March 4, 2015
Why are we so upset about the end of Sweet Briar College (SBC)? In a country with 21 million college students, why should we worry when a campus of 561 closes its doors?
Businesses go out of business all the time. Remember American Motors, Easter Airlines, TWA, Pan Am, Montgomery Ward, Lionel Corporation (model trains), RCA, E.F. Hutton, Compaq, MCI, Arthur Anderson, and Woolworths?
Why should the end of SBC’s 114 year run trouble us so? Aren’t we all adherents of Schumpeter and Christensen, believing in creative destruction and disruptive innovation and all that sort of stuff?
Reading through the (at this writing) 175 comments on Scott’s article Shocking Decision at Sweet Briar gives us some indication of why our community is so distressed:
1. We Feel Terrible for SBC’s Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alums:
SBC’s closure is a tragedy for its entire community. We wonder where faculty and staff will be able to find new jobs. We worry about the timing of the announcement, and the ability of students to transfer. We think about how depressing this news is for the entire SBC alumni community. Higher ed is a people business. A relationship business. We can picture ourselves learning and teaching on the Sweet Briar campus, and we feel just terrible for the pain and disruption that our colleagues at SBC are now facing.
2. We Worry That SBC’s Closure Is Part Of A Larger (and Depressing) Higher Ed Story:
There seems to be a strong feeling that SBC’s closure is not an isolated or idiosyncratic event, but a symptom of a larger structural problem in postsecondary education. Our community seems pretty well split between blaming ourselves for our industry’s problems (failure to control costs, failure to move away from a broken tuition model, failure to evolve and innovate, failure to reign in administrators, etc. etc.), and assigning culpability to the wider social, political, and economic environment (public disinvestment, materialism, an erosion of values, etc. etc.). All of us worry that small, tuition dependent institutions that lack large endowments and strong brands will have difficulty surmounting a growing host of demographic, cost, and competitive challenges. SBC might be that canary in a coal mine that so many have been watching for.
3. We Believe in the Liberal Arts Model of Education:
The fact that SBC is a liberal arts institution makes it closing all the more depressing. We all know of the challenges that the liberal arts face in our career obsessed culture. But we believe deep in our bones that a liberal arts education offers the best preparation for both productive citizenship and employment.
4. We Believe That All Women’s Colleges Have An Essential Role to Play:
There are not that many all women’s colleges left in the U.S. Of the approximately 4,500 degree granting institutions, less than 50 educate only women. Women’s colleges add to the diversity and vibrancy of U.S. higher education. In such a small universe of all women’s colleges, the closing of SBC represents a disproportionate loss this already minuscule subset of postsecondary institutions.
5. We Wonder What SBC’s Leadership Could Have Done Differently:
The thing with higher ed is that all of us think that we are experts. We all have spent most of our lives in higher ed - as students and then as faculty or staff. We have lots of expertise about our little corner of higher education. We have no shortage of ideas about what SBC could have or should have done differently. For that matter, we are confident that we know what ails higher ed in general - and if only everyone else would be wise enough to listen to our opinions then all would be right with the higher ed world. Couple our supreme self-confidence in our own views and opinions with the fact that we have spent our educational and professional careers making arguments, and you have all the ingredients for a large number of very persuasive people weighing in on the causes and meanings of the SBC closure.
For my part, I want to know if SBC’s leadership was ruthless about identifying and playing to its strengths (and shedding weaknesses), about moving from fixed to variable costs, and of investigating new models of educational delivery (such low-residency programs) that might have offered improved productivity and a sustainable revenue stream.
Why are you upset about the demise of Sweet Briar College?
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