Category Archives: Alumni Boards

Behind the Scenes of Saving Sweet Briar — an inspiring example of passion, purpose and progress.

Never ever depend on Governments or institutions to solve any major problems.  All solutions come from the passion of individuals.

Never ever depend on Governments or institutions to solve any major problems. All solutions come from the passion of individuals. – Margaret Mead

While there are many issues to examine with respect to the President, Board and operations of Sweet Briar College, it seems fitting to focus for a moment on the efforts to SAVE the College.  I feel I can take a little break from my ranting against the horrible leadership, governance and lack of proper administration for a bit. The legal team inspires confidence and there national experts rolling up their sleeves and taking aim at those issues.  Most recently it is the Amherst County Board of Supervisors.  I thought today I would share a glimpse at the amazing work being done to #saveSweetBriar.

Yesterday I attended a farewell gathering of a colleague at the University of Maryland and was asked by many in the room about Sweet Briar.  I found myself describing my efforts and those of my fellow alumnae and felt my spirits rising with each retelling.  It is a story built on determination.  It is a saga filled with drama and intrigue.  It is a case study in alumni activism that will likely become an inspiration for our sister Colleges and other small liberal arts Colleges around the country.  I can also confidently say we have worthwhile lessons to share with colleagues around the WORLD.  I met a visitor from the University of Manchester in England who asked me to share some of the key lessons learned.  The Saving Sweet Briar efforts are the very example of what Margaret Mead famously wrote.  Wait for it… (this isn’t the quote you are thinking I am going to use),

“Never ever depend on governments or institutions to solve any major problems.  All social change comes from the passion of individuals.” — Margaret Mead.

I have served on many boards from schools to arts organizations to sports teams.  Alongside many passionate parents (and some alumni), I have added my weight to a collective effort to move something forward.  Never in my 30 years of volunteerism or professional experience have I seen the likes of the mobilized alumnae of Saving Sweet Briar.  Allow me to pull back the curtain and share a few examples….

Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.  Within days of the announcement of the Sweet Briar College President and Board’s decision to close, a group of courageous women banded together to formally fight the closure.  First, they opened up their pocketbook to pay for necessary legal counsel in Troutman and Sanders.  Second, they established a Board.  Third, they applied for 501C3 status for Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.  They had a vision and mission statement, a segment of which is here:

Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. was established to block the closure of Sweet Briar College and provide accurate information to students, faculty, and alumnae about the true financial condition of Sweet Briar College and the viable alternatives to closure. The organization is also dedicated to raising the necessary funds to fight the closure and help erase the school’s financial shortfall. Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. is also committed to identifying highly talented individuals who can serve on the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors to help lead an immediate turnaround for the institution while developing a longer term strategy with input from key stakeholders. Success in achieving our mission will ensure that future generations of women can proudly call themselves Sweet Briar alumnae.

In their own words, they all wish to be “out of a job” and see themselves as temporary stewards.  An example of the kind of top-notch experts they have hired to provide advice and guidance for the future include a forensic accountant, R. Stephen Spitzer,  and a college turnaround expert with solid examples of other institutions.   The Board vets candidates for a new Board; they have a list of interested College Presidents with proven turnaround experience; experts on a number of fields are being vetted to provide real advice for the future.

The call to action is clear:

Spread the word

Share your Sweet Briar Story with your friends on social media using the hashtags #savesweetbriar and #thinkisforgirls

Volunteer

Do you have particular talents that would help us with our mission to save our school? Contact us.

Raise Money

We need money to support our school! Given the state of financial aid and higher ed, Sweet Briar needs to grow its endowment to stay viable. Crowdfunding information to follow.

Help Keep Our School Alive

There are over 500 women on campus who need our support. Help us help them keep our school alive.

In the meantime, the thousands of alumnae have managed to create an organizational structure rivaling some of the largest Universities (I speak with experience working for a B1G school, University of Maryland and serve on the University Senate).  There are literally HUNDREDS of Committees of EXPERTS in their professional areas reporting up through Chairs who compile the information into master documents.  The first of these documents, a Strategic Plan, was delivered to the Saving Sweet Briar board in time for the first injunction hearing.   There are PhD experts, attorneys, professional fundraisers, accountants, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, coaches, scientists, elected officials, C-suite executives of every type providing advice that the College — any College or nonprofit — would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure (I say this with experience having watched schools hire consultants for narrowly focused work and deliverables).  Sweet Briar College itself by the Board’s own admission paid over $1 MILLION for a report that was never concluded and the Board members were not able to keep after reading it and voting to close the College.

quote-margaret-mead-if-we-are-to-achieve-a-richer-5707

Committee Structure.  This is a case for the power of social media if there ever were one.  Facebook, in particular, has provided the platform for alumnae to organize their efforts.  Early in the process, pages were created for experts to share suggestions in different areas in the “Saving SBC Professional Roundtable” (a closed group so not hyperlinked here).  Categories include every aspect of operations:

Academic Affairs, Admissions, Development/Fundraising, Diversity, Career Counseling, College Placement, Grounds & Facilities, Information Technology, Land (Creative Use of/Maintaining), Legal, Student Affairs, Social Life.

