Does Sweet Briar College Need to Close? Lessons & Reflections

I’ve been following the conversation about the board’s recent announcement to close Sweet Briar College at the end of the school year, despite a significant endowment (close to 100 million) and an increase in applications from the previous year. As the news spread, I’m inspired by the movement of alumni gathering to save their beloved school, as representing by the following Tweet.

As I’ve reviewed various articles about the closing, there are a small number of consistent reasons listed.

  • They are rural, focused exclusively on the liberal arts, and they are a women’s college.
  • They are on a downward trend, and there is no obvious way to reverse that trend.
  • As such, the wanted to close in time to have the financial resources to help current students transition to new schools.
  • They did not want to abandon or compromise the University’s longstanding mission. They would rather close than do that.

This is not a well-researched piece of journalism. It isn’t journalism at all. It is just the musings of a person who has devoted much of the last two decades to educational innovation and entrepreneurship. I have not looked deeply into the Sweet Briar’s unique situation. Instead, I am using this news to reflect more generally on why colleges, schools or any organizations close or adapt to survive. I’m convinced that there are important lessons to learn from this case.

I must admit that I am confused by the decision, which is likely because I struggle to deeply understand the ethos, mission and vision for a school like this. Out of the dozens of options available to them, why would they rather close than imagine new ways to adapt that are consistent with their historic mission and vision? Other women’s colleges have recovered from decreasing numbers by accepting men. This is not an option for Sweet Briar based upon the last will and testament of a founding benefactor. Even apart from that, I can understand why they might choose to closer and not change something so central to their identity, especially if their entirely philosophy is grounded in a women only context.

Other women’s colleges have added new majors and areas of study that allowed them to reach new prospective students. It seems to me that Sweet Briar could keep the liberal arts focus while venturing into new areas, even more professional programs. In fact, the programs that they offer today are not the same as they were when the college first opened. I appreciate concerns about moving into professional programs to keep their doors open. Yet, while I admit that I have limited insight into what was or was not explored amid this decision, what I do not understand is why they do not seem interested in deeply examining these many other options. Or again, perhaps they did so and I am missing something.

While I know this may not be popular, could they revisit their percentage of full-time versus adjunct faculty, create a new fund-raising campaign to stabilize the school, or maybe even seek third source funding.  How about a “Save Sweet Briar College” Kickstarter campaign? Okay, so maybe that one is overdoing it, but my point is that this is a time of crisis. That usually calls for some outside-the-box thinking, doing things in new ways with the hopes of new results. It seems to me that this calls for some creative problem solving.

This could start with a substantive conversation around a single question. “What rules can we break to save our school without compromising its mission?” I’m not talking about legal issues, but rather the norms, practices, ways of thinking, strategies, methods and models. As a University administrator, and consultant for companies & learning organization, I’ve often seen leadership, educators and board members stuck with a problem because they limited themselves to only a small number of potential or acceptable solutions. They might have institutionalized an approach that only welcomes options within a narrow scope. In some ways, it reminds me of this classic scene from The Jerk.

Yet, I find it hard to believe that there are no viable options that remain true to a core set of values that inform the historic mission and vision of the college. Perhaps as some challenge the legality of the closing along with the millions raised by alumni to save the school, that will be enough to prompt further strategies. Let the record show that I am happy to help.

Regardless, this case serves as an opportunity for reflection about our own organizations. What are we willing to change to ensure the longevity and health of our schools? Where are we unwilling to compromise…so much so that we would rather close than change? A simple exercise is to create three lists. The first list consists of everything that is essential to our organization, so much so that, if we were to change one of these elements, our organization would cease to exist in any real sense? The second list entails those elements that are important. They could change, but those changes will have significant implications for the organization. It might still be essentially the same organization, but it would look pretty different. Third, what are the elements that are merely present? We can change them and, in the big picture, it doesn’t change that much about the core mission, vision, values and goals of the organization. The first list consists of our non-negotiables. The second and third lists, depending upon the severity of the challenge, are up for revision. Regardless of the status of an organization, this exercise can be a telling and helpful way to clarify the convictions of an organization’s key stakeholders, allowing them/us to chart a course through even some of the most tumultuous times.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

2 Replies to “Does Sweet Briar College Need to Close? Lessons & Reflections”

  1. Dr. Jodi Rust

    Thought provoking post. I participated in a leadership workshop through the League of Innovation and your 3 ending questions brought me back to that experience. For reasons that we may all be guilty of, sometimes administrative leaders go into a strategy planning meeting as a ritual rather than as a necessity. It makes me wonder how long the college practiced this “routine ritual” to get them to the point of not feeling viable. It reminds me of the story about the boiling frogs. Some simmer in the pot and don’t realize they are even in hot water versus the ones you throw into a pot and they jump out because they can feel it. Group think is not a helpful experience. Even though “naysayers” can rub us the wrong way sometimes, we need them. Their ideas, thoughts, opinions matter. From experience, I have learned that small tweaks or adjustments can lead to big paradigm shifts and game changing excitement. Your questions are excellent and should be contemplated at least every year during the strategic planning meeting, as a pulse keeper. Mission, vision, and core values should be in the face of not only the executive/administrative leaders, but lived and known by staff, faculty, students, and community. It’s a living it out loud experience. We shouldn’t just be rowing the boat by ourselves and towing others along in the wake. Nor should we be lured off track by every bright shiny object (grant/funding/technology initiative) as the cure all.

  2. Bradly Corlett, M.A,,Ed.S


    Very thought provoking response to what appears at face value as a real “head scratcher” for all concerned. So, like you I’m left wonder if staying true to and serving their mission also meant ruling out online learning to offset declining enrollments, or at least attempting to grow their outreach beyond the Briar. Similarly, the Administration might have considered leveraging technology among those schools with similar missions (perhaps the Seven Sisters), in order to increase offerings, or otherwise raise awareness in their mission, share resources and continue to serve a wider audience. From all accounts presented, I don’t believe opening the halls to the boys would have served their mandate either. A real dilemma that required some tough decisions for certain. To not consider technology as a means to this end is very perplexing.


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