As media response and alumnae outrage grew after last week’s announcement that Sweet Briar College will soon close its doors, the focus of the debate centered around whether the college leadership was courageous in seeing a dismal future and responding promptly, or precipitous in abandoning hope before it was truly necessary. No matter the answer, it seems obvious to an outside observer that Sweet Briar could have taken greater advantage of fundamental marketing principles and more effective student recruitment strategies as administrators considered this decision.
Only independent research, both quantitative and qualitative, can provide a true road map for success. It’s hard to know what kind of research the college had about students, parents and alumnae -- and how to attract their engagement and support. I do know that as recently as 2010, Forbes put the college near the top of a list of higher ed institutions facing financial problems, based primarily on successive years of operating loss. (The college’s PR man at the time dismissed the analysis as “selective and unscientific.") The numbers weren’t lying, and a five-year window is sufficient to explore a lot of alternatives.
Sweet Briar, and colleges like it, must accept what research is telling them. And then use every tool in the toolbox to improve appeal, value, reach and yield.
A number of colleges have been and are being successful in the market conditions Sweet Briar leadership articulated as those that required its closing. The Seven Sisters colleges remain highly selective, boast exceptional alumnae support and continue to invent their way into a vital future while maintaining, for the most part, their single-sex character. Many liberal arts colleges -- Grinnell and Kenyon spring immediately to mind, as do Bowdoin, Beloit and College of the Ozarks -- don’t let their rural locations inhibit their success.
But Sweet Briar came to the conclusion that the writing on the wall said, “Enough!” What data drove this decision? What futures were imagined -- and researched -- that led to an inescapable conclusion that closing was the only option? With the level of alumnae outrage -- signaled by more than $2 million in pledges as of this writing -- greater transparency around the data that drove the decision would benefit both the college and its stakeholders.
What research indicated that going coed was unfeasible?
Given the choice, would alumnae prefer that the college go coed or go out of business?
Were new majors and/or focus areas considered that would have built on Sweet Briar’s existing engineering program in order to increase its appeal to young women who wanted more “direct to market” degrees? What was the cost of developing those programs?
Could the college have sold part of its 3,250-acre campus in order to invest the proceeds of that sale in program development, scholarship support for female valedictorians and other high-potential students, or other repositioning programs?
Would a name change -- perhaps coupled with the development of coed options or new programs -- have triggered the kind of awareness and visibility that would give the college a near-term boost and strengthen its position in the marketplace?
A name change is no panacea, but it can bring attention to the authentic character of an institution whose name is problematic. A decade ago, our agency helped Western Maryland College (quick quiz: public or private? What part of the state?) change its name to McDaniel College. While there was some consternation at the time, the college’s board was able to document the need for the change based on 20 years of market research that showed clearly that the name was creating confusion in the marketplace, and make the courageous decision to rename the college. Renaming brought it new attention and gave the new McDaniel a platform to reassert its role as a quality private liberal arts college on the outskirts of Baltimore -- an extremely helpful outcome.
In another instance, Lipman Hearne was brought in to assess the name of an institution in the American Southwest and was able to document that its name was creating problems. In this case, the board had to balance the concerns of alumni -- who were resistant to the change -- and of prospective students, who expressed real confusion about the nature and character of the institution based on its “misdirection” name. The board chose not to change, and the institution must explain itself anew to a new crop of prospects to this day. While this may have been the right decision, it’s a costly one, in that recruitment and enrollment efforts have to start by saying, “No, we’re not that” before they can commence saying what they truly are.
Would a name change, by itself, have solved Sweet Briar’s problems? Probably not. But a name change coupled with a revisioning process, the development of new programs and/or institutional profile, a rebranding of the institution, and a commitment to transparency by volunteer and administrative leadership could have provided sufficient leeway for the college to redefine itself -- profitably -- into the future. Because whether they are for-profit or not, higher ed institutions must respond to market and business realities, and adapt accordingly.
Whatever Sweet Briar does going forward, it faces one transcendent imperative: do right by your students. They are experiencing a traumatic change at a time when they thought they'd be focused on their own futures and opportunities. If there’s room in the unrestricted endowment, or in scholarship endowment, use those funds to underwrite tuition and other costs through to graduation at the schools these young women choose to attend. In that way, the authentic brand identity of Sweet Briar -- a college that cares for the women it takes into its family -- will be sustained after the college’s passing.
Robert M. Moore is president and chief executive officer of Lipman Hearne.
