Ethics Heroes: The Sweet Briar Alumnae And Their Supporters

victory

What an inspiring story! I hoped, and I so wanted to believe, but I confess that I really thought that the traitorous, unethical Sweet Briar College board had delivered a fatal blow to this storied all-woman’s college by operating by surprise and stealth, waiting to announce its plan to close the institution so late in the academic year as to render counter-measures futile.

Like that disgraceful crew, I underestimated the determined women of Sweet Briar and their allies.

From the Washington Post:

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s office announced Saturday night that an agreement has been reached to keep Sweet Briar College open next year.

The agreement, which requires court approval, involves a $12 million commitment from an alumnae group and permission from the attorney general to release $16 million from the school’s endowment.

The president of the private women’s college in rural Virginia shocked many in March when he abruptly announced that the college, which is more than 100 years old, would close in the summer. Since then, supporters have been working feverishly to save the school, protesting, raising money and filing lawsuits challenging the closure.

On Saturday, Herring’s office announced that — if Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr. approves the agreement — Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae group, would give $12 million for the operation of the college for the 2015-2016 year, with the first $2.5 million installment to be delivered in early July….

Both the alumnae group and other challengers to the closure say the funding would be enough to keep the school operating for the 2015-2016 academic year.

The agreement comes barely a month before the historic school was slated to close — and in advance of court hearings on multiple lawsuits. It does not resolve the ongoing issues that the school’s current leadership cited in making the decision to close, such as concerns about enrollment and revenue. It does not explain where next year’s class will come from, since accepted students were told to apply elsewhere and current students were told to transfer. But it provides a stopgap…

Leadership would change: If the agreement is approved, at least 13 board members would resign, and 18 new ones would be appointed — a majority that would control the board…

Obviously, a lot of hard work still needs to be done. The school needs to find additional benefactors, funding, and support, not to mention a student body. The new leadership must be creative, bold and effective. Luck is also essential. Nonetheless, Sweet Briar just made a strong argument for why young women seeking an education that confers character, courage and leadership ability as well as knowledge and life skills should seriously consider coming to this unique institution. Its community of graduates just proved how well Sweet Briar trained and inspired them, and they have demonstrated their loyalty and gratitude in return.

An arrogant board that was willing to abandon the Sweet Briar mission has learned the hard way why that mission was worth fighting for. Don’t bet against Sweet Briar. I think they can and will do what needs to be done to preserve and strengthen the school. I also think any feminist who has a genuine interest in acting rather than talking should delineate the distinction by contributing generously to Sweet Briar’s revival.

I will be particularly keen to see how much the Clinton Foundation contributes to the cause. But I digress; we can point out the fakes, false friends, hypocrites and slackers another day. For now, my happiness is unalloyed, and I am so thrilled about this unexpected development.

Congratulations, Sweet Briar alumnae!

You inspire us all.

 

18 thoughts on “Ethics Heroes: The Sweet Briar Alumnae And Their Supporters

  1. A lot of alumni groups should take note of this and stop blindly supporting those regents who have turned their former school into quagmires of inefficiency and, often enough, downright degeneracy. Every college and high school in the country has traditions that once helped propel young people in their formative years into worthy, productive careers. These traditions have sadly eroded in our modern times and need to be re-instituted. Professional educators have proven themselves to be (at best) sadly lacking in those virtues that once made American scholarship great. At worst, it’s become a matter of downright corruption. Alumni groups can look to the Sweet Briar College episode and understand that not only CAN they make a difference, but they may be the only ones who can prevent their schools from sliding over the final cliff into complete dissolution.

  2. Seeing that the solution required releasing $16 million from the college’s endowment I am wondering how much is in the endowment and what would happen to it if the college had closed?

    • The endowment has at least $86M in it…If it had closed, we aren’t sure exactly what was going to happen, the BoD wasn’t really saying beyond “Use it to close the school”…even the faculty and staff were not promised severance pay. Supposedly anything left would have gone to fund a scholarship.

        • Many people are quite suspicious about what was going to happen to the remaining endowment and the land. No one on the (now previous) Board was talking though we suspect the bulk of them do know what was going to happen. There were non-disclosure agreements in place.

          Conspiracy theories abound.

          The most popular is that Disney would take it over and build a theme park there. The one that seems most plausible to me is that the remainder of our endowment would have been controlled by UVa in some way.

          Only previous Board members are likely to know and I doubt any of them will say anything.

