Category Archives: Board Governance

Governance – Best & Worst Practices (with Sweet Briar College as a case study)

The President and Board of Sweet Briar College announced on March 3, 2015 its intention to close.  Since that time, the actions and culture of this Board have revealed themselves shedding troubling light into the dark shadows of the Board’s governance (or lack thereof).  It is important for all who care about their schools, colleges, universities and nonprofits to understand how their Board operates and governs.

Types of Boards — Definitions

Governing Board.  A governing board leads the organization from the top.  They are responsible for articulating the organizational mission and executing plans as well as monitoring the effectiveness of programs.  The also have the authority to recruit, hire, evaluate and terminate the President or Executive Director of an organization. Finally, they serve as a fiduciary of the fiscal health of the organization.

Who serves on a governing board is determined by the type of board it is:

Shared Governance Institutions that have a shared governance model include the voices and leadership of stakeholder groups on the Board.  A leader from each constituency group has a “seat” on the Board and participates in decision making.  In a College or University, this means that the head of the official student, faculty, staff, parent and other key groups would sit on the board.  In addition, “at large” members may be recruited from those groups or the wider community.

Self Replicating A self replicating Board replenishes itself by a nominating group within the Board.  Usually, this is a Nominating Committee.  If there is an Executive Committee, that group sometimes has a role in nominating.  Ideally, the entire board is canvassed for suggestions for new members.  Board members meet with potential candidates and their names are put forward for nominating committee review.  The up-side of this model is that the Board has a pipeline of candidates.  The down-side is that the board can become insular as people tend to reach out to people they know and who share a similar point of view.  Diversity of all types becomes threatened in this model (not to mention solid decision making)

Advisory Boards.  Advisory Boards provide industry expertise to academic programs.  In many institutions, they review curriculum to make sure that what is being taught is in line with what job requirements are after graduation for jobs hiring in the field. John McElroy, PhD, CFLE and Linda Dove, MS, ZA, Western Michigan University in an excellent paper on Advisory Boards describe them as follows, 

“..Their main function is to offer support to institution administrators and faculty….comprised of accomplished experts offering innovative advice and dynamic perspectives….can provide strategic direction, guide quality improvement, and assess program effectiveness.”

Sweet Briar College Board of Directors 

In the case of Sweet Briar College, they have a self replicating Board which does not consist of constituency group leaders officially.  The majority of the Board are alumnae.  As the Board does not share its Minutes or documents, the only glimpses we get into their operations are their own statements as well as statements by former members.  The President’s own words describe the decision-making process as a small group of people:

“The board, some key alumnae and I have worked diligently to find a solution to the challenges Sweet Briar faces….”

One member of the Board, Richard E. Leslie, who felt pressure to resign because his ideas and opinions seems to run counter to the “Executive Leadership” gives us a frightening glimpse into the current culture of the Board.  He contrasts the current operating of the Board to his past experience prior to Rice, the current board chair:

During my early years of my seven year tenure the board had vital and rigorous discussions on most issues before reaching consensus.

Fiscal restraint and enrollment increase ideas were monitored and discussed at every meeting.  Times have changed.  Now I must add my name to the list of directors departing before the end of their terms.

Most disturbing is that he states that differences of opinion were not tolerated by the Executive Leadership of the Board.

Each time I tried to argue for fiscal prudence, I was denigrated or ignored.

This is not a sign of healthy board deliberations.  Mr. Leslie was trying to raise some warning calls.  This also gives some idea as to the remaining members of the Board.  If they saw board members who disagreed or raised a contrary opinion being forced to resign and leaving before their terms – and a lack of tolerance for any opinions differing from the Executive Committee – those who chose to remain were likely silent if they held any concerns.

In the past year, Committees met less and less…. We discuss less and less and the presentation of the budget is a foregone conclusion.  Is this good governance?

No, Mr. Leslie, you are exactly right, this is NOT good governance and it is appalling to hear that this is how the current board operates.  Your comments are echoed by others who have left the board, some of whom who have stepped forward to create Saving Sweet Briar.

