To help my readers and friends understand my passion for Sweet Briar College and to lay a context for the advocacy I share, I offer these comments from the wife of the current President of the College and my response. The following was posted by Jan Jones on a 1969 public website:
It would be hard for me to imagine an alumna of Sweet Briar College who is not heartbroken over the college’s closing. It is one thing to read about the loss of countless small, liberal arts, residential colleges across America either to closure or merger or absorption by a larger university. It is quite another when it is the school you love, the school that just a few years ago seemed to be thriving because you heard about new buildings and new programs. You heard that your school was one of only two women’s colleges with an ABET-accredited engineering department – WOW! Then you returned to campus for 2014 Reunion and started to feel uneasy. Why were the grounds not pristine as they had always been? You noticed the peeling paint, the shabby parlors, the rotting balcony about to fall off of Alumnae House, and that uneasiness grew.
On the 2014 Reunion schedule was a State of the College session with the President, Jo Ellen Parker, so you made a note to add that to your agenda. Maybe you just wanted to let this new president know that it was not “the Sweet Briar way” to have the campus looking like this. Maybe your uneasiness was growing and you wanted reassurance. You went to the session, listened to the report, looked at the graphs and charts that gave you the current statistics on applications, yields, number of students on financial aid, faculty/student ratios, deferred maintenance, and alumnae giving. It was all there. The President answered questions honestly without being hysterical or giving false hope. It was what it was, and you realized that this school, your school, was falling victim to all the trends that had resulted in the loss of so many other women’s colleges.
It was a victim of nearly fifty years of the co-education of the formerly all-male colleges and universities and the concurrent, drastic shift in the demographics. Even though you knew the demographics information: students in 2014 were turning away from single sex colleges, they were flocking to schools in urban and suburban areas that offered more vocational type curricula, they were more concerned about spending their education dollars to be trained for a job than looking for a broad liberal arts education. But, how could any woman go elsewhere after seeing the Sweet Briar campus and spending even a day in this caring community? And, hadn’t the school added business and engineering degrees? Then you thought about the cost of four years of college today. That cost is far beyond what an average American middle class family can afford without great sacrifice and careful financial planning. But, Sweet Briar had a world-class riding program, so surely there were girls from super wealthy families attending, weren’t there? Sadly the numbers and answers to these questions told a different story.
Virtually no student at Sweet Briar pays full tuition and fees, and this has been true for years. So, what direction could your beloved school take: Co-education? – too late if ever it might have been feasible; Merger? – there is no financially strong, geographically close institution; perhaps Absorption by a large stable university? Surely the large universities, which always seem to be expanding, would love a small, beautiful campus with historic buildings, a riding center, lake, etc. But, no, even large universities have to carefully watch their own finances, and it would not be “strategic” to take on a school with over $53,000,000 in debt and deferred maintenance combined, especially at a time when state subsidies are being cut.
I interrupt this reading to draw attention to the paragraph below. Jan Jones is the wife of the current President. A President who stands to gain financially by the closing of the College through severance packages he plans to pay to faculty and staff out of the endowment, including restricted gifts. One of the primary roles of the Board is fiduciary responsibility which includes “care, loyalty and obedience”. A primary definition of loyalty is that a Board acts independently of its President. It disturbs me that the President’s wife makes these statements – which clearly indicate inside knowledge – as well as the fact that a number of her classmates are on the current Board.
So, the Board of Directors who are charged with making all major policy decisions, by the dictates of the will of the founder of your college, is faced with the hardest decision a board ever has to make. Four of the members of that board are women who were students when you were a student; they are sisters and friends. I can only imagine the heartbreak that permeated every minute of every day during their deliberations. But, they are smart, and they are strong, and they are making a decision about Sweet Briar College, the school they love. All but three on the Board are Sweet Briar Women, so the path they choose is the most heroic, honorable path available. Knowing that they have worked to increase enrollment for over a decade and that they had explored possible fund-raising ideas from every angle, they choose not to continue the downhill death spiral until every dime is spent, and the school is left with no way to help ease her students and employees into their futures. Instead, They vote to close while there is time to help students find another school and while there are still funds to pay severances to faculty and staff. The board heroically, in your opinion, chooses a closure path that honors the core values of the college: Honor and Dignity.
