Ethics 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 world…within 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.