The most troubling of his comments is important to emphasize:

Why do we even need Committees?  Why do we even need a Board? All decisions are not even made by the Executive Committee but rather a small sub-group of the Executive Committee and passed along to the board for rubber stamp approval.  … the interim President selection was passed along to the Board and it wasn’t even felt necessary to take a vote!

My distrust for Mr. James Jones aside, the Board not having a proper vetting and vote for his appointment as President casts serious doubt as to this Board’s ability to govern.  Furthermore, it gives credence to the call for Mr. Jones to resign or be removed if he was not ever properly voted upon by the Board.

A lingering question I would have related to the changes Mr. Leslie cites are whether the by-laws were amended to change the decision making to a small group.  I cannot imagine a full Board voting to allow a small group to make decisions for them, but let transparency provide the answers in this case.  My understanding is that  there were two votes evidently to change the number of board members required for a quorum:  Once before the February vote from 24 to 23 and then again down to 20 after the announcement.

No outside directors have been appointed to the Board since you (Rice, the current Board Chair) and I (Richard Leslie) were appointed to the Board seven years ago.  All new members have been alums. This is not healthy and fosters a very insular focus that does not encourage the diversity of views necessary for any institution to thrive.

Indeed, the lack of diversity not only in type of stakeholder on the board and the lack of diversity in the alumnae appointed to the Board is cause for concern.  Combined with the fact that the full Board may not have had access to important information or deliberations by the smaller group within the Executive Committee casts doubt upon this particular Board being capable of proper governance.  I would add the lack of representation by stakeholders is also of serious concern including the voices of faculty, staff and the wider community.

There is no plan or even discussion of a plan for Presidential accountability. In my view one of the reasons for the many sad failures in admissions, retention and fiscal restraint is the absence of any performance goals for the President.

This is a shocking.  One of the important fiscal roles a Board plays is the hiring, goal-setting,  evaluation and removal of a President or Executive Director of a nonprofit.  They are the only entity that holds a President accountable.  If this is true, combined with not having a fair vote for the President’s appointment, this would be further grounds for a lack of confidence in and removal of the current President.

I was the lone vote for voting against $1M of our endowment money being spent for yet another strategic plan…. As a member of the “working group” I have repeatedly asked for and not received any information about the actual survey protocols. I have received no information about who at the College is in charge of this massive effort. … Really!!? An outside consultant supervising the work of an outside consultant she hired?

Hats off to Mr. Leslie for being willing to be a lone vote on a Board that seems to take a “rubber stamp” approach to its decision making.  He raises incredibly important points.  Whenever an outside consultant is hired, there should be strong controls put in place for deliverables.  Surveys are only as good as the questions asked and results are only as good as sound methodologies of analysis.  If the protocols were not reviewed by the very working group charged with reviewing and implementing the results, any conclusions those surveys suggest would be in question.  We know now what some of their recommendations were and there are thousands of alumnae who join Mr. Leslie in his concern.

Request for Board Transparency (and best practices)

In the interest of transparency, I would like to see the Sweet Briar Board of directors provide the following (which incidentally is normally available to constituents of non-profits, schools, colleges and universities either upon request or even more readily such as via a website):

  1. Copies of its by-laws.
  2. Copies of its Minutes.
  3. The Committees of the Board and the staff members who staffed those Committees.
  4. Committee Minutes and Reports.  I would like to see reports provided to the Committees of the Board would also like to know whether staff members were included in those Committees whose work focused on important areas such as Admissions, Development and Finances.
  5. Documentation of historic by-law amendments over the past five years if the Committee structure were changed and proof (through Minutes) of a vote taken to approve those changes.  The rationale for having to change the numbers on the board twice in a year.
  6. Documentation of the vote of the Board to approve the hiring of the President and the change from Interim to full President.
  7. An accounting for fees paid to outside consultants and a release of those reports — particularly since endowment funds were used to pay for the study.
  8. How members of the board are found, vetted and nominated and the role of staff when extending invitations (reference Teresa Pike Tomlinson being asked about serving on the Board by a staff member).
  9. How the Alumnae Board and the Board of Directors sees its role (if the by-laws are not clear on this)
  10. How other entities of Sweet Briar with their own Boards relate to the Board of Directors
  11. Are there Advisory Boards for any of the academic areas for Sweet Briar?