Hours before a planned strike over prolonged union contract negotiations, teaching and research assistants"teaching assistants" to avoid repeating words? -sj at N.Y.U. strike a deal that they say includes historic gains. What does it mean for other graduate student workers at private institutions who wish to bargain collectively?
The University of Oklahoma has expelled two students for leading a bus full of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members in singing a racist song that was recorded on video. But First Amendment experts on Tuesday said that such a punishment is unconstitutional. "I have emphasized that there is zero tolerance for this kind of threatening racist behavior at the University of Oklahoma," David Boren, Oklahoma's president, said in a statement. In a letter to the expelled students, Boren said that they were expelled because of their "role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others."
Writing for The Washington Post, Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that "there is no First Amendment exception for racist speech, or exclusionary speech, or -- as [in] the cases I mentioned above -- for speech by university students that 'has created a hostile educational environment for others.'" While SAE's national headquarters, as a private organization, is allowed to punish individual members based on its own rules, Oklahoma University, as a public institution, must view the song as protected speech, Volokh wrote.
In a statement Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said that "the expression recorded in the video, standing alone, is insufficient to create a hostile educational environment." FIRE also expressed concern that the students were seemingly expelled without a hearing. In his letter to the expelled students, Boren said administrators made the decision after identifying the students in the video, and that if they disagreed with the punishment they had until Friday to contact the university's Equal Opportunity Office. "This cannot be justified unless the students present an immediate physical danger to themselves or others were they to remain on campus," FIRE stated.
"There will never be a nigger at SAE," the students sang to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It," while dressed in formal attire and riding a bus. "You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE." (The video clip is at the end of this article.)
In a statement Sunday, David Boren, Oklahoma's president, called the behavior "reprehensible," and promised an investigation. "If the reports are true, the chapter will no longer remain on campus," Boren said prior to SAE's announcement. Unheard OU, the student activist group that publicized the video, said it planned to protest on campus Monday.
Touted as the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South, Sigma Alpha Epsilon members agree to memorize and follow a creed known as The True Gentleman.
In 2013, the Washington University in St. Louis chapter of SAE was suspended after some of its pledges were instructed to direct racial slurs at a group of black students. Last year, 15 SAE members at the University of Arizona broke into a historically Jewish off-campus fraternity and physically assaulted its members while yelling discriminatory comments at them. In December, Clemson University's SAE chapter was suspended after the fraternity hosted a "cripmas" party where students dressed up as gang members.
The closing of Sweet Briar College will, I expect, have little impact on other small, private, rural colleges with small endowments. Most will keep their heads in the sand, live on in a state of denial and continue to produce strategic plans that say little more than “Hope.”
Time after time I have heard college presidents, vice presidents for finance and trustees claim, “We’ve had tough times before and we got through those; we’ll get through these.” The first time I heard this statement was in 1997; the president at Sue Bennett College in Kentucky made that grand pronouncement the day before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools notified him that none of the appeals to maintain accreditation of the college had been approved and federal funding would not be forthcoming -- money designated to pay faculty salaries for the last two months of the semester. Talk about spending the last dollar before you close.
Discussion on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's news podcast.
Still, the closing of Sweet Briar offers a guide to closing that deserves preservation in some just-in-case files. At least Sweet Briar avoided the disaster Sue Bennett faced when the college ran out of money in the middle of a semester.
Perhaps Sweet Briar learned some lessons from one example in my book Cautionary Tales: Strategy Lessons from Struggling Colleges (Stylus). The description of the 1997 closing of Saint Mary’s College in Raleigh, N.C., is remarkably similar to the 2015 closing of Sweet Briar. For almost a decade, the president and board at Saint Mary’s sought solutions to declining numbers of students and reluctance by donors to make financial contributions at levels that would sustain operations without strong enrollments. Finally, shortly before SACS was scheduled to visit and with freshman enrollment for the coming year lower than ever, the board agreed that closing was inevitable. Closing before the college lost accreditation and had to close was determined to be the best alternative for preserving the good reputation the college had maintained for over 100 years.
Just as at Saint Mary’s, there were no rumors at Sweet Briar about a possible closing. Yet there is reason (based on comments about studies conducted internally and by external consulting teams) to believe that the trustees at Sweet Briar spent a significant amount of time looking at data and considering various options before making the decision. One interesting piece of advice the president at Saint Mary’s offered to colleges considering closing was to develop a generous severance package for the president; otherwise he or she would spend years resisting efforts to close the college to avoid becoming unemployed. Perhaps Sweet Briar found a less expensive way to provide leadership during closing: hiring an interim president.