By now you know this is not theoretical, this is our Sweet Briar College story. If you have email, are on Facebook and/or have attended one of the recent regional alumnae gatherings, you know there is a movement afoot called #savesweetbriar. It is a small movement making a great deal of noise about nothing more than trying to block this closure. The group has no “vision statement,” and there is no consensus about how to change Sweet Briar College so that it will be a financially viable institution in today’s world. Their words and actions have become very ugly, spiteful, and irrational. They are ready to “fight” and haven’t yet realized that the Directors and current Administration are NOT the enemies. The “enemies” are intractable historical forces in American higher education that have now been working against schools like our beloved Sweet Briar for a half of a century.
From all of your comments I think the ladies of the class of 1969 “get it” and, along with many others, are willing to stand up in support of the college’s decision. We could not be more proud of Elizabeth Wyatt and Sue Scanlan who were faced with actually making this indescribably difficult decision! For these reasons I am immensely proud and thankful to be a member of this class!
Martha Brewer and I were recently reminded of the dramatic changes our class set into motion on the campus between 1965 and 1969, changes mainly in dress codes and social rules. We succeeded in removing the social rules from the Honor System and eventually removing them altogether. An alumna told us that our class was “legendary” in starting the movement that brought Sweet Briar College into the real world. She said that the classes of 1970, 1971 and 1972 had just followed our lead and built on our work and that all the following classes looked up to us for that.
I can only hope that the current women who have become stuck in the denial phase of grief and are spreading such venom across social media will quickly come to realize that the class of 1969 is again leading the way. We are grieving too, but we are looking to the future. We know that our friendships will endure, that we will still support each other through tragedies and celebrations, and that we will gather in small and large groups whenever possible. We will tell the story of a caring, nurturing community in a stunningly beautiful rural setting in central Virginia and how generations of women received an excellent education preparing them to be “productive members of society.” Then, when the second volume of The Sweet Briar Story is written, it will be recorded that the school closed as it had lived: with Honor and Dignity.
I would like to share with you the wise words of a very young alumna, Carol Ferguson, class of 2012. She is a Sweet Briar daughter and a third or fourth generation legacy:
“Grieving, but giving thanks for the family that brought me there and the family I found there. We thought we only had to bear the rose, but it turns out we are charged with bearing the seeds as well. Let us plant them wherever we are, so that the whole world might become a little more supportive, a little more unified, a little more intelligent, a little more curious, a little more confident, a little more bold, a little more fabulous—in short let us plant a bit of Sweet Briar in everything we do!!”
And, while we are following Carol’s advice, might there be a way for us to continue to honor Indiana Fletcher Williams’s vision of educating women? Perhaps a Sweet Briar Foundation set up to provide scholarships for women? Be bold and be creative- We are the class of 1969, and I for one am ready to plan our 50th reunion!!
Jan Sheets Jones ‘69
I have read your post with interest. I hope you will give me the courtesy of reading mine. A diversity of opinion and perspectives is critical at this time.
It is nice that your Class of 1969 has its own website. It is also nice that you have some of your classmates who are expressing support for you and for your husband. I am sure this is difficult for your family.
Initially when I heard of this news, I bought the talking points you are repeating here. The whole “close with dignity” rhetoric sounded so Sweet Briar and seemed the “right” thing to do. As someone who has spent my entire career since Sweet Briar supporting education and fundraising, I felt the cause to reverse a decision was utterly hopeless. However, I believe we are seeing one of the most amazing rallying of an alumnae/stakeholder body that higher education and even the nonprofit community has ever seen. I predict case studies written about this “movement” to #saveSweetBriar with other Colleges clamoring to start being more honest and employing many of the strategies being employed by our alumnae (CASE, for whom I just wrote an article in their recent issue, has already asked me to write an article about this). I am still not hopeful about the success of the efforts because of the lack of information and suddenness of the announcement; however, I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do everything I could not only to #saveSweetBriar but to support the people who are willing to work for it. I think it would be kind if you and your husband could at least acknowledge the good work being done and see that the movement to #saveSweetBriar has a motive that is just as pure as yours and certainly has a larger number of people supporting it.