Legal documents including Mr. Richard Leslie’s letter quoted herin

Association of Governing Boards:  Consequential Boards

Saving Sweet Briar

Personal Feedback & Observation

As an employee of Sweet Briar College in the 1990s, I participated in the Development Committee of the Board and was invited to attend Board Meetings.  Granted, I sat on the side of the room, but I was present for board deliberations, votes and reports from all Committees, not just Development.   While there were some deliberations that occurred in closed session, my recollection was that it was only pertaining to the evaluation of the President.   I do not recall a board member ever leaving before their term was out.  The fact that the current board has had several members leave before their terms expired is not a good sign.  Mr. Leslie gives us a clue as to why he resigned – he felt he was forced out.  We do not know about the other members, but one could reasonably guess that they had concerns.  Having to amend the by-laws for the number of members twice in a year is also troubling.

At the University of Maryland, I have been elected to sit on the University Senate.  A shared governance model is a strong model for higher education and one that I think a future Sweet Briar should employ.  By having shared governance, all key stakeholders can deliberate their unique issues and present a unified voice to a larger Board or Trustees.

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned in managing boards came when I served as Executive Director for the Foundation for Anne Arundel Community College, voted the top Community College in the country and with an enrollment of over 50,000 students.  The Board Chair, F. Carter Heim, abolished the Executive Committee of the Board as one of his first actions when he took office.  As a staff member, I liked the Executive Committee, it allowed me to write reports and handle business within a small group.  However, I quickly saw the merits of Mr. Heim’s philosophy.  Board participation in meeting attendance, committee attendance and giving increased dramatically.  Mr. Heim’s philosophy was that there should not be anything outside the purvue of the entire Board.

Finally, I would suggest that a strong network of Advisory Boards be employed in each major on campus for Sweet Briar to maintain its connection to graduate-level education progression and hiring opportunities.

Sweet Briar College offers some important lessons for nonprofits, schools, colleges and those who love those institutions.  I will continue to share those I find most pertinent.  Please comment below if there are issues you would like to see discussed.

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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How NOT to speak about higher education — or women — or diversity — in 2015….

James Jones
James Jones — the Commonwealth of Virginia requests his removal in its injunction.

“Argue for your limitations, and surely they’re yours.” — Richard Bach

The announced closure of Sweet Briar College provides much fodder for every stage of grief.  The current President and leadership’s statements continue to horrify many alumnae and the public at large.  Each time the President takes the microphone or speaks to press, the quotes get worse.  The President of the Board, the President, the President’s wife and other leaders: How is it possible in 2015 that people could speak this way?

Here is how NOT to speak about higher education — or women — or diversity — in 2015

 “Sweet Briar’s rich-girl days were long gone.”
— Sweet Briar President and Chair of the Board, Paul Rice

Rich girl days?  Really?  While every School and College may have a percentage of students whose parents are able to pay for tuition without any loans or grants being taken and provide for many of the extras, Sweet Briar has never been a majority “rich girl school”.  Even back to the founding days of the College there were scholarships for financial need and students were able to work in all types of jobs to provide for their education and expenses.

Jones told The New York Times that for students who entered Sweet Briar in fall 2014, 37% are first-generation college students, 32% are minorities, and 43% received Pell grants — federal financial aid grants for low-income undergraduates.

To use this statement as a reason for the College closing is one of the most egregious Jones has made and has generated widespread ire.  To have this statement made as a negative is extremely unfortunate. Some have picked up on this statement and repeated it in front of current students and their families both on campus and around the country — as if this is a negative.  Colleges and Universities across the country are THANKFULLY becoming more diverse in many ways — racially, socio-economically.  Mr. Jones’ wife describes it this way in a public Class of 1969 webpage:

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?

Evidently not, Mrs. Jones.  The majority of families in higher education today are described by the statistics your husband quoted and the average middle-class family.  Sweet Briar should embrace these students and their families.  A school of “girls from super wealthy families” is never a goal for even families who are blessed with extraordinary wealth.   Diversity is a blessing to all.