  3. Congratulations to Sweet Briar alums and all the others who supported them. Clearly, the concept of women’s high schools and colleges as leadership training institutions has been proved.

    And congratulations to you, Jack, for helping bring this important issue to the fore.

    • Yes. Assuming they did everything they could, and weren’t defeated by their own lack of effort, skill or determination. I have no problem arguing that successful heroes deserve more praise than unsuccessful heroes, all things being equal.

  4. Congratulations to the alumnae, and also to you Jack! Your original post moved many hearts and souls and while you’re too modest to mention it, you also deserve some of the praise.

  5. I’m…. I don’t know. I’ve stayed far away from this one, because while I understand and agree with everything you said; That the administrators have a duty to you know…. administer. That they were wrong to try to close the college for the reasons stated, that it was lazy, and cowardly, that in a vacuum this victory is a great thing…. I just can’t get past the fact that this school caters exclusively to women, directly breaks title IX, and generally feels ick to me. I just don’t think that it’s right for this school to operate the way it does.

    This ‘victory’ comes directly on the heels of Tim Hunt, who was arguing for sex-segregated laboratory space, saying in part “what happens? You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and then they cry when you criticise them.” What he was saying, in context was that workplace relationships make the workplace more complicated than it needs to be…. What the media ran with was “He said that women cry and shouldn’t be in the lab!” It was a horribly awkward statement, and the idea of sex segregating labs is of… let’s say…. dubious merit… at best. But the blowback from this was so intense that Dr. Hunt, a Nobel prize winning laureate who discovered the protein responsible for cell division, thus contributing directly to cancer research in a way more meaningful than any other living human being on Earth, was forced to resign. And this was also called a victory.

    So let’s juxtapose that for a second. Sweet Briar sex segregates itself, and that’s OK. Hunt suggests sex segregating labs, and is harangued out of his job.

    • This is a tough one. I’m a SBC alum who also has a PhD in Engineering. Dr. Hunt’s comment was pretty idiotic, he may have meant it in jest, but he chose the worst possible time to deliver those comments. The rapid backlash has a lot to do with the speed of social media, and the backdrop of Biology labs where the PI has the power to kick you out, give you a dead end project, or help you publish enough to get your own lab.

      In the same week at the Dr. Hunt comments, in Science magazine’s (yes, THAT Science) advice column concerning an advisor who kept on looking down a post doc’s shirt during their meetings, the advice columnist — a woman — advised the post doc to suck it up because the advisor’s influence on the post doc’s career was too great to risk offense. And yet Biology has great numbers of women getting PhDs. I don’t know what the problem is, but clearly there is one. I mean, come on, people, it is 2015!

      To address your other points, attending a single-sex college is the choice of the student. There ARE men’s colleges, still, though fewer since the military academies (such as VMI) were made co-ed, as they should have been since they are publicly funded. The remaining schools are privately funded. There are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) too, and they are privately funded.

      My experience at a women’s college is that all that static about gender norms is removed — what to study, career choice, how to act, etc., giving me a lot of freedom to decide how to spend my adult life.

      • “Hunt’s comment was pretty idiotic, he may have meant it in jest, but he chose the worst possible time to deliver those comments.”

        Agreed. 100%. But do you think that it’s appropriate to remove a Nobel laureate from his lab for stumbling over a bad joke?

        “There ARE men’s colleges, still, though fewer since the military academies (such as VMI) were made co-ed, as they should have been since they are publicly funded. The remaining schools are privately funded. There are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) too, and they are privately funded.”

        Awful argumentation. Both factually variant of rationalizations 22 and 24, and factually untrue. I called out women’s only schools because we’re talking about SBC, but any group that caters exclusively to people based on race or gender would be on the top of the list of organizations I think are inherently unethical, that other groups might be doing the same thing doesn’t make the behavior right…. Which is why it’s important to differentiate between what’s “Right” and what’s “My right to do”.

        As to the facts of gender and racially segregated colleges…. 48. That’s the number of women’s colleges in America. Compare that to 3 men’s colleges and 0 exclusively black colleges. (HBCUs started accepting people from different races decades ago.) I’d also, as a matter of splitting hairs argue that no college is exclusively privately funded, between bursaries, scholarships and assistance programs, I’d genuinely be surprised if there was a college out there that didn’t accept some kind of public money if we considered indirect payments. I know that isn’t how we look at it, but the taxpayer is basically awarding students money to give that money to organizations that discriminate, and that sits poorly with me.

