Lessons From Sweet Briar

What will trustees and administrators at other small colleges learn from a reversal and four months of controversy?

June 22, 2015
Marcia Thom-Kaley
Sweet Briar supporters celebrate after a Virginia Supreme Court decision earlier this month.

When Sweet Briar College announced in March it would close its doors, the news took many in higher education by surprise. So now that a deal will keep the college going, small private colleges are watching closely.

Sweet Briar, a small women’s college in rural Virginia, has been embroiled in controversy ever since its leaders announced it would close permanently due to “insurmountable financial challenges.” The sudden turn of events at Sweet Briar is making many wonder what the developments mean for college trustees and presidents at other struggling institutions.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said that when Sweet Briar announced its closure, many trustees asked presidents, "Are we like Sweet Briar?" and many presidents prepared reports on ways that they were similar or not. "By and large, that process reassured trustees, so things have calmed down a bit."

Sweet Briar's Future
After the reversal, the college
faces challenges as well as
new opportunities. Read more.

And Sweet Briar's revival "will trigger another round of conversations."

He said that whatever one thinks of the decisions in March or now by the Sweet Briar board, other colleges can learn from Sweet Briar’s controversial closing and subsequent reversal of that contested decision.

"Sweet Briar's decision to close came out of the blue, without any discussion of the things that had been considered or tried," Ekman said. While he said he was sure the trustees did consider lots of options, they didn't share those discussions with the public. "The lesson here is that trustees should not act suddenly and unilaterally," he said.

Many higher education experts interviewed for this story emphasized the importance of transparency when making a decision to close or significantly alter an institution.

Alumnae, faculty and students battling Sweet Briar’s closure repeatedly slammed the college for being opaque in its decision-making process. Most were unaware it had been contemplating closure.

“There has to be such a thorough, transparent and engaging process,” explained David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “All of the constituents have to be involved in what is a life-or-death decision.”

If that’s not the case, blowback is all but inevitable, he said.

“You can’t come out of the blue. People need to be a part of whatever the decision is, and that means students, faculty, alumni and donors. Of course to do that is in and of itself an enormous undertaking,” he said, but “it may generate resources that you didn’t know were there” or “demonstrate that resources you thought were going to be there aren’t.”

Even if colleges are transparent in their decision-making process, they need to be ready to respond to objections. Kent Chabotar, the former president of Guilford College and an expert in higher education finance, said that for colleges considering a large-scale change, the best approach when communicating with stakeholders and the public is an active one, not a passive one. He said institutions should run their plans by alumni and other groups, have one spokesperson who can keep the institution on message and provide continuity to that message, and have op-eds ready for the media to respond to detractors.

“Say more rather than less,” he said. “Prepare for the worst. Just assume you’re going to get blowback and make sure you have a public relations campaign.”

George Dehne, president of the higher education consultancy GDA Integrated Services, said that in the case of Sweet Briar, the college’s messaging contributed to the controversy. “Sweet Briar did not seem to have a very good rollout plan,” he said of the closure, adding that trustees appear to have consulted few constituents outside of fellow trustees and administrators before they announced their decision to close.

“You have to give everybody the opportunity to put their oar in the water,” Dehne said. “If you don’t give them that opportunity, they’re going to take shots at you for the rest of your life.”

Ekman said trustees need to be open to change. He noted that back in March, Sweet Briar officials said they didn't see any other options that would have preserved Sweet Briar's outstanding qualities. But in fact, the college has evolved over time from an institution that served wealthy white women to one that served a broader population.

Ekman said he didn't know what the best future strategy for Sweet Briar would be, but that he believes there is one. "There are lots of things one can try," he said. "The lesson is don't throw up your hands."

Richard Kneedler, who has been a college president and a consultant, said he hoped trustees would look at Sweet Briar and recognize that they can't have "certainty" about any one strategy -- something he said too many trustees seem to want.

Kneedler served for 14 years as president of Franklin & Marshall College and was called out of retirement in 2006 to lead Rockford College when that institution -- without an endowment, but with debt -- appeared on the verge of going under. He is widely credited with helping Rockford avoid that fate.

"I think one of the great mistakes that people make is to want too much certainty. Life is by definition contingent," he said. "The lives of these institutions are contingent, and [people want] so much certainty that you can embrace death, because death is the only real certainty."

These small liberal arts colleges "can be viable and sustainable but their infinite continuation is by no means assured," he said.

The pressure on Sweet Briar was in large part based on enrollment. Kneedler said he thinks Sweet Briar is a warning to other colleges with enrollments of fewer than 1,000 students. When he started at Franklin & Marshall, Kneedler said, the college had embraced a philosophy of shrinking its size, a policy he reversed. He believes institutions need a critical mass of students to support programs. “The challenges are dramatically greater when the enrollment is below 1,000," he said.

Sweet Briar had an undergraduate enrollment of about 561 students in the academic year that just ended. Since then, 134 have graduated and another 231 have requested final transcripts, an indicator that they have transferred to another institution, or plan to. The college did not admit students for a new freshman class. The upcoming class is likely to be small.

Over the past four years an average of five colleges a year have closed, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The vast majority of colleges that close have small enrollments, and most have fewer resources than Sweet Briar, which has an $85 million endowment.

Even so, as colleges contemplate closure, Sweet Briar is a lesson of caution.

“Every opportunity will need to be explored,” offered Warren, the NAICU president.

“In the end, it is the trustees and the board that are the legal fiduciaries, and they make the final decision. But it still needs to be as informed as it can be,” he continued. “Other schools that are pondering this question would be well served by an open and transparent model. That may be one of the upshots of the particular chapter that we’re watching.”

Others said that they feared the controversy at Sweet Briar -- where trustees found the institution enmeshed in multiple lawsuits over their decisions, and where board members were harshly criticized in social media and court filings -- would scare trustees elsewhere.

"I think that because this has been such a high-profile case, [with] heightened political interest in it, that it will at the very least make boards cautious about making difficult decisions. It will make some very good people nervous about serving on the boards of colleges that are having financial challenges," said one consultant who works with many private colleges and asked for anonymity.

"The political and public relations pressures overwhelm the board's ability to fulfill its fiduciary responsibility," the consultant said.

One former board member of three private colleges, who thought Sweet Briar did the right thing in March, said he also feared the impact on other colleges. "This is going to stifle initiatives to do the right thing," which in many cases may not be closure, but some notable change in a college's mission, enrollment or style, said the former trustee, who asked for anonymity.

He said that he feared that trustees may be unwilling to make decisions likely to upset alumni, who may be well intentioned but lack the full story about why change is necessary.

"Nostalgia is no substitute for a sound financial plan," he said.

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