Mr. Jones’ comments not only appeared in print, but on a call with thousands of alumnae he was bold to say:

“I guarantee you that the students of today and the students applying are not of the same caliber as your generations.”

This phrase has been repeated by some in support of closure and is extremely disrespectful for current students and their families.

Frankly, students who are bringing in Pell Grant income may be, in fact, contributing significantly to the bottom line. I raised a question to the former President when I visited for my 25th Reunion and she said, “It is the traditionally full-pay families who are sometimes paying the least – because they know they can negotiate. ”

Every school has a range of socio-economic diversity.  To blame the closing of the school on a change in the percentages is irresponsible and offensive.

Sweet Briar is no longer the “horsy school on the hill,” current professor.

Horsy school on the hill?  Good grief.  One of Sweet Briar’s STRENGTHS which continues (based on this year’s award winning season) is its equestrian program. While a small percentage of Sweet Briar students ride horses and an even smaller percentage of students bring horses with them, to describe the College this way indicates a complete lack of awareness of the award-winning program as well as the successful athletes, including Lendon Gray, a three-time Olympian.  Our award-winning sports teams and incredible coaches are one of the hallmarks of Sweet Briar — and frankly any College or University.  Riding is something that gives us a niche and a good reputation.

Sweet Briar determined in 2011 that the alumnae’s changing demographics made it impossible to effectively conduct a large-scale fundraiser, Sweet Briar’s vice president for finance Scott Shank told The News & Advance.

2011 is a full enrollment cycle away from 2015 where we are now.  It is very unfortunate that the College did not conduct a professional feasibility study of its alumnae testing REAL issues and themes.  The last feasibility study of 200 alumnae was conducted by staff members (I have spoken to many alumnae who gave when I worked at the College and who participated in this study – they cited no confidentiality as staff were the interviewers; no theme of any concerns; no details about giving levels). This was a huge missed opportunity.  Alumnae assert that the College did not come to them and the fundraising ability they have shown — in incredibly creative ways — is inspiring (to this fundraiser in particular).

To say that the “changing demographics” made it impossible to conduct a large-scale fundraiser is completely offensive.  This was my reaction initially and then I heard from the editor of the leading industry publication in my field (when she read about Jones’ and Shank’s statements)

I didn’t attend Sweet Briar, but I have to say that as a person of color (and donor to causes I care about) this bit attributed to the institution raised my ire.

By the way — news flash — one of the most generous groups of alumni are those who received scholarships and support themselves because they feel a duty to give back.  Some of the world’s leading philanthropists did not come from wealth — someone helped them.  Chances are, your “changing demographics” may actually be the source of great support in the future.

In response to why the College couldn’t adapt or change….

Here’s more from Jones’ conversation with IHE earlier this month on Sweet Briar becoming co-ed:

Jones said that, at Sweet Briar, going coeducational did not seem like a simple solution. He said that such a move would have required lots of money for scholarships and facilities, and he wasn’t subtle about the purpose of the spending. “We would need scholarships to basically buy males,” he said.

Buying males?  Are you kidding me?  I have two sons, one college age.  He is not “for sale”.  He chose to attend a small, liberal arts College in the Midwest.  As a parent, I would have loved to have him consider Sweet Briar (albeit with a different male-counterpart name).  I imagine there would have been many more interested and they would not have to be “bought”.  Even if it is true that merit or scholarship support might be necessary in a greater percentage initially, to frame it as “buying males” is just disgusting.

The Chair of the Board, Paul Rice stated (when dismissing the possibility of going co-ed)….

Rice elaborated on the projected increased spending in The New York Times.

“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.”

This is the Chair of our Board folks.  Obviously, a co-ed environment requires some adaptations.  There are men and women’s bathrooms in every facility on campus as it is.  How do you think we get through Reunions?  We have men and women in dorms, attending events and classes all across campus. It would not be terribly difficult to allocate a dorm for male students.   We have sons of current faculty and staff who attend Sweet Briar. With the new athletic facility, a key asset was available.  Furthermore, the College has capacity for far more students than it current enrolls, so even a small percentage of men initially could no doubt have been accommodated.  To hear this decision dismissed so callously down to labels on bathrooms doors is embarrassing and does not instill confidence in the decision making or deliberations  of the Board.

