The first steps are over.
Sweet Briar has elected new members to the Board of Trustees, appointed a new president, invited faculty back to the institution, and made good on the first payment promised after fundraising. It has a court order in hand to free up some endowment money. And, the College has indicated that it is open for business, welcoming students who wish to attend.
That's a good start on a new future.
And now, logically, Sweet Briar must move past the first reorganization issues to address an even more fundamental question. Why?
If the answer is a largely emotional one driven by the love and passion that alumnae feel for their institution, it is likely that their solution will be inconclusive at first and ineffective in the end. What the proponents of Sweet Briar must do is initially much more broadly philosophical. In the face of changing demographics, unsustainable financing, and undifferentiated programming, its leadership and their supporters must determine if institutions like Sweet Briar can survive, and if so, on what terms.
So, now the hard part begins. It's time to get to work.
Let's assume that there is not much time to spare. The institution may survive for some period but its fate will be determined in the public eye over the next twelve months. Either Sweet Briar evolves or it dies a death that will be painful to watch. No one wants to see the equivalent of an Irish wake where the mourners laugh, cry, and remember the good times, proclaiming that they had a grand time altogether sharing a horrible moment as they buried their loved one.
Dead is still dead. Even if the patient survives it will likely be at least a decade before the American public proclaims the patient healthy again.
Further, Sweet Briar must survive for good reasons. Whatever the rationale, the justification for Sweet Briar's continued relevance must be clear, convincing and achievable. The history of Sweet Briar demonstrates that the older strategy of incremental management simply did not work. It's time to strike out and try something new, imaginative, and rooted in the history and tradition of the College.
Here are some first steps to consider:
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. While the new management - administration, faculty, and the Board of Trustees - may be fully capable, creative and driven, there is specialized expertise within American higher education that the College can utilize. Find it. Use some of the financial resources available to get good minds on the outside thinking about what Sweet Briar can become. The time has come to imagine the possible. Bringing in the right advisers will be money well spent to get the most creative thinking, best practices, and assessment protocols into place quickly.
One of the most interesting questions emerging from the crisis is whether institutions like Sweet Briar can change creatively and fast enough to survive in the 21st century. When Saving Sweet Briar won its victory, it also recast the College in a bigger role as a pivotal case study whose outcome will have important implications for American colleges and universities.
In "saving" Sweet Briar, its proponents set the stage for the court of public opinion to make judgments about the quality and vitality of higher education. Let's hope for a negotiated, innovative and progressive outcome that does not further undermine some of the bedrock principles and rich traditions upon which American higher education is built.