Trustees at Benedictine University refused to let the monks who founded the university participate in a recent presidential search. Monks are suing, saying they're being improperly shut out of university affairs.
While today’s headlines read “Sweet Briar College will stay open at least another year,” the multitude of articles written since the announced closing on March 3 tell a different story. What cannot be sustained is the Sweet Briar most of the alumnae who have “saved” the college remember. What will operate in 2015-16 and what will likely survive beyond that year is a new Sweet Briar.
Sweet Briar has never been so special it could not survive, but it might have been so special it will have to change to survive. The world around it is changing. But Sweet Briar has never changed without a fight. It took over 10 years and a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court to get Sweet Briar to eliminate the impact of the word “white” in the will that established the college and to allow African-American students to enroll. (See "Thank You Mr. Newman: Reinterpreting the Will of Indiana Fletcher Williams,” in Sweet Briar Alumnae Magazine, March 2001.) Sweet Briar was the last of the women’s colleges in the South to integrate (in 1966), and the chair of the board at that time insisted that the will wasn’t changed; it was just “reinterpreted.” Even when Sweet Briar changes, it is hard for it to admit it has changed.
The Sweet Briar College of the past is no more. Gone is the college where the young women all wore lots of pink and green and pearls, a pinkie ring was the class ring, and a big event was a pass-the-hot-potato type of game where a ring was passed along a long ribbon until it came to a girl who cut the ribbon and put on the ring to announce she was engaged; where, as one alumna described it, “you met the daughters of Texas oil tycoons, and your dorm had a grand piano in the formal parlor.”
Even in the 1980s the college reflected the finishing school it had once been: “Seniors… wore black graduation robes on a daily basis as they strode to class.” Fresh yogurt from the campus dairy was served routinely, and there were formal dances “where the booze flowed among the tuxedo- and taffeta-clad guests.” And the students from nearby men’s colleges frequently hosted parties at the Sweet Briar boathouse on the lake.
This description does not suggest that the college was not rigorous academically. The women who went there and then achieved the kind of professional success that enables them to contribute over $12 million to the college in a matter of a few months did not spend all their time in college horseback riding and having tea and cookies from the campus bakery.
Today there are still two lakes, six nature sanctuaries, a 130-acre riding center and 21 of 30 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. But now the college has a new fitness center and seniors live in townhouses. In the fall of 2014, 37 percent of the students were first-generation, 32 percent were minorities and 43 percent received Pell Grants. As one professor said, “Sweet Briar is no longer the horsey school on the hill.”
When the new administrators look at the diversity on the campus in terms of academic abilities as well as race and ethnicity and see that 98 percent are receiving financial aid and may not have come to the college as well prepared for academic rigor as student of the past, they will adopt changes to adapt to the needs of that population. It may be only a short while before there are tutoring centers and remedial courses taught there.
Perhaps the college will even begin to offer some online courses -- although four years ago when a college publication asked the question “Should Sweet Briar Offer Online Education?” one major administrator replied, “Sweet Briar is a traditional residential liberal arts college. We don’t have any need to do business with online classes. The education would not be the same…. The isolation that online classes create also collides with the teaching philosophy of Sweet Briar, which is to provide education in small, discussion-based classes in an intimate and strong community.” Well, the reality is that education at Sweet Briar is not the same it once was, and it is likely to move even farther away from that utopian state.
There are a lot of new higher education models that cannot be replicated at Sweet Briar in the near future. The college really cannot do what Trinity Washington University, a women’s college that once served a privileged student body, did when enrollments started dropping: become a multifaceted urban university targeting new populations, such as low-income women in the District of Columbia who hadn’t had the opportunity to get a good high school education. It is likely to be a long time before the area where Sweet Briar is located is no longer rural. But while Starbucks isn’t likely to open its own store in the community immediately, it will probably be only a short time before there is a coffee shop serving Starbucks products somewhere on the campus.
The big issue going forward will be if, in the words of Steve Spitzer, the certified fraud examiner who examined the records of the college, “the college's finances [can be] handled in a prudent and responsible way….” News articles suggest that the board based its decision to close on projections made by consultants who had examined the trends impacting the college’s finances. The tipping point was the enrollment and retention figures. While applications were increasing, the number of admitted students who actually enrolled was “plummeting.” In 2009 the yield was 33.3 percent; in 2014 it was 20.9 percent. In 2013 the endowment was $94 million; in 2014 it was $85 million.
Sweet Briar provided Inside Higher Ed with figures current as of January 2015 that reflect the discouraging data the board had to consider:
Sweet Briar Data Points, By Year
Discount rate (all students)
Discount rate (first year)
Perhaps the implications that the previous administrations did not handle the operations of the college in a “prudent and responsible way” are unfair. A lot remains to be seen in terms of how the college can be managed without continuing to dip into its endowment at rates almost no college could sustain. Will the college keep its 54 horses, costing $27,000 a month in food and $36,500 a month for care? Will it find the $28 million needed for deferred maintenance on its once grand buildings? Will the student-faculty ratio become higher than eight to one? As new administrators are hired, will they be able to reverse the trends creating the financial stress? One issue that might present difficulties for any development office is that of gathering donations to make the college an institution of the 21st century when most of those being solicited graduated during the 20th century and want the college to preserve the culture it once enjoyed.