"Leave it to a man to destroy what a woman made" - banner hanging on the bell tower.
“Leave it to a man to destroy what a woman made” – banner hanging on the bell tower.

In the initial announcement about the closure of the College, the President seems to indicate that people just don’t chose a College like Sweet Briar anymore.  He wrote,

“While the College has long been part of my life, as my wife is a 1969 graduate…..The board, some key alumnae and I have worked diligently to find a solution to the challenges Sweet Briar faces. This work led us to the unfortunate conclusion that there are two key realities that we could not change: the declining number of students choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal arts colleges and even fewer young women willing to consider a single-sex education, and the increase in the tuition discount rate that we have to extend to enroll each new class is financially unsustainable.”

This statement is telling because it seems to be that there was just a small group of “key” alumni who convinced themselves there was no hope.  He then refers to them as “us”.  Clearly, he left out the voices of thousands of alumni and his own faculty and staff who had very brilliant ideas (and who debunk with facts and figures the statements of why they needed to close).

It seems President Jones, the Board Chair and others have forgotten that there are HUNDREDS of current students at Sweet Briar College who HAVE chosen to attend a small, rural, private liberal arts college.  There are also HUNDREDS of small, rural, private liberal arts colleges who are open and have smaller endowments than Sweet Briar.

Mrs. Jones, the President’s wife, uses some of the same language in the Class of 1969 webpage where she issues a public comment.

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…. 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.

Shabby parlors?  “The Sweet Briar Way?” Actually, due to surging enrollment, many of the parlors had turned into dorms and office spaces.  That isn’t such a bad thing.  And, yes, deferred maintenance was a problem, but no one had thought to appeal to the alumna who have since offered to organize a Habitat-for-Humanity like work project along with funding to catch up.  Some people find older homes charming….

The President’s wife went on to say,

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.

Mrs. Jones, you forgot to add the important lack of a Starbucks that your husband was quoted as saying on the call with alumnae about the closure.  Seriously though, there ARE people who choose small Colleges and liberal arts education still thrives.

The announcement of Sweet Briar’s closure ends with a quote by another 1969 alumna, Elizabeth H.S. Wyatt ’69:

“If we make the decision to close now, we will have a better opportunity to conclude academic operations in an orderly, compassionate and ethical way that pays homage to those who are here today and to those who came before us.”

This sounds like someone with their hands folded in their lap, speaking to a child.  Perhaps it was expected that Sweet Briar alumnae would behave like “good girls” and just take this decision and go quietly onto other interests.  But, no, President Jones describes our reaction this way:

“emotional, overwrought, irrational”

Patronizing has never had a better example than this.  This is classic male behavior and language.  “Irrational” is such a convenient word for men, perpetuating their sense of superiority.  This is CLASSIC sexism used to describe essentially what is a different way of being.  One of the reasons we attend Sweet Briar is to learn such things (I was a Psychology major).  Men tend to think they are logical and not use feeling words; women aren’t afraid to express and use their emotion. Emotion is the antithesis of logic. When men perceive women as being too emotional (or a way you don’t want us to be), men say women are being irrational. Crazy. Wrong. Overwrought.  Minimizing somebody else’s feelings is trying to control them. If they no longer trust their own feelings and instincts, they come to rely on someone else to tell them how they’re supposed to feel.   I suspect this is how a percentage of our alumnae are feeling right now (I’ll refrain from using decade generalizations) because they have people around them telling them how to feel and pointing out those who resist in negative ways.  I hope they can free themselves of this path and find their voice.

The press release regarding the President and Board’s refusal to step down refined the term to describe the #SaveSweetBriar movement as:

“well intentioned”

The number of alumnae who turned out to welcome students back from their spring break — traveling far and wide — outnumbered the entire population of campus.  The funds raised in 10 days exceed the entire fundraising goal for the year.  The faculty unanimous voted in opposition to the Board and President.   Dismissing this energy and commitment shows how out of touch the President is with the stakeholders of the institution.

