would like to assist us in our mission please visit http://www.savingsweetbriar.com

  6. Thank you so much for writing, and for all of the thoughtful comments, all of you. I did not attend Sweet Briar, but have a daughter who might, and I live about an hour from the campus. I believe when one small liberal arts college is threatened, we all are threatened. This effort must win. I am fighting right along side of the SBC Alumnae, because it’s the right thing to do. We can not sit down and do nothing when any non-profit Board acts in this egregiously irresponsible a manner.

  7. This is the polymath usually known here as “Fred’s wife.” I’m horrified that Sweet Briar is closing. I have more than one horse in this race. I’ve visited there; I used to live about 90 mins. away in Buckingham Co. It’s a very special college, one that takes above-average students and turns them into fully-realized adults. This is not part of the mission for many colleges, especially for young women students, but it is at Sweet Briar. It’s also part of the structure that supports the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, home of writers residencies that I hope someday to engage with. And it’s just stunningly beautiful, the kind of place to steal the heart of a city girl and never give it back. It has made intangible contributions to the world that you can’t put a monetary value on. I wish the alumnae (and others trying to turn the situation around) the best of success.

  8. Dear Jack, as a student of the Classics first, and, reluctantly, business second, I too am moved by the energy and conviction of your spirit regarding our #SaveSweetBriar cause. It is a battle of epic proportions between alumnae who believe every fiber of every word you have written and a Board who chose to capitulate prematurely without ever asking tens of thousands of alumnae and their networks of relationships, for assistance.

    “There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.” –Muhammad Ali Jinnah

  9. This post is absolutely excellent! And hats off to SBCFan2000 – “battle of epic proportions”! Yes, I believe the power and strength of the idea embodied by SBC, and of the woman SBC produced, have been vastly under-estimated by the Board and President. We will not let this idea die!

  10. For the sake of transparency, I am posting this comment here and also to the original Marshall post about Sweet Briar.

    Years ago, I was a fund raising consultant to build an endowment for a Catholic girls’ high school. I met often with the nun who ran in the school, and in a moment of candor, she told me this (paraphrased): “Confidentially, to me this is more than a private Catholic school — it is a training ground for girls and women to become LEADERS. There is no chance here for a girl to be vice president of the class because a boy will usually be chosen, or for a girl to be second at anything. I want these girls to take the world on, to become leaders, despite current norms, and my job is to get them ready to move forward in that direction.”

    Sweet Briar (and Vassar and Radcliffe et.al. before them, both of whom knuckled under) was/is a last bastion of this idea. What we want are women who know how to lead — and NOT on the coat-tails of the men they marry, e.g. (I will not name names) — but on their own. How the Sweet Briar board could just give up is beyond me. An endowment of $98 million and property probably worth four times that should, must, lead board members to “go to any length” to preserve the school. Who are these people? I only hope the SB alumni (and forget the feminine Latin term) fight for the future of the college, fire the Board, and move forward. They have much to save, and much to give — to the college and to our society.

  11. Dear Jack,

    This is a follow up to my previous post – I hope you will forgive me for posting a second comment. I speak as a family member of a dedicated alumna. The Sweet Briar College Board of Directors blindsided its stakeholders – its alumnae, their spouses, families, all with an intense, passionate interest in the prosperity of their college – with their abrupt announcement of our beloved Sweet Briar’s closing. This is a premature decision we are fiercely fighting and intend to reverse. President Jo Ellen Parker left in August of 2014 with a press statement saying Sweet Briar is in great hands and has a bright future (http://sbc.edu/news/uncategorized/letter-community-jo-ellen-parker/). We believe her exact words were that Sweet Briar is poised to “flourish.” That statement is just 6 months before the Sweet Briar college Board decided they need to close the college. What happened in just 6 months? Or was something happening long before then which the Board and President deliberately chose to not communicate to its stakeholders?

    For years, dedicated alumnae who make meaningful contributions annually, heard in closed door meetings how great the college is; how record amounts are being fundraised; and that we should pat ourselves on the back for being so supportive. I know because I sat in those meetings, and heard such praise first hand, sitting only but a table away from the podium from which President Jo Ellen Parker was speaking. While perhaps a hint about “today there are changes in education” was dropped here or there, nobody said the house was on fire. No one even said the house “may” catch fire! While the Board argues that had they said such things, students would flee and it would have only accelerated any decline, colleges and universities governed by Boards and Presidents with vision and strength, frequently embark on fund raising campaigns years ahead of time to raise funds their institutions need. Why did the Sweet Briar Board of Directors and President, not engage in a focused campaign?

    The Board also stated on an alumnae call that “they turned over every stone.” That “admissions are significantly down” because “when you are 30 minutes away from a Starbucks” young people don’t want to be near you.

    Sweet Briar did not have a Director of Admissions for 2+ years. Is it a coincidence that enrollment dropped? The question must be asked: Why didn’t President Jo Ellen Parker hire a new Director of Admissions? And why did the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors allow that? Or, Board, please answer to your alumnae, do you need to concede you were asleep at the switch? Moreover, one cannot know what connections and resources thousands of passionate alumnae have and can bring to the table, if someone just asked for help because of a significant need. As Anne Wilson Schaef is noted for saying “Asking for help does not mean that we are weak or incompetent. It usually indicates an advanced level of honesty and intelligence.”

    Tens of thousands of alumnae, their spouses, their families, their personal and professional networks, can help, could have helped, and are now stepping in to clean up and to help. As dedicated, committed alumnae, we shall step in and act because the Board of Directors, our previous President Jo Ellen Parker, and our current Interim President James F. Jones who came full of controversy from his Trinity College past, all failed us in Governance, Leadership, and Creativity. Its alumnae with a vision for a future will correct that. We ask everyone with an interest to join us at http://www.savingsweetbriar.com; #SaveSweetBriar or contact us behind the scenes through our website, if confidence and discretion is requested.

    One simply does not shut down a college with 3,250 acres and 25+ buildings, many of them historic. We will investigate until truly all stones have been unturned to ensure there are no ulterior motives in play. Such as, for example, a large hotel developer seeking to turn our esteemed women’s institution of higher learning into a resort; or an esteemed public personality in Government who would love to, after closing, come in and “Save the day” and “Save the jobs” in the community by turning it into The “[Name of Person] International Center for this or that purpose” etc. Even if that was the possible intent, with 3,250 acres, there is enough room for Sweet Briar College to lease part of its land for such a purpose and for such “resort” or “esteemed international center” to gain from the stellar academia and bright minds that would surround it in such a bucolic setting nestled amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

    For anyone that believes women’s higher education is on the decline, I refer you to a most excellent opinion piece by Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University which she penned this March 10, 2015. You can see her piece here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patricia-mcguire/. For another excellent piece by another college President on the matter, we also refer you to President Michael A. Miller of Northland College and his opinion as to why liberal education at small colleges can not only exist, but truly thrive, even when a Starbucks is not nearby: http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/opinion/3696310-college-presidents-view-reinventing-liberal-arts-business-model-—-sans-starbucks.

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