Will Sweet Briar escape the fate of so many women’s colleges? Surely, the terms of the will that established the college will make it difficult for the college to become coed, if it wishes to do so. But in the mid-1960s there were 230 women’s colleges and today there are only about 40. And a study by Moody’s of 13 women’s colleges revealed that Sweet Briar had the lowest enrollment of them all -- as well as the lowest operating budget (though it also had the lowest outstanding debt and the second lowest net tuition). Perhaps the most telling figure was that it was in the middle of the pack in terms of expenses per student. Few colleges can survive for long collecting roughly $20,000 per student and spending roughly $40,000.
It is time for those on the campus to get to work and hope the alumnae keep their wallets open.
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.
Kalief Browder -- one of my college’s students -- died June 6, 2015.
He took his own life.
Sadly, he never recovered from the experience of being imprisoned without bail for three years beginning at the age of 16, at Rikers Island, a New York City jail. He awaited a trial that never was because the charges were eventually dropped. Released at age of 19 and deeply scarred emotionally, he came to Bronx Community College of the City University of New York with the intention of becoming a productive member of our society. Enrolled in Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students, he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started as a liberal arts major last fall. Kalief completed 11 credits. While he struggled at first, he was doing much better this spring, when he finished the semester with eight credits and term grade point average of 3.562.
He was 22 years of age when he died. For Kalief we represented hope. Our campus served as an intellectual oasis for this fragile mind; his prospects of a good life were becoming defined and real.
Bronx Community College is located in the 15th Congressional District. It currently holds the distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the United States. The correlation between poverty and crime is well-known. The majority of our students are from this district and this neighborhood. They are different and unique from the students at four-year institutions and those at many other community colleges nationwide. If BCC is an emblem of hope in the Bronx, Rikers, as another city-run operation, is an emblem of despair. As a society, we must find a way to help these young people rather than letting them rot in jail until they are so damaged that nothing we do can save them.
Our hearts are broken today for Kalief. He represented who we are as a college, a place where many people who are wounded by the vicissitudes of life eventually find their way. We do save lives. But Kalief’s death reminds us that we may not always be able to resolve the internal struggles that members of our community are facing. We never know what demons lurk within our students’ minds.
Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 800,000 people die as a result of suicide worldwide every year. Forty-one thousand of those suicides occurred in the United States, a number that WHO indicates may be low due to underreporting and misclassification. WHO also reports that there are indications that for each adult who dies of suicide, there are likely to be more than 20 others attempting suicide. It remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Suicides of college students get much attention in the media, but most of the articles are about those at residential, four-year colleges.
Community college students are vulnerable. Many come to us with emotional burdens created by difficult situations. Students who did not do well in high school come to the community college expecting to have a reprieve from the mistakes they made in high school. They believe that coming to a community college is a second chance at doing what they, their parents and perhaps even society expect of them.
Some come believing that they don’t belong but hope that, somehow, something great will happen to them. Suddenly, a light will turn on, and their lives will be changed forever. Others come understanding that they have the ability but that their study habits need to improve. Others come because people in their lives made them attend -- parents, family members or even a court order. Yet others come to save money so that they can afford to finish at their school of first choice. Many, usually adult students, come to be trained for a well-paying job after recognizing that their present lot in life is a dead end. Many students who themselves are children have children. Many are working one or two jobs and attempting to attend college on a full-time basis.
Some, like Kalief, were previously incarcerated. Others are undocumented and afraid. At Bronx Community College, just as is the case at other community colleges, we welcome all who are willing to work for a better life. They are real heroes in our present-day society, for in spite of all the problems they face, their grit, their determination, their willingness to make sacrifices so as to have a better life for themselves and their children drive them to succeed. The American Dream may be lost for some but it is alive and well for this population of students.
The current emphasis on outcomes rather than enrollments at the community colleges is yielding results. People are paying attention to providing effective academic and student support services for these students. The successes of programs such as CUNY’s ASAP, LaGuardia Community College’s learning communities, Queensborough Community College’s Academies and many others have created a flurry of attention on the type of pedagogy needed to move these students more effectively through the curriculum. And, little by little, we are winning the battle against ignorance. Graduation rates are inching up, retention rates are improving.
Concomitantly, when we accept students under our open admissions policy, we accept the responsibility to address their educational and emotional needs. If we are to improve our graduation rates, we must put in place effective programs that address the myriad of problems affecting our students. We must attend to the fragile minds of damaged students. We must turn the academic and student support services upside down. The traditional model works well for selective colleges but not for community colleges. We must spend time and treasure diagnosing students’ problems upon admission and we must create a “prescription” to address them as they progress through the curriculum. The term in loco parentis takes a different meaning at the community colleges.
Private philanthropy is answering the call. Kalief was part of Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students that helped him get a high school diploma and provided peer mentoring, internships and individual tutoring. For 15 years, with the generous support of foundations and individuals, we have been helping students between the ages of 17 and 21. This program is a lifeline. But we need more. We must make the case for adequate support to help our students.
May Kalief rest in peace.
Eduardo J. Marti is interim president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
Association's annual meeting on academic freedom issues features a debate on whether Steven Salaita's rights were violated and consensus that Wisconsin politicians are undermining their university system.