To CBS, Mr. Jones was asked by the interviewer, “Was there anything anyone could do?”  Mr. Jones replied,

“No, there was nothing anyONE could do.”

Mr. Jones doesn’t think there was or is anything anyone could do because he is surrounded by such a small group of pessimistic people.  In fact, once alumnae, faculty and parents learned of the President and Board’s decision, THOUSANDS have rallied and raised MILLIONS.  Clearly he does not see the future and sees nothing that could be done.  The logical thing for him to do is step down and allow those who see a future and have more creative ideas to lead.

These are just a few examples of how NOT to talk about women, diversity and education in 2015.  Certainly not as leaders of an institution with current students, parents, faculty, staff and thousands of alumnae hanging on your every word.

This alumna is embarrassed by your comments and have found myself apologizing to people well beyond the walls of Sweet Briar — including leaders in higher education and the national media.

Who speaks for me?  Saving Sweet Briar!

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.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
James Jones
James Jones

Here is some suggested reading on this topic (and to avoid further embarrassment):

Business Insider:  Dan Gottleib’s Analysis on the College Closing

10 Words Every Girl Should Know

How Not to Sound Like a Sexist Jerk

How to Stop Sexist Remarks…One Conversation at a Time

Example of a Male Senator Using a Phrase Offensive to Female Senator

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Response to Jan Jones `69 (wife of the current President of Sweet Briar College)

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

My response:

Dear Jan,

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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No Confidence! Does YOUR Governing Board Have Your Interests at Heart?

A "No Confidence" banner hangs off the Sweet Briar bell tower - a symbolic heart of campus.
A “No Confidence” banner hangs off the Sweet Briar bell tower – a symbolic heart of campus.

My continued advocacy for Sweet Briar College continues.  Today’s focus is on governance, shared governance and the lack thereof (in the case of Sweet Briar).  This situation exposes issues that should be of concern to anyone who has ties to a school, college or nonprofit.   A sub-title could be “What are assets anyway?”  Assets of an institution are not just endowment, land and buildings.  Students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and the community surrounding a place are assets deserving of the fiduciary duty of care, loyalty and obedience.

“Nonprofit Malfeasance”

In an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Ruth McCambridge cites Sweet Briar as having a lack of stakeholder representation on the Board and crys malfeasance  (Nonprofit Quarterly article here).  I wholeheartedly agree.

More and more, we see the public calling out nonprofit boards for decisions they have already made that appear at odds with what the stakeholders want. So it is at Sweet Briar College, the latest example of a board making a sudden decision to close only to find that they will be challenged legally, financially, and reputationally on that decision by the very people for whom they were acting in stewardship.

This lack of active connection to the base of supporters should be deemed a kind of nonprofit malfeasance, in violation of what we are organized to do.

While the faculty voted to oppose the Board’s decision to close Sweet Briar, their voice holds little power to actual affect change.  Without legal intervention it seems, the College hurdles towards a closure many are fighting to stop.

Thousands of alumnae have cried out against the closure and, in particular, feel the total lack of communication did not give them a chance to step forward to delay or stop the announced closure.  Their Alumnae Board on the matter?  Silent.  Absence any strong leadership and in response to the passion felt by so many, the Saving Sweet Briar Board established itself and is making statements representing the collective feelings of thousands of alumnae.

Governance – Who Represents the Stakeholders?

Governance is critical and very often not representative of stakeholders who attend, fund and care about an institution.  The Association of Governing Boards, a widely-respected body, issued an important paper regarding the crisis boards are facing in higher education in particular.  You can read the paper here.   I recommend the entire paper for those associated with Colleges and Universities, particularly the comments on “Rising Prices and Eroding Public Trust”. What I particularly highlight and uplift today dear readers is the following from the Executive Summary:

2. Boards must act to add value to institutional leadership and decision making by focusing on their essential role as institutional fiduciaries.

3.  Boards must act to ensure the long-term sustainability of their institutions by addressing changed finances and the imperative to deliver a high-quality education at a lower cost.

