Saving Sweet Briar

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.

  • Start with an environmental scan. The metrics that demonstrate the problem and indicate its severity are readily available. Link them together through a crisp, no nonsense SWOT analysis that forms the basis for a short-term action plan and a longer-term strategic plan. Be certain to survey key internal constituencies and external stakeholders who shape the perception and the future of the College.
  • Remember that managing a college is a little like running a 19th Century urban political machine, rationing resources and dispensing favors, while working with faculty who act independently something like a medieval craft guild. Sweet Briar is not a corporation. It's a community with arcane traditions and a rich history. Respect the traditions, including its liberal arts heritage as a college for women, whatever the final decisions.
  • Set expectations in place. Sweet Briar faces a long road back. If there is a future for the College, it will be in part because committed alumnae step forward to make it so. Once the management decisions are made, it will be equally important for the alumnae to step back. Governance at its most creative and practical can only work if the new normal combines an equal measure of hope and trust.
  • Recognize that Sweet Briar is a tuition dependent institution and that nothing is likely to change this fact. It's ultimately about the academic program and its ability to attract students. Welcoming students back is also about giving them a good reason to come to Sweet Briar.
  • Communicate often and wisely, including with internal faculty and staff who link their future to continued employment. Transparency in communication is critical. Keep the message simple and clear and devoid of promises that may not be kept. Be optimistic but promise less to deliver more.
  • 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.

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