3 Questions I Would Have Asked In Sweet Briar

What would you have asked?

March 3, 2015
By now you have probably read Scott’s piece on Sweet Briar College’s decision to shut down at the end of this academic year.  
I’m sure that all of us feel just horrible for the  students, faculty, staff, and alumnae of Sweet Briar. The news that a well-regarded small liberal arts institution is shutting its doors is very sad. We don't know the full details, and while it is easy to second guess the Sweet Briar board’s decision and the past choices that brought the college to this point, we should probably refrain from making any judgment until more information is available.
So it is with both a strong awareness of how raw and sensitive this news is for the Sweet Briar community, and with an awareness of how little we know about the details that brought the college to this decision, I would like to venture a few questions. 
These are the questions that I would have asked:
Question 1: What Are (Were) Sweet Briar’s Strengths?
If Sweet Briar was ever in a position for a turnaround the first thing to understand would be the strengths of the institution. I’d want to know what Sweet Briar College does better than any school in the world. What departments, programs, units, or areas of specialization does (did) Sweet Briar excel? Which Sweet Briar faculty are thought leaders in their fields, and what departments are they in?
Question 2: How Can the Institution Build on These Strengths?
In reading the Wikipedia article on Sweet Briar we learn that the College is “second women’s college to offer an engineering degree.” For sake of argument, let’s assume that Sweet Briar’s liberal arts approach to training engineers is a comparative strength of the institution. (I have no idea if this is true). Knowing this strength, I’d then ask how Sweet Briar could extend and expand its engineering program. Could the school offer a new low-residency (partially online and partially campus-based) engineering major?  Could new dual humanities / engineering degrees be created, and those offered to a global audience with low-residency programs? 
The question would be how to retain Sweet Briar’s culture of a small residential community, while leveraging new methods and platforms to offer that experience to a global audience. It does not take very large cohorts to create sustainable low-residency degree programs.  How many low-residency programs could have Sweet Briar created around its core academic strengths that would have brought in sufficient dollars to fund ongoing operations? What other revenue generating academic programs, particularly low-residency programs, could be built around core strengths? 
Question 3: What Are (Were) Areas of Weakness and Non-Mission Related Costs?
Two questions I would have asked on the Sweet Briar campus are:  What are the weakest academic departments and where are you spending dollars on non-mission (and non-strength) related activities?  What fixed costs that the institution was incurring could have been moved to a variable cost structure?
We are not very good in higher ed at asking these questions - and we are even worse on acting on the information once we have it. It sounds as if Sweet Briar would have had to have been ruthless in stopping doing some things.  Sweet Briar would have had to have been equally ruthless in cutting costs for non-mission related activities. It is impossible for us to know how much of the Sweet Briar budget went to non-academic and non-teaching activities.   Having this information would be critical if resources are to re-allocated to areas of academic strengths.
These questions are of course simplistic in the face of the complicated factors and long history that brought Sweet Briar to this point. A pure focus on strengths, and the belief that low-residency (residential and online) programs can offer a path to sustainability, are surely inadequate to meet the myriad of challenges that Sweet Briar was no doubt facing.  Low-residency programs are no silver bullet, and it often takes years to move from a purely residential campus experience to a new sustainable economic model.  These programs are expensive to set-up, and expensive to run well. I’m convinced, however, that many postsecondary institutions will need to ask these questions, identify their strengths, and move to new educational models to survive. 
What questions would you have asked?
What lessons can we learn from Sweet Briar?


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