I must share with you that I find your comments about the #saveSweetBriar movement inaccurate and out of touch. You have a right, of course, to post whatever you want on your Class website, but you must have known your letter would be shared more broadly. I imagine that being surrounded by a small group of people who agree with you would make you feel safe to describe the movement as you have. But your comments make you seem completely out of touch. One of the challenges of Boards is that they make decisions in a vacuum and are sometimes out of touch with the stakeholders they purportedly serve. “Group think” occurs on juries, on Boards and in small groups. Given the shock expressed by students, faculty, administrators and alumnae (who admittedly are the least impacted stakeholders), I think the Board has both explaining and listening to do right now, including reconsidering their decision. Based on the shock – and the outpouring of support — there is clearly a lack of confidence in leadership at all levels felt by large numbers of students, faculty, alumnae, the wider community and higher education.
The number of women on campus just this past Sunday outnumbers most Reunions turnouts. The numbers tuning into the discussions and efforts to #saveSweetBriar are six times the size of the student body. The funds committed through the efforts surpass most annual fundraising goals. The faculty who oppose the Board’s actions are the majority of the faculty. Do you dismiss their voice and movement as well? Doesn’t your husband still serve as their President? I suggest you listen to them.
As you, your husband, the Board and perhaps key administrators have now begun to realize, the key issue most people have with the Board’s decision is a lack of information. This is still the key issue. You did not give key stakeholders – students, parents, faculty and alumnae any ability to “move the needle” to avoid this decision. Yet, you had avenues to do so.
As a professional fundraiser, I know the general feeling is that whispering of possible closure could mean contributions would stop. Obviously, we can now see that this isn’t the reaction alumnae (and perhaps parents) would have had. I also have first-hand experience with a school facing possible closure (a girls boarding school). They elected to be honest in their feasibility study (small group of donors surveyed about fundraising trends, priorities and messages). Their alumnae rallied and major changes were made — and funded — and the school survives today. Girls boarding schools are even LESS popular than women’s colleges, as I am sure you know, but they still survive. You all must live with yourselves for not having trusted your most generous donors selected for that study. I understand not telling the broader set of alumnae, but not confiding in the 200 Sweet Briar selected for a confidential study is tragic.
I am not unfamiliar with the challenges in higher education and women’s education. I got my start in development at Sweet Briar under the leadership of Martha Clement. I was hired at my fifth reunion to work for the College. Since then, I have raised millions of dollars for education — including education for women. I just raised the largest gift in the history of the University of Maryland, $31M. Suffice it to say, I sure wish I had the opportunity to rally for Sweet Briar before the public announcement for closure was made.
It is not as you, your husband and some others would describe it – women’s education is not dead or dying. In fact, there are families who choose single sex education for their children (I did for my two sons) in elementary, middle, high school, summer camps and college). There are urban school districts creating single-sex educational environments supported by the Department of Education backed by solid research. My own University of Maryland has created women-only programs, classes and spaces. It is also not true that all or even a majority of families choose urban career training schools. My son is attending a small liberal arts College in Illinois far from any major city (he could have gone to the University of Maryland for FREE). It is ridicules and embarrassing to say that someone wouldn’t choose a College for lack of a Starbucks or proximity to a city. For one, Starbucks is served on the Sweet Briar campus. For another, many people LIKE being in beautiful, yet remote locations. My two sons attend a summer camp in Northern Michigan and we must drive almost an hour from the nearest town to reach it.
I and many others believe the problem with enrollment was a lack of marketing and admissions work, particularly not engaging alumnae admissions ambassadors. I used to regularly staff career fairs in my area and I think the last time I was asked to do so was about 10 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I know it is hard to do this work and I have respect for the team of admissions representatives. I am simply saying that, again, reaching out to alumnae seems to have stopped and could have been helpful.
I and many others believe the problem with fundraising was a focus on a small number (which I realize staff shortages dictate) combined with a lack of true information with your most loyal alumnae. I tried to join the development office this past year at Sweet Briar and was shocked to learn that the salary being offered for the position – a relatively senior one – was actually less than I made at the College in 1993. I couldn’t afford to take it. I imagine this is also part of the challenge.
In conclusion, I encourage you to step outside of your Class of 1969. Widen your perspective. Include the voices of those who see things differently in your thinking. I read your letter. I hope you have read mine.
Stacey Sickels Locke, Class of 1988
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