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Anger and activism greet plan to shut Sweet Briar College


SWEET BRIAR, Va. » Here at bucolic Sweet Briar College, equestrians awaken at dawn and trek to the stables to ride on 18 miles of trails through wooded countryside, fields and dells. Women study on the boathouse dock at sunset, as geese squawk over a lake. Pearls are still in fashion, and men must have escorts. Students call it "the pink bubble."

Now, all of a sudden, the bubble has burst.

The abrupt decision early this month by the Sweet Briar board to close the 114-year-old women’s liberal arts school at the end of this term "as a result of insurmountable financial challenges" – with no advance warning to students, parents, alumnae or professors – has transformed this tranquil community into a hotbed of anger and activism.

A new alumnae group, Saving Sweet Briar, has more than $3 million in pledges and intends to demand this week that the school make its finances public – or face legal action. The faculty voted unanimously last week to oppose the "unilateral decision" to close the school, and demanded to meet with the board. Students, fresh from spring break, plastered their cars with a rallying cry – SaveSweetBriar – in the school colors, pink and green.

"I now know more about nonprofit law than I feel I know about chemistry – and I’m a chemistry major," said Leah Humenuck, a senior from New Freedom, Pennsylvania. "We’re at a liberal arts college that empowers women. Now we’re finding ways to use that education to empower ourselves."

How far they will get is an open question. A lawyer for the alumnae, citing a similar uprising that derailed the threatened closing of Wilson College in Pennsylvania in 1979, said there was a legal road map to keep Sweet Briar open.

College administrators are holding firm.

"The school is going to close," the school’s interim president, James F. Jones Jr., declared flatly, seated in the parlor of the 18th-century yellow brick home of the school’s founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams, who in 1901 bequeathed her estate, a former Virginia plantation, to establish Sweet Briar in memory of her deceased daughter, Daisy.

Jones has a personal stake in the matter: His wife, Jan, is a 1969 graduate of the college, and their grandniece is a senior here. "I totally expected people being devastatingly sad, and I expected there to be some anger," Jan Jones said in an interview. "But honestly, I never expected the venom and the irrationality."

The drama at Sweet Briar – a tiny school, with just 532 students on a sprawling 3,250-acre campus, and another 170 or so studying overseas – is playing out against a backdrop of wrenching changes for small liberal arts schools, especially those in rural areas, and women’s colleges, which face particular challenges in recruiting.

A survey this year by Inside Higher Ed, conducted by the Gallup Organization, found that just 39 percent of college presidents felt confident that their institution’s financial model would be sustainable for the next decade. In Virginia alone, two other small colleges have closed since 2013 – Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, and St. Paul’s College, a historically black institution in Lawrenceville.

Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States, according to the Women’s College Coalition, a nonprofit group. Last year, there were 46. But Chatham University in Pittsburgh is set to admit men this fall, dropping the number to 45. Without Sweet Briar, there will be 44.

When Sweet Briar held college fairs after announcing the closing, about 150 schools showed up, looking for new students.

"Part of what makes the Sweet Briar story so shocking to people is that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of them as being one of the most vulnerable," said Elizabeth Kiss, the president of Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, one of about a dozen schools that have agreed to expedite transfers for Sweet Briar students. "We were, I think, just stunned."

From the outside, Sweet Briar looks perfect. A sparkling 16,000-square-foot library addition, financed by $8.8 million from donors, was dedicated in October. The school has an endowment of roughly $85 million – though 65 percent of it is restricted, James Jones said – and a wealthy alumnae base. Some students board horses here, paying $900 a month.

"I thought it was a rich girls’ school," said Chloe Bandas, a senior and art major from Richmond.

But both Jones and Paul Rice, the board chairman, said Sweet Briar’s rich-girl days were long gone. As Cathy Gutierrez, a religion professor here, said, Sweet Briar today is hardly the "horsy school on the hill."

Of students who entered in fall 2014, Jones said, 43 percent received Pell grants, federal aid for needy students; 37 percent are first-generation college students; and 32 percent are minorities. Like other small women’s and liberal arts colleges, Sweet Briar has tried innovating to stay competitive.

In 2005, it added a major in engineering sciences to attract technology minded students. "A popular major," Rice said, "but oddly, our enrollment didn’t increase."

And Sweet Briar has been generous with scholarships. Isabel Ahwee-Marrah, a freshman from Chester, Virginia, who hoped to major in engineering sciences, turned down Cornell University for Sweet Briar and said she pays less than $10,000 a year to attend. (Annual tuition and fees are more than $47,000.) An admissions officer worked aggressively to recruit her, she said, once meeting her in a cupcake shop near her home.

But the school has $28 million in deferred maintenance, and nearly $25 million in debt, Jones said, adding that financial consultants had determined Sweet Briar would need a $250 million endowment to survive. The board considered alternatives – including going coeducational or merging with another school – but ruled them out as not viable.

"You don’t just take ‘ladies’ off of every other bathroom door and put ‘men’ up," Rice said. "You have to add programs and facilities, athletics. All of these things take significant investment and time."

Alumnae and faculty members are not convinced.

"Something doesn’t smell right," said Tracy Stuart, a real estate agent in Martha’s Vineyard who graduated in 1993 and helped found the Saving Sweet Briar group. "You just don’t close a college like that without warning."

Much of the ire here is directed at Jones, whose predecessor, Jo Ellen Parker, left to run the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Board members, aware that Sweet Briar was teetering financially, recruited Jones, a recently retired president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, after running into his wife at her 45th reunion last spring.

Jones, 67, who arrived last August, eats lunch with students in the dining hall and teaches a small seminar, Emergence of the Modern Mind. Now Sweet Briar women feel betrayed.

"He was like our grandfather," said one freshman, Marina Biel, from Fluvanna, Virginia.

Professors here, some of whom own homes on campus – though not the land underneath – said they were aware Sweet Briar had financial difficulties, but had no idea that the school was in danger of closing. Katherine A. Chavigny, a history professor and one of the homeowners, lamented that Parker, the former president, had eliminated majors in Italian and German; she sees the college as a victim of years of mismanagement.

"I understand that liberal arts colleges are struggling," she said. Still, she said, the board "just threw in the towel."

A history professor, John Ashbrook, wondered aloud if Jones was brought in as "an axman." At 45, Ashbrook describes himself as "teacher-scholar" – not widely published enough to get a tenured job at a prestigious university, but too old for a lower-level starter faculty job. "My wife and I wanted to die here," he said.

Jones says he understands "the emotion" and "the hype," but he insists that the campaign to save Sweet Briar is going nowhere.

He says that alumnae lack standing to sue – an assertion the group’s lawyer, Ashley L. Taylor Jr., disputes – and that courts will determine the future of the property, which includes 21 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including the yellow-brick plantation house.

He spent last Tuesday at the Virginia attorney general’s office in Richmond to discuss ways to unwind the endowment so the school could pay its debts, and give severance to professors if any money was left. The night before, while leading half a dozen of his students through a discussion of Voltaire’s "Candide," they peppered him with questions.

"Remember," Jones said, trying to sound soothing, "you will always be a Sweet Briar woman." To which one woman pointedly replied: "Without the degree."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

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