        “My experience at a women’s college is that all that static about gender norms is removed — what to study, career choice, how to act, etc., giving me a lot of freedom to decide how to spend my adult life.”

        Your experience, and I’m sorry, because this is probably going to be offensive… But your experience is weak. Even if you want to argue that you didn’t have that freedom outside of a segregated environment (which I reject on it’s face…. between 55 and 60% of the college population is female currently, and women are in every. single. field. I’d bet that if there was a situation where a woman in a normal college felt that she was being discouraged from chasing her goal in almost any imagined way it would be front page news and someone would get fired.), what you’re describing isn’t freedom… it’s something akin to laziness, with undertones of entitlement. The college experience isn’t just learning what’s in the books, it’s also learning how to deal with people in an adult setting, segregated colleges bypass that learning.

        • A Comment of the Day, HT, but it may be a while before I post it. I need to post on the Hunt affair before it will make as much sense as it should. My position on all-women’s colleges diverges from yours–I see it as exactly as justifiable as all-women’s sports teams and locker rooms, and for similar reasons. But I need to lay the foundation for the debate.

          • I look forward to it! (I just wish I could fix all my typos…. Eugh,,,, I sympathise with your apology post last week.)

        • Briefly:

          No, I don’t think that Tim Hunt should have lost his job, especially after reading the most recent analyses. I was trying to give some context as to why his comments/joke struck such a nerve, though.

          On the last paragraph, it is impossible to run two lives in parallel during the ages of 18-22 years old, one at a women’s college, and one at a co-ed school. Consequently, I used my experience at coed schools in grad school versus my time at Sweet Briar to create the thoughts in my first post. Of course, there are great co-ed schools and there are women who do well at those co-ed schools.

          There are many schools of thought as to what the “college experience” is supposed to be about, and if it is learning how to deal with people in an adult setting, do you believe that a sex-segregated college prevents students from later being able to operate in the real world? If so, what evidence do you have that such sex-segregation creates poorer outcomes in this regard?

          In my own work, I exclusively work with men. I am supervised by men, I collaborate with men, I work alongside men, and the conferences I go to have a male/female ratio at best of 95%/5%, and I get along so well with men I married one. Given all of that, I don’t see how attending a sex-segregated school creates students who are not able to function in the real world — which includes both genders, of course.

          • “No, I don’t think that Tim Hunt should have lost his job, especially after reading the most recent analyses. I was trying to give some context as to why his comments/joke struck such a nerve, though.”

            This conversation is like an unfinished sentence. We agree that Hunt made a stupid comment,we understand where the outrage came from, we agree that he shouldn’t have been fired….. And yet he was still fired. My point is that you’ve taken what I’ve said and made it very individual, and it’s just not helpful to at these situations in terms that small.

            “do you believe that a sex-segregated college prevents students from later being able to operate in the real world? If so, what evidence do you have that such sex-segregation creates poorer outcomes in this regard?”

            I don’t think I thought about this nearly as much as you did. My point was that sex-segregated schools discriminate, and in that discrimination they might also do harm. I think that when you have something that’s discriminatory, requiring someone to prove that the discrimination does harm is backwards, it makes more sense to me that in order to discriminate you have to prove that the discrimination produces a benefit that is so obvious that it justifies the discrimination on a utilitarian basis.

            But to answer your question directly, I think is that sex segregated schools kick the can down the road by creating an artificial environment. I could be reading this poorly, but it seems that the problem for which sex segregated schools are the solution is that somehow the genders damage each other, or create some kind of distraction that is so insurmountable, we have to educate them in separate buildings. The problem with that is that as you pointed out, eventually men and women will have to work together. If there’s going to be awkwardness… And while that awkwardness won’t exist in every situation, but it will in some. I think that it’s by far more appropriate and beneficial to work it out before entering the workplace. And hey, I could be completely off base…. We can have that discussion…. But I want to point out again that this discussion is secondary.

            • I am fascinated by this dialogue between you both. Being a lover of the Classics I am so delighted to have been introduced to Ethics Alarms and its eloquent, thoughtful readers/followers. The Sweet Briar Betrayal was my stumble upon this beautiful garden of thought and ethics.

              I am noodling the points of you both and have some thoughts (Full disclosure: I am married to a strong Sweet Briar woman). I need a few more days before they can be sifted into coherent and orderly points. I understand the points you both make. Perhaps my thoughts could be a bridge connecting them both.

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