Each group has professionals who have spent their careers in these areas with best practices to share. The alumnae’s willingness to help is not just lip service.  Examples of alumnae offers and efforts to assist include:

Deferred maintenance problems?  Check.  Habitat for Humanity-like plans for improvement including painting, plastering and even building repair by licensed contractors paid for by alumnae or their own companies.  These are documented offers to help as they cannot execute these plans without coordination from the facility leadership.

Admissions/Recruitment problems?  Check.  Alumnae from around the Country have offered to reinvigorate a dormant network of volunteers to attend College Fairs, visit area feeder schools (and aspirant feeder schools), house admissions staff traveling, personally write interested students and their families.  In addition,  the Alumnae Angel Network are alumnae who sponsor students needing support transferring to another College.  Even if this might mean losing a student needed for the future, the movement is supporting the current students in tangible ways.

Fundraising problems?  Check.   As of this writing, over $1 million in cash is in the Saving Sweet Briar accounts.  Over $10 million in pledges over five years are being held in trust by Saving Sweet Briar for the College once the closure decision is reversed and there is a Board and Administration committed to the future.  A Major Donor Task Force (of which I am a part) has weekly conference calls to coordinate outreach to past donors to the College and those who care and aren’t even affiliated.  A Regional Task Force from each state writing to their residents, particularly those not on social media.  Liaisons to classes (a traditional way to communicate with alumnae) share information on a weekly and even daily basis with links to give, participate and support.  All of this has been accomplished without the tools fundraisers usually have (I know because I am one).  For example, a donor database has been faithfully RECREATED through years of magazines publishing giving information and even programs from past campaign celebrations kept as keepsakes — now data for a defacto giving database.   It is INCREDIBLE to watch and witness.  This is worthy of its own blog post, stay tuned.

Communications Strategy?  Check.  The initial news stories reported the Board’s decision to close.  The news of the alumnae outcry and mobilization was relegated to the comment section of most stories.  However, the tide has turned.  Now, major news outlets are reporting on the success of the alumnae efforts and on the amazing accomplishments of our alumnae, the morning of my writing the New York Times wrote about our alumnae and the efforts to save the College.  This type of media battle and reversal of message does not happen easily.  It has occurred through professionals and passionate individuals working with contacts to share opinion, provide worthwhile facts to report, verify stories and share perspective.  Interestingly, the headlines of some of the earlier stories have changed from “College imploding” to “Alumnae Fight Closure”.

Conspiracy Theories?  Check.  One of my favorite movements within the Saving Sweet Briar collective, is a group a la Erin Brokovich that dedicates itself to researching the “back story”.  The team (which includes some with investigative journalism experience) posts pieces of documents, theories, lists, etc. and a broad network do their further work and reports results.  Some of these get passed along – once vetted — for journalists or the Saving Sweet Briar Board.  Just when my own efforts to Save Sweet Briar might flag or my confidence wane or my enthusiasm might be dampened by some new comment by the “President”, someone from the group will post some new theory or angle that gets me MAD.  They have even inspired and commissioned political cartoons.  I have the one of the women turning over the rock next to my phone (for when I “dial for dollars”).

The efforts of the alumnae are truly inspiring.

Imagine – just imagine – if their efforts were harnessed BEFORE the College announced it must close.

Imagine if the Board took stock of this advice and reconsidered their decision?

Imagine if YOUR organization harnessed your stakeholders?

Sweet Briar is receiving DAILY national attention.  Sweet Briar students, faculty, staff, alumni and community are rallying to share their expertise.  The future IS bright and there is much to hope for with this kind of passion.

At this point, I cling to the other Margaret Mead quote – the one you know by heart – because I am seeing it validated on an hourly basis.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. -- Margaret Mead

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead

Our aim is not the world for now.  For now it is a small piece of the planet located in Southern Virginia, Sweet Briar.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
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To the Alumnnae Board of Sweet Briar College: Hello? Is anybody home?! (Open Letter & 10 Suggestions for the Alumnae Board)

silence

Anyone part of a College, University or nonprofit would like to feel that their Board of Directors has the institution’s best interests at heart.  It is hard to think this is true when a Board of Directors takes the shocking and extreme action of closing an institution.  This is the case at Sweet Briar College.

