All across America, it is graduation season. “Pomp and Circumstance” by Elgar will be played endlessly as graduates float across the stage. Usually, this is a time of celebration. Not at Sweet Briar College. Elgar’s March in D Major “Pomp and Circumstance” is based on the final line in a Stanza from Shakespeare. That line has an eerie significance when one considers the current state of Sweet Briar College:
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
– Shakespeare “Othello”, Act 3 (from which Elgar took the title for the famous Graduation March)
On my graduation day in 1988, I arose early and took a walk. My mother french braided my hair and tucked a sweet briar rose into the sides. I wore a floral dress, pearls and a pair of heels with VERY pointed toes (very 1980s fashion).
Nenah Fry was President. Karen Lawson, Class of 1974, was the Distinguished Alumna Awardee. I knew the Board of Directors members personally, including Michela English who sat on the graduation platform. I not only trusted them all, my first job came as a result of one board member. My English professors, Ross Dabney, Ralph Aiken and Karl Tamburr hosted a reception Saturday afternoon. The Rev. Susan Lehman had a party on Sunday for all who practically lived at her home as students. My Psychology professors, Susan Beers and David Johnson, had a bar-b-que on Friday afternoon. Graduation was filled with hope for me, my classmates and the College. Robert Barlow, Dean of Students, and his entire family were part of my family in the four years prior, that weekend and in the years since. The campus was at its peak with flowering trees blooming, carefully cut grass and celebrations planned throughout the weekend. This was my Sweet Briar. This was my graduation.
At Sweet Briar College, the Class of 2015 will awake on Saturday morning to a very different future. The alumnae of Sweet Briar across the country and around the world will awake with a sense of gloom. It is hard to imagine, but imagine this:
Imagine receiving word just two months ago as a student, faculty, staff, alumna or community member that this is to be “the last commencement”. The President and Board have voted to close.
Imagine seeing bedsheets unfurled from balconies and the belltower with student protests.
Imagine the alumnae mobilizing to fight the closure, hiring legal counsel and filing an official suit against the President and Board Chair.
Imagine learning that the College plans to use donations to close the College.
Imagine being an alumna receiving a letter asking for permission to use your generous contribution (or that of your departed loved one) to close the College.
Imagine your faculty with a 100% vote of no confidence in the President and Board. Imagine those same faculty receiving termination notices.
Imagine a court hearing in nearby Bedford granting a 60 day injunction forbiding the College from spending endowment to close.
Imagine another attorney offering pro bono representation for students, faculty and staff and being successful in gaining a six-month injunction against closure activities.
Imagine learning that the Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring, actually sat down with the President and Board Chair to “wind down” the endowment. To whom do you have to turn?
Imagine your shock learning that the former President and Vice President of Finance had met with Hollins University to discuss a merger several years earlier! Imagine hearing the President had already received “offers” from interested parties in Sweet Briar.
Imagine the food in Prothro Commons (the dining hall) once so delicious becoming less and less and eventually inedible (to the point where the health department had to be called).
Imagine alumnae around the country hosting fundraisers and rallies against the closure and watching the commitments rise.
Imagine seeing your College in the local, regional and national news. Articles about closure. Stories about fraud.
Imagine leaders not affiliated with Sweet Briar alleging fraud and calling upon the FBI to investigate.
Imagine news trucks daily coming to campus exploring stories, allegations and asking for your opinion.
Imagine having to transfer to another College when you wished to stay.
Imagine you are a student awaking on the morning of your graduation…
…..Your graduation speaker is party to the suit against the College.
…..Your alumnae are fighting to keep the College alive.
You do not have to imagine. This reality is unfolding at Sweet Briar College.
Graduation will be lovely. Pomp and Circumstance will play. Daisies will be exchanged for roses. Diplomas will be accepted. The College song will be sung. Families will take photos. Everyone will go home.
Yