Comment of the Day: “Why The Sweet Briar College Fight Matters”

Sweet Briar2

Ethics Alarms has been graced with a wave of new commenters, prompted by this post and its predecessor, “The Sweet Briar Betrayal.” The issue is the ethics of a college board surrendering to adversity without a fight, with millions in the bank, a beautiful campus, and an important mission, and doing so before fully informing and involving the larger college community, especially alumnae. I opined that the board had an ethical duty to both  mission and the school itself not to euthanize Sweet Briar College prematurely, at very least, not before a last ditch capital fundraising campaign.

Thousands of readers seemed to agree, and my posts on the looming Sweet Brier closing have become part of the effort to promote and coordinating a growing movement by concerned alumnae and others to reverse the board’s decision. A few, in contrast, accused me of being unfair to the board, arguing that it has taken an unpopular but responsible course, and was courageous to do so. SBCFan2000, a new  commenter who arrived in the crowd of Sweet Briar supporters, reinforces my assumptions in this revealing Comment of the Day:

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.

 

14 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Why The Sweet Briar College Fight Matters”

  1. I have commented before on this issue. And as I said previously, women’s colleges and high schools serve an important educational — and more importantly, societal — purpose. Despite all comments to the contrary about the advancement of women’s place in society, most of the US women in public leadership positions still come by their posts because of (1) affirmative action; (2) political correctness; and/or (3) riding the coattails of an influential husband.

    My experience (mainly as a consultant with all-female high schools) is that institutions like Sweet Briar teach LEADERSHIP in a very specific way. They create strong, educated, and extremely capable women who do not seek greatness or achievement through the above-mentioned categories. What these institutions prove — along with their ability to provide highly respected academic credentials — is that leadership can be taught and learned, that one doesn’t have to be a politician (or the wife of one) to make a difference, and that we depend, yes, depend, on women to think, act, and lead. If Sweet Briar is one of the last bastions of this approach to education, then fight for it! And I know you are.

    Frankly, I am tremendously pleased, as a regular EthicsAlarms reader, that this issue has taken hold in the way it has. Go for it! Fire the Board, get a new one, find out what’s behind this egregious and suspicious decision, and save Sweet Briar. I am in your corner.

    As a former capital campaign fund raiser (raising $350 million in two years for a relatively unknown DC think-tank) I am at your disposal (pro bono) when you’re ready, First, though, put that Board on notice that you are taking action — NOW. And among your alumni (I just won’t use the feminine Latin term) you must have a number of attorneys. Sue the SOBs. Take over. Save the school.

    Call up the spirit of Indira Ghandi, or Margaret Thatcher. e.g. Channel them if you have to (!), but do not, do not, let these weak-kneed morons kill an American treasure.

  2. No-one, of course, needs my approval, or, likely, cares about it, but Sweet Briar has been around forever. When I attended Virginia Commonwealth University (then Richmond Professional Institute), all of us knew about and respected Sweet Briar. Like SBCFan2000, I smell a rat. Somebody stands to gain from this closing, and no apparent effort was made to save the College. The alumni have my full support (I also refuse to conjugate the Latin). YOU GO, GIRL!

  3. Is anyone at Starbucks paying attention? Couldn’t they get a boatload of great publicity by opening, what, a kiosk? on the Sweetbriar campus. Hello?

  4. I googled this but I can’t find any reporting on what’s happened and happening at Sweet Briar. And wasn’t Sweet Briar a sort of finishing school? Where you went after Madeira? I remember someone from my high school days (late ’60s) going there because she would be able to keep her horse in the school stables.

  5. To SBCFan200 and Elizabeth I – My friends, I can assure you that your comments, concerns and, yes, demands are absolutely in the forefront of everyone’s minds as we begin a new week. The faculty (of which I am a member) are beginning to ask the same questions each of you asked. We have been reeling from the implications of severance/no severance – simply in a state of shock which has evaporated into a sense of betrayal and anger. I am mostly concerned for our senior faculty who have, literally, spent most of their academic lives at home on the campus. I am equally – deeply -concerned for the students who are attempting to find other homes – if even temporary ones – in which to continue their educations. The callous actions of our Board simply cannot be condoned nor tolerated.

    I have always heard that when an institution begins to bring in the consultants, things are already out of hand. Indeed, to my memory, we brought in two separate groups of consultants at, I am sure, enormous (yet undisclosed) expense. Apparently, some time ago the brilliant findings of one of these groups was to merge Sweet Briar and Hollins. Now, I recently received my Master’s Degree from Hollins – but what crazy person thought this solution was a good plan? The cry of “what the hell is going on” is resounding across the campus and, indeed, across many, many public corridors. All I can tell you, is that we will not be dismissed nor ignored. We simply owe it to the strong, empowered women who are fighting for us to join them in their stance to protect the legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams. I hope to meet you both. I hope to laugh and cry with my students who are truly in the middle of the most remarkable “experiential learning experience” of their lives as we celebrate success. I hope to, truly, be remembered as one of the people who was never afraid to stand up and fight with women who believe that there is much, much more at stake here than faculty jobs or severance pay. This is about honor, integrity and responsibility. This is about what “Sweet Briar Women” ARE all about….

  6. Just as an addendum – I would also like to point out that time and time again, “consultants” have been the folks who seemed to have been running the college (literally running it into the ground) or, better yet, not caring enough to run it AT ALL! Apparently, they advised against organizing another capital campaign for the college in very recent years, claiming there were just not enough donor dollars available. Very interesting considering the two previous campaigns – 1996 and 2006 – netted $38.5 million and $110 million, respectively. There has definitely been a lack of leadership among those who, supposedly, were charged to “lead”. Very unfortunately, so much of the truth has been kept from the faculty, alumnae and students that we, simply, do not know what to believe. I for one, however, am sticking to what I DO know – someone who fires you and closes the place you work – probably does NOT have your best interest at heart! If we can stay out of the sketchy financials (which can be confusing), we can easily understand that we have been under-represented, over trusting and treated as though we were insignificant players. It is a mistake to ever treat anyone this way – much less a group of strong women who are keenly aware that Sweet Briar College exists solely because a mother was grieving the premature death of her only child. That, my friends, is an unspoken bond among women – you simply shouldn’t mess with….

    • I’m horrified by the disrespect this so called college president, has given those trying to save Sweet Briar College. I live on the west coast and never went to Sweet Briar, but I find myself deeply saddened about the need the Prez and BOD to close the college and without warning. Couldn’t think of a more heartless thing to happen to all those who love the school. To give students false hope, then hit with this shocking new is mindboggling. A College President’s first concern, must be for the well being of the students, their needs to keep the college open and fight for the college. A good college president fights for the college. Then what about the land? beautiful historic buildings? There is something not quite right with this preZ.

  7. These questions comes back to me again and again. “Who/Whom has the most to gain by Sweet Briar closing and possibling going into bankruptcy?” Then, “Why”. “What makes the college itself with her historic buildings invaluable?” I have a hunch, there is something under the college, in the land itself that would make it more valuable if certain parties had free access to the resouces. Follow the money, and the motivation behind closing the college. Two names jump out at me, James F. Jones and Paul G. Rice.

  8. Marcia, thank you from the bottom of my heart as a parent of a rising senior. Your words of wisdom and expression are heartfelt and I am proud that my daughter has role models like you to look up to. I am so thankful that she has not only her friends but the professors that have become her family away from home through this ordeal. I don’t think people fully understand what is so special about Sweet Briar unless you live it and love it. I have been lucky to experience Sweet Briar and how special it is by having spent many Parent weekends on campus, listening to my daughter and her friends over skype talk about their adventures and the traditions, watching her ride, seeing her set goals and experience every bit of the Sweet Briar community that she reached out to. Marcia, you were actually my first memory of Sweet Briar and the discovery of the type of role models my daughter would now have in her life; at the parent meeting after moving into the dorms you told us in the auditorium that “now parent’s it time to leave your daughter’s with us and say goodbye, we will take care of them they are ready”. What had always been familiar had now suddenly changed… now times at the dinner table would be savored times at holiday breaks and long summer vacations. Leaving my oldest across country for the first time in Virginia and heading back to Oregon was one of the hardest things as a parent I have had to do. My daughter was ready to leave the nest and you and others were there to see that she would continue to spread her wings and grow. I do hope that Sweet Briar will be saved. I hope that it is not too late for the Class of Sweet 16 and those who follow to live and experience life in the pink bubble. As a parent I too feel a bond to this school that my daughter loves and where she has become a strong, independent, passionate and creative young woman. I truly do not think there is another institution of higher learning that would have been there for her when she needed it, that let her spread her wings and soar. Thank you Sweet Briar Professors and Staff for being her family these last three years those are relationships that will last her lifetime where ever life takes her.
    Blessings-
    From this Sweet Briar Mom

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