When this happens, the natural thing to do is to turn to your constituency group leaders.  In the case of students, to the Student Government.  In the case of faculty, to the Faculty Senate.   The faculty of Sweet Briar College voted unanimously to oppose the closing of Sweet Briar College.   In my case, I turn to my Alumnae Board. In the case of Sweet Briar College, the Alumnae Board has issued no response.  The President of the Alumnae Board, Sandra Taylor, is a member of the Board which voted to close the College and she sat on the call with alumnae shortly after the closure reiterating the President’s talking points.

I wrote the following  letter to the Alumnae Board (via a staff member in the office who promised to forward it) and have, to date, not had a response.  While I have addresses for individuals on the Board, I felt going through the office was the most respectful approach.  I am posting it here in an effort to invite a response from any of them individually or collectively:

Thank you for taking your valuable time to speak to me about the status of the Alumnae Association and the Alumnae Board.  As promised, I am summarizing the points (and questions) I’d like to make below:
  • Alumnae Association independence.  To what degree is the Alumnae Association independent of the College?  I recall when I worked at the College in the 1990s, the dues were eliminated (in order to strengthen annual giving). At that time, some staff were paid for by the Alumnae Association themselves and not funded by the College.  The VP at the time brought all the staff under the College.  
  • Ongoing funding for Alumnae Association.  I would like to see a return of an independent Alumnae Association funded by dues and, should the efforts to save the College not succeed, have equal consideration for funding along with other staff-related positions.  
  • Staff & Board.  I understand the STAFF are employees of the College, but the Alumnae Board are dedicated volunteers.  Shouldn’t the Alumnae Board have some leadership and messaging regarding the closure?  The absence of any statement is extremely disappointing.  An Alumnae Association Board should – even if it does not agree with all stakeholders — listen and respond to the feelings of their stakeholders.  I have heard that the Alumnae Association Board has been told they cannot speak due to the College’s legal counsel.  Surely this cannot be true.  
  • President’s statements and Alumnae Board President’s Role.  I would like to implore the Alumnae Board to speak out against the President’s comments that he has made verbally and in national media that strike many as sexist and racist (not just Sweet Briar alumnae either).  Current students and their families are reeling by the negative comments he has made about current students and the “changing demographics”.  I find myself continually apologizing for the President’s comments to my colleagues in higher education and national media — praying that there are people like the Alumnae Board who realize his comments are at a minimum insensitive and out of touch.  I would rather have Sandra Taylor as spokesperson – or some other woman who is not likely to make such comments. For a review of the comments people have cited, you can read my blog at:  http://beingunlocked.com/2015/03/how-not-to-speak-about-higher-education-or-women-or-diversity-in-2015/
  • Alumnae Board’s role in stewardship.  Given that the majority of the endowment has been donated by alumnae.  I feel the Alumnae Board has an important role to play in advocating on behalf of donors — that donor’s donations are used as intended.  I worked for the College and brought in some of the leadership gifts that make up the endowment.  I feel a strong responsibility that those gifts I help broker not be used against the donor intent.  I realize this may mean that the Alumnae Board would have to step away from the College’s position, but it I feel it has a duty to advocate for alumnae.
I realize everyone is very busy, but I would appreciate very much the courtesy of a reply.
 
Kind regards,
 
Stacey Sickels Locke `88
I have not received any response to my letter and I suspect I will not.
There is a post on social media of an Alumnae Association Facebook group (below).  Their letter is here, but I would assert is NOT the kind of action we need.  Shedding tears, listing and digesting news is not enough when you are a leadership group representing stakeholders.  Planning a Reunion is certainly admirable, but now is a time for ADVOCACY.

As your Alumnae Board, we learned an hour before everyone else about the Board of Directors’ decision to close the College this summer. We have spent the past weeks digesting that news, talking with classmates, engaging board members and shedding more than a few tears. We have been impressed by the passion and energy that alumnae are bringing to this moment, whether they are backing the legal strategy behind the Save Sweet Briar movement or supporting the Board of Directors’ efforts to bring an orderly closure to the campus.

Through meetings, phone calls and emails, we sense that all alumnae agree on a few points: Everyone wants to support current students, provide for faculty and staff, and preserve Sweet Briar’s legacy. The Alumnae Board hopes to provide a space where the entire Sweet Briar community finds common ground and works collaboratively.

