Closing With Grace

Alice Brown writes that, sometimes, keeping a college open at any cost is not the best thing for the institution or its students.

March 9, 2015
Sweet Briar College

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.

More on Sweet Briar:

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. 


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