4.  Boards must improve shared governance within their institutions through attention to board-president relationships and a reinvigoration of faculty shared governance (emphasis mine).  Boards additionally must attend to leadership development in their institutions, both for presidents and for faculty.

Lack of Shared Governance at Sweet Briar

Unfortunately, shared governance at Sweet Briar seems to be completely lacking.  The faculty of Sweet Briar College voted unanimously to oppose the Board’s unilateral action to close the College (Washington Post article link here).  Yet, their voice holds little strength because they do not have a seat on the Board nor an advocate on the Board.  With shared governance working, they would.   The President agreed to meet with the faculty, but the meeting was canceled “on the advice of legal counsel”.

The Alumnae Board has been sadly silent on the matter with the exception of a few individual voices sharing comments on social media (I have not seen them, only heard that they are weighing in).  Two of their members sit on the Board of Directors and there are other alumnae on the Board of Directors; however, it does not seem those individuals have listened to the inquiries from alumnae imploring them to oppose the decision and help reverse it.

I understand that the Sweet Briar Board of Director’s (and any Board of Director’s) primary role is exercise fiduciary oversight of the institution.  I understand that their role is not to be spokespeople for any particular group.  Their key role is to protect the  assets of the institution.  The problem I see at Sweet Briar is that the Board itself is not made up of stakeholders and thus cannot fully weigh the best fiscal path ahead.  They seem to only be focusing on assets such as land and endowment and not the most important assets – students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae and the community.  Furthermore, the President (and his administration) and the Board failed to reach out to the stakeholders who were in the best position to improve the fiscal state — the alumnae.

Fiduciary Duty…the duty of care, loyalty and obedience.

A brief departure. … Fiduciary duty is roughly defined by a duty of care, loyalty and obedience.  Taken together, these obligations require trustees to make careful decisions collectively and in the best interest of the institution consistent with its public good and charitable mission.  The Sweet Briar Board is entrusted with the charitable assets of the institution — those assets include land and buildings, but also students, faculty, staff, and alumnae.   To close Sweet Briar College seems an absolute violation of the care, loyalty and obedience required of a Board member.

One particular aspect I find troubling is under the duty of loyalty.  The duty of loyalty requires a board member to act in good faith and in a manner that can be believed to represent the interests of the college or university.  Independence is also critical and is evaluated when legal cases are reviewed.  What troubles me are the number of alumnae within a particular decade who serve on the Board. The wife of the current President, Jan Jones, has spoken and written publicly (you can read her thoughts here on a 1969 Class website) about her opinion of the College and her belief that it should close citing how many of her classmates agreed with her.   Several members of her class sit on the Board.  These public statements would not seem to lean towards a healthy balance of independence.  AGB writes,

Under this requirement, a college or university board member must be loyal to the institution and not use the position of authority to obtain, whether directly or indirectly, a benefit for him or herself…. Accordingly, the duty of loyalty considers both the financial interests held by a board member and the governance or leadership positions he has with other organizations (or people, emphasis mine)…. Independence means that the board member is not employed by and does not do material business with the college or university.  In addition, it means that the board member acts independently of any personal relationship he or she may have with the president or senior leaders of the college or university or with other trustees.

These  issues appear to be systemic within higher education as is reported by the Association of Governing Boards,

Almost daily, we hear reports about questionable board behavior:  boards that overstep their authority and get into institutional management; board members who act as faculty representatives, or captives of the alumni association; boards that are unduly swayed by single donors; boards that look the other way when it comes to trustees with conflicts; boards that fail to meet their formal fiduciary responsibilities.  The list goes on.

While it may be too late for the current Sweet Briar Board, I have suggested to the Saving Sweet Briar Board that they consider a shared governance model making sure to have stakeholders represented in their decision making.  I also joined the call for the current President and Board of Sweet Briar College to resign and, furthermore, to halt the closure of the College.

I welcome your feedback and thoughts below.


  • Does the institution you care about have a shared governance model?
  • Do YOU have a voice in any constituency group?  Does that group have a mechanism to hear the opinions of its stakeholders?
  • Does the leadership group of your stakeholders – service recipients, students, faculty, staff, alumni – have a seat on the governing board of the institution?

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.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
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