Alumnae Declare Victory in Fight to Save Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar College President James F. Jones Jr. will step down under terms of the new agreement.Sweet Briar College President James F. Jones Jr. will step down under terms of the new agreement.

The word went out last weekend that Sweet Briar College would stay open for one more year, thanks to a settlement agreement that will ensure a change in leadership and the college’s short-term continued financial viability. Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr. approved the settlement plan Monday morning.

Per the terms of the agreement, current President James F. Jones Jr. will step down, along with at least 13 of the current board members. Alumnae, under the banner of the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar, have promised to give $12 million within 60 days to fund college operations in 2015-16. The first installment of $2.5 million is due on July 2.

“Today’s settlement is an answer to the prayers of many and a powerful validation of the value of fighting for what you believe in,” Sarah Clement, chair of Saving Sweet Briar, said in a statement on the organization’s website. Sweet Briar alumnae rallied to keep the college open and have pledged to give $21 million.

Sweet Briar will have just a few months to reorganize before it reopens in the fall. The board is expected to announce that Phillip Stone will be chosen as the new president. He is a Virginia attorney and former SBC board chair, and also was the president of Bridgewater College from 1994 to 2010. Under Stone’s leadership, Bridgewater dramatically increased its enrollment in 10 years, which bodes well for Sweet Briar, because low enrollment is one of the hurdles the college will have to overcome to survive.

The board will also see a major changeover, as 13 of the 23 current board members will resign. Another 18, nominated by the plaintiffs who have fought to keep the college open, will take their place.

Finally, there is the question of faculty and staff. Jones told the faculty at a meeting in early March that the college would not reopen in September. “The announcement was very late in the year and so there were not all that many permanent jobs to be had at the college level,” Dr. Eric Casey, former SBC classics professor and former chair of the faculty executive committee, said in an email. Believing that they would be out of work, faculty scrambled to find positions elsewhere. Many had to accept one-year appointments or jobs outside of the traditional academy.

After Monday’s reversal in the college’s fortunes, faculty are considering whether they can come back. Some have signed contracts elsewhere and so feel “honor-bound” to stick with them, Casey said. As a result, some departments may be short-staffed.

“Unless they hire more faculty in the wake of this announcement, there will likely be some departments without staffing for next year,” Casey said. “I would imagine that they will try to fill some of those positions as it would affect the range of majors available and the existing general education requirements, but those sorts of considerations are going to be in the hands of the new administration very soon.”

Students are in a similar boat with the faculty in terms of deciding whether they should return to the college.

The board gave many reasons for why the college had to close, but at essence their concerns boil down to a decline in revenue. To cover operating costs, the college began dipping into its endowment, which, at $94 million in 2013, was certainly healthier than that of many other tiny liberal arts colleges, but not vast. By 2015, it had dropped to $84 million. According to the board, the college was on a crash course and its demise was not a question of if, but when.

Sweet Briar’s identity has evolved in recent decades from being a school primarily for wealthy White women from the South to the more racially and socioeconomically diverse place it is today. The college is situated on the grounds of an old plantation, and did not officially integrate until 1967, several years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Although the college admitted its first Black student in 1966, the college had to fight a three-year long legal battle to reinterpret Indiana Fletcher Williams’ will. In 1889, Williams donated the lands and funds to create the institution that became Sweet Briar, stipulating that it would serve the “education of white girls and young women.”

Despite integrating in the ’60s, when Sweet Briar’s 10th president, Dr. Jo Ellen Parker, arrived on campus in 2009, only 11 percent of the student body was a racial minority. She began a targeted campaign to recruit more minority students, growing their numbers to 29 percent, along with a similar increase in the number of Pell-eligible students.

As a result of having so many low-income students, the school discounted its tuitions. Jones attributed the college’s financial woes to the tuition discount, which ate into the endowment. As he told a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter in March, “This is not nuclear physics or differential equations; this is arithmetic from third-grade add-up-the-column. Forty-three percent of these wonderful young women are on Pell Grants. You know what that means about the economic stratum that their families are in. Thirty-seven percent are first-generation, 33 percent minority.”

Dr. Dan Gottlieb, a psychology professor at Sweet Briar, said in a phone interview that blaming the college’s financial troubles on the very same low-income students it recruited in the first place does not help the school move forward.

“The mistake is not the diversity initiative at all,” he said. “The mistake was the implementation.” While the diversity initiative spearheaded by Parker was commendable, he said, the end result was not as originally envisioned. To make up for the tuition discount, more students would have had to enroll than actually did.

Although the past several months have been a roller coaster ride for the school, the school now has the opportunity to move forward under new leadership. One tweet best encapsulates the sense of victory after months of fighting. “Never doubt that a small group of women can change the world. We saved Sweet Briar!”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.