Sweet Briar College-Why Everyone Should Pay Attention

Most folks are not following the current saga surrounding the closing of Sweet Briar College, a 114 year old all woman private liberal arts college north of Lynchburg, Va.

You may think you have no stake or interest in the fight by alums to close the school or the decision of the Board of Trustees to close it.

If you are thinking that, you are dead wrong.

Why? One word-“governance”.

Perhaps I am a little more aware of this than most. I attended Bridgewater College, a private liberal arts college. My father served as a member of the Board of Trustees (BOT) at BC for 20+ years and directed the construction of the McKinney Science Building. Because of his involvement I became acutely aware of college finance, personnel considerations, marketing, planning-the whole range of collegiate governance activities. I also have friends who attended Sweet Briar, and having spent more than a few hours there during my younger days I appreciate the great love its alums have for the place. The words of Daniel Webster in defense of Dartmouth College in 1819 also apply here-“”It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!”

From my seat in the peanut gallery, there is a distinct “he said-she said” feel to the argument.

The Sweet Briar BOT thinks it holds bad cards financially and that closing the college is the best call. Declining enrollment, having to draw too heavily on the endowment to operate, having to discount the tuition too-these and other factors much led to the decision. They say the college has to close ASAP because once it was announced it was closing-even if in x years-applications and enrollments would immediately decline. The BOT feels this is the only fair way to honor the schools various financial commitments.

Alumnae feel like they have been left in the dark. There was no plea for funds, no distinct warning of how dire the BOT thought the situation had become. Upgrade of facilities had continued over the past few years, not exactly an indicator that the gas tank needle is on “Empty”. The college president stepped down last year, an interim president was brought in, and no mention of troubles-a process that now seems like a former president abandoning a sinking ship and a replacement brought in to shutter the college. It is as if this shutdown has been on rails for months, if not longer-and the alums were the last to be told. “Betrayal” is not too strong a word for some alums to use about the BOT

There certainly seems to be a difference in opinion of the BOT responsibilities. It looks to me as if the BOT is acting as if Sweet Briar College is a business that doe snot have long term chances of success, so the prudent thing is to close it out and meet its various financial obligations. The Alums look at the college as a very special educational opportunity that needs to be given every chance of succeeding and being allowed to continue its mission for as long as possible.

I do not know how this will play out. It is my hope that the alums united find a way to meet their goal of . Between the possibilities of money being raised, intervention by the Virginia AG, a lawsuit by Amherst County…this may be far from over.

But why does this impact people who have no connection to Sweet Briar College? Because it is the most recent example of what happens when a governing body is left unsupervised.

It is understandable.  We all are busy, there are so many things going on in our lives that we assume the same good motives we have to the folks who oversee things…like our government, our banking institutions, our churches, etc.  After all, these organizations are led by folks who have shown their value, and who want to give the time to lead and do the work-on top of living their lives-of running these organizations.

Its reasonable thinking-in the abstract.  In reality, things do not run so smoothly.

Too often in our recent history we have seen institutions led by individuals who decide to govern in a way that is contrary to the interests of the people they are supposed represent or work for. S&L’s in the 1980’s, Enron at the turn of the century, lending institutions of all types running up to the 2008 meltdown. An ongoing cycle of things being so good no one looks behind the curtain to see what is going on.

Sweet Briar College is the same, although the subject on the line is emotion and history and allegiance instead of pure dollars and cents. The alums assumed they and the Board of Trustees were on the same page-they all loved Sweet Briar College and would fight to the last ditch to protect and preserve it. The problem is the alums want to protect and preserve the special education experience, while the BOT want to protect the schools credit rating.

When the smoke clears and the dust settles, we should all embrace what may be the last lesson Sweet Briar College has to teach. Whether it is government, business, church, sports…take the time to be involved. Take the time to ask questions, to be knowledgeable, to be aware. Determine to your own satisfaction if your view of and goals for that organization are the same as those in positions of authority. If you don’t like them-work to change them.

Stay involved and always ask questions-even when things are great and all seems well-in fact, that might be the best time to be asking questions. Maybe things are not really as great as they seem.

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