When the announcement at Sweet Briar came, it came -- as it had come at Saint Mary’s -- to students, faculty, alumnae and the press at about the same time of year, just before spring break.
What Saint Mary’s College had that Sweet Briar does not have was a preparatory school for high school students. Saint Mary’s opened as a school in 1834 and maintained those programs when it became a college in 1927. Many of the college faculty and staff could continue working at Saint Mary’s School after the college closed, and there were no issues about what to do with the endowment or property. Today the school offers one of the most prominent preparatory programs for girls in the nation. And those I talked with who had been critical of the decision to close the college in 1997 now call that decision “honest” and “correct” and “courageous” and “bold.” Unfortunately, not many small private liberal arts colleges have a prep school that can be energized by ending the higher education offerings.
What Sweet Briar has that Saint Mary’s College did not have is property to sell and a relatively strong endowment, some of which can be used to provide severance packages and scholarships and some of which might help the college find a way to continue to honor the traditions of Sweet Briar. Just before Barat College formally closed, the president there led a campaign to establish a modest foundation with some of the endowment funds and profit from the sale of the property; she then became the president of the foundation. Today, the Web site of the Barat Education Foundation indicates a mission of “continuing and adapting the heritage and legacy of Barat College to our 21st-century world.”
There is no reason I know that would keep Sweet Briar from doing something similar once all its financial commitments are met; the alumnae can then contribute to programs designed to perpetuate the mission of their alma mater. But this is only one suggestion for honoring the long history and admirable traditions of Sweet Briar.
One of the colleges I have written about is Wilson College, which in 1979 failed to do what Saint Mary’s and Sweet Briar have done. Once word got out that the board was considering closing Wilson while there was still money available in the endowment and well-maintained property that could be sold to provide severance packages and scholarships for students to attend other colleges, students and alumni and a judge up for re-election managed to prevent the closing with a legal ruling. Today that college is still struggling -- having discussions similar to those in 1979 and facing a time in the near future when a major debt of the college will come due. Alumnae and students are complaining about the college's switch to coeducation, and faculty and staff are adding programs to attract new students.
Deciding to close a college is difficult and every college has conditions and faces circumstances which make its decision-making process different from that at others. Sweet Briar complained about not having a Starbucks nearby. One college I worked with was 30 miles from the closest motel, yet it continues strong. Many rural colleges need to continue to exist because they are so isolated; their students come primarily from surrounding counties, probably would not go to college if there was not one near their homes and can avoid a life of poverty by obtaining a four-year degree.
William Bowen (who served as president at Princeton University and at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) wrote the foreword for my book Cautionary Tales. Here are his cautions for colleges under the threats of financial instability:
“Acknowledge problems and avoid an ‘in-denial’ existence.”
Do “not be too quick to extrapolate ‘good news,’ such as evidence of enrollment growth. Circumstances can change rapidly....”
Find not just a new direction; “...find a new direction that is sustainable.”
“Avoid ‘cures’ that are worse than the disease.”
Do not “rely too much on the charismatic leadership of one person -- who may leave, retire, die.”
Do not squander or impair (by borrowing unwisely) assets.
Do “not hesitate to celebrate what their college has achieved.... But no one should worship the past unduly.” Remember naturalist John Burroughs’s comment: “New times always. Old time we cannot keep.”
Do not be “forced to close” and lose “the capacity for wise choice."
Know that “‘death with dignity’ can be a good outcome.”
There may be no best way to close a college, but it is certain that following every college closing, there will be a lot of anguish. As the president of Saint Mary’s said, “The bitterness won’t end until the last alum dies.” But I wonder if all the mergers, sales of institutions, reducing numbers of faculty and staff, new online courses and graduate degrees, and “destroying the soul of the college” have really “saved” those colleges that have taken those routes to stay open -- if turning the keys of the campus over to someone else is really better than closing -- if sacrificing the quality and traditions of the college leaves the college but a shadow of itself.
Perhaps the most relevant question of all is the one asked by the editor of Change Magazine in 1979: “Is it, in fact, in the best ecological interests of higher education to have every marginal institution stay alive at any cost?”
Alice Brown, president emerita of the Appalachian College Association, lived on the campus of a small, private college for two years, directed a consortium of 37 similar colleges for over 25 years and has written about another dozen or so.
Senior officials in student affairs at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville accused the athletics department of intervening in student conduct investigations to encourage leniency for athletes, The Tennessean reported. While Tennessee officials denied that this happened, the newspaper published documents (whose authenticity has been confirmed) in which student affairs officials raised these concerns.