On March 3rd, the Board of Directors at Sweet Briar College announced that the 114-year-old women’s college would graduate its final class this year. The College is set to shut down due to “insurmountable financial challenges,” which were never disclosed to the Sweet Briar community prior to the decision.
After my tenth Facebook post on the subject, a friend with no connection to Sweet Briar asked the obvious question: okay, but if things are that bad, why should this college be saved?
There have been plenty of love letters written to Sweet Briar over the past two days. I have yet to write mine, and this is not it. This is simply a brief outsider’s guide to that question.
Full disclosure: I did not attend Sweet Briar, but I did grow up on its campus. I am an alumna of Sweet Briar’s Junior Year in France program, and many of my friends are very closely affiliated with the College. My mother is a tenured Sweet Briar professor who has taught at the College for nineteen years. In 2014, she was recognized with an Outstanding Faculty Award, the Commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty at Virginia’s colleges and universities. Knowing how professionally prolific and dedicated all Sweet Briar faculty are, every single one of them would have been equally deserving of this honor.
Okay, so this is personal. Anything else?
Glad you asked.
1. The students, the faculty, and the staff.
If you want to know why Sweet Briar matters, you should be reading what the students themselves have to say. SavingSweetBriar.com, an alumnae-led effort, has been collecting student stories. The love that Sweet Briar Vixens have for their alma mater is staggering. They care deeply for the place, for their fellow students, for their professors. The campus is beautiful, the friendships are lasting, and the faculty and staff are distinguished and tremendously devoted. A common, baffled thread runs through the media reports of Sweet Briar’s closing: this is not just any school, but a good school.
Sweet Briar has pulled together some options for its current students to transfer after the closure this year, but has so far issued only general promises of severance to its faculty. No matter what this package proves to be, it will surely be of little comfort to the many families who both live and work on Sweet Briar’s campus.
2. Sweet Briar provides unique programs, both to its students and beyond its gates.
Sweet Briar boasts the only liberal arts engineering program of its kind in the area, modeled on the program at Smith. Given its liberal arts status, the College places terrific emphasis on STEM fields. In addition to the engineering program, over 4% of all Sweet Briar students graduate with degrees in mathematics, compared to less than a 1% national average for male and female students combined. Sweet Briar students are accepted to health and veterinary professional schools at more than twice the national average. The list goes on and on.
This spring, I will be teaching at the annual Sweet Briar Undergraduate Creative Writing conference, one of only a handful of writing conferences in the United States geared at undergraduates. Since 1948, Sweet Briar has managed the oldest French study abroad program in the US, Junior Year in France — a program available to students across the country. The College houses summer camps and programs for area kids, and leases twelve acres of land to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, one of the largest artists’ colonies in the country.
Year-round, Sweet Briar provides unique cultural opportunities for the surrounding, very rural area—theater, dance, music, and more. Amherst, VA, is a two-stoplight town thirty-minutes’ drive from the nearest non-denominational bookstore, but as a child growing up there, I heard Salman Rushdie speak at the College. Jane Goodall and Sally Ride gave lectures. These guests would most likely have flown right past us had Sweet Briar not been there to invite them in.
3. The decision to close was abrupt and unilateral.
The outrage from alumnae is not mere nostalgia: they were never contacted about the school’s dire financial troubles and are furious that they were given no opportunity to help.
Faculty and current students were also left in the dark until a meeting announcing the Board’s decision to close, one hour before the news went public. Regular transfer deadlines for other colleges have passed. Freshman students have already been admitted for next year. Sweet Briar is set to shut down with less than a semester’s notice, even though it has a reported endowment of $94 million.
Alumnae are currently seeking legal action for an injunction against the Board of Directors and Interim President James Jones. A donation drive is underway, and as of this writing, over $925,000 has been pledged to save the school (plus one anonymous pledge for $1 million). A Change.org petition to reverse the decision is collecting signatures, and vocal social media discussions are taking place under the tags #SaveSweetBriar and #ThinkIsForGirls.