We are also working to evolve the Sweet Briar Alumnae Association into an independent entity that can serve everyone with an enduring commitment to the ideals of Sweet Briar and the vision of educating young women.

Actually, we do NOT agree on much.  The fact that the Alumnae Board says they learned only an hour prior to the Board of Director’s decision means that the members of the Alumnae Board who serve on the Board of Directors must not have thought the Alumnae Board should have a voice or a role.   We do not all agree that the role of the Alumnae Board is to support current students, provide for faculty and staff and to preserve Sweet Briar’s legacy.    The role of an Alumnae Board should be bolder than all of that and focused on alumnae needs.
Here are a few suggestions for the Alumnae Board. PLEASE, be a leader and not a passive audience of the attempted dissolution of our College.  Consider the fact that if the #saveSweetBriar movement is successful, there may still be a College and alumnae to serve.  Which side of history would the alumnae board like to sit?
1.  Acknowledge there is a difference in opinion and strategy between the alumnae behind the #saveSweetBriar movement and the alumnae on the Board of Directors who supported the closure.   Even if you cannot condemn the decision (which I personally would appreciate), acknowledging the large number and passion of the women would be appreciated.  Recognize the amazing dedication of the alumnae being expressed.  Note the fundraising commitment.  Be part of this historic wave of alumnae connection and advocacy.
2.  Call publicly on the President to use more respectful language when speaking of the large movement of alumnae.  Using terms like “small” and “irrational” and “overwrought” is sexist and disrespectful.  “Well-intentioned” isn’t in the family of appropriate language either.   It would show leadership for alumnae, students and women everywhere to call out disrespectful language where it exists, even if that language is not intentionally sexist (many in the majority do not realize when they are being offensive).
3.  Acknowledge the pain expressed by current students and alumnae of color at the way the President has described the “changing demographics” of Sweet Briar  as negative.   Acknowledged that diversity is a strength of Sweet Briar and that some of his comments have been interpreted as racist by students, parents, alumnae and leaders in higher education outside of Sweet Briar.   It would show leadership for students, alumnae  and people  everywhere to call out disrespectful language where it exists, even if that language is not intentionally racist  (many in the majority do not realize when they are being offensive).
4.  Call on the President and Board to comply with the mandates by outside parties to preserve records and to respond swiftly to any possible legal action.
5.  Advocate for donor intent.  The majority of the contributions in the current endowment were made by alumnae.  Realize that the Alumnae Association has an important role to protect and defend the rights of alumnae donors.
6.  Call for better and more thorough research by independent parties rather than support the decisions of the Board of Directors which has relied on what may be questionable “research”.    Be public about what information the Alumnae Board has – or has not received – with respect to the Board of Director’s decision.  If a lack of information does not allow you to support their decision or make an official comment, state that.
7.  Exercise indepence.  Request a briefing by the Forensic Accountant when those financial findings become available.  Request a briefing by Professor Dan Gottlieb who has dug into the “data” submitted by the Board and raises grave and essential questions.   If the Alumnae Board has questions regarding the financial statements and conclusions used by the Board of Directors to close Sweet Briar, say it and request additional review.  Take back the Alumnae Board’s financial holdings within Sweet Briar and reestablish your financial independence.
8.  Recommit yourself to your charter and mission.  Re assert your independence of the College.   I would remind the Alumnae Board that you should represent the wishes and voice of the alumnae, not employees or any other stakeholders of the College, even if that is difficult given that the Alumnae Board is staffed by College employees.   You may have an independent role to play in the future, even if that future is only to gather alumnae.
9.  Review the mission of Sweet Briar College.  Consider the role alumnae leadership should play.  Articulate that role.   I would urge advocacy.  Current students and parents have a short-term need for their daughters to finish their education.   Faculty and staff are incredibly dedicated, but they also have a financial relationship as employees of the College. Alumnae have an important role to care about the long-term of an institution – they receive no “benefit” from their affiliation.  Alumnae have a critical role in saving the College now.
10.  Allow individual members of the Alumnae Board to speak.  Do not allow silence to be your message.  If you cannot speak as a unified Board, allow people to resign and speak individually.  Alternatively, issue a statement that you cannot agree and that there is a difference of opinion.  If necessary, disband yourself and acknowledge who IS speaking on behalf of alumnae (I would assert that the only alumnae leadership right now is Saving Sweet Briar and those stepping forward through social media).
Alumnae Board, your alumnae NEED you, your leadership and your independence right now.  Why the silence?  Let’s hope this quote is true for you:
“Silence is the most powerful scream” — Anonymous

Stacey Sickels Locke is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
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