Sweet Briar: The Crack in the Faberge Egg

The decision by the Board of Trustees of Sweet Briar College to close its doors on August 25 shocked the American higher education community.
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The decision by the Board of Trustees of Sweet Briar College to close its doors on August 25 shocked the American higher education community.

In announcing its decision, Sweet Briar officials noted the lack of interest from applicants to women's colleges like Sweet Briar, a declining interest in liberal arts colleges, and a growing unwillingness to attend rural colleges.

Paul C. Rice, Sweet Briar's Board chair, argued, "We have moral and legal obligations to our students and faculties and to our staff and to our alumnae. If you take up this decision too late, you won't be able to meet those obligations."

Scott Jaschik reported in Inside Higher Education that while colleges close periodically, "The move is unusual in that Sweet Briar still has a meaningful endowment, regional accreditation, and some well-respected programs."

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges which represents hundreds of small colleges, cautioned against seeing Sweet Briar as a trend noting that many colleges that have similar characteristics are thriving. Sweet Briar's president, James F. Jones, Jr., saw the closure, however, as part of a change in the "diversity of higher education . . . the landscape is changing and becoming more vanilla."

What rocked higher education is that the closure happened at Sweet Briar - a "one of our own" established and respected liberal arts colleges in the minds of most higher education insiders -- with an $84 million endowment. It's hardly a fringe school. Further, the Sweet Briar decision raises important questions about where American higher education is headed, especially if the post mortem determines that the scale, type of institution, location, governance decisions, and financial resources - or some combination thereof - forecasts others to follow.

Was the decision at Sweet Briar necessary and courageous or did their governing board acting on principle pull the trigger too quickly? While we may never know the answer, the Sweet Briar example should add fuel to a burning higher education policy question: What happens when strategy runs ahead of resources so that the financial model no longer supports the program?

Do you fold or change?

First, it's important not to see one closure as a trend. Indeed, a decision by a governance body may not be replicated at another institution. But, if sticker price, historic mission, financial discounting, and debt come together, it turns out to be easy to close a college after all, even with the best intentions. We should not presume that a long and rich history ensures a sustainable future.

Second, closures can be data driven decisions but they are also susceptible to subjective calls based on personal judgment shared within governance groups. While the decision is a tough call, it is possible for leadership to read the situation wrong.

Third, these decisions should not be taken in isolation. Too often regional accrediting agencies rely almost exclusively on reaccreditation documents that are developed from within the college under review. While accreditors believe that this approach builds consensus reinforced and reviewed by a site visit from outside peers, it is still a peer-driven internal review. One of the unanswered questions is why outside groups - regional and program accreditors, state and federal authorities, bond rating agencies, and others - did not pick up on the growing problems at Sweet Briar long before the closure announcement. Were their no thought partners willing to help while Sweet Briar was still a going concern?

Fourth, "kick the can down the road" higher education institutions should pay the greatest attention to the Sweet Briar closure. The marginal colleges and universities that are true to mission and live by their skill and wits may survive because they are already nimble and entrepreneurial by necessity. Some of them will adapt to the new challenges facing higher education. Many of these will offer educational programs of sound quality, although different in approach, methods and pricing strategy than Sweet Briar. It's the others that live in a world that they wish still existed, often with rich histories and respectable endowments, that are likely at the greatest risk in the 21st Century.

Finally, most of these colleges and universities don't even know it. The solution begins with an effort to educate boards of trustees, faculty, staff and students in full transparency with metrics that are measured long-term and operating budgets that reflect these metrics. It presupposes a different kind of accreditation review, deep conversations with external stakeholders, and a campus consensus that points to a sustainable future.

Colleges like Sweet Briar shaped American higher education in the 20th Century. We owe them much and salute them for their service. One closure is not a trend but the crack that it produced in a fragile system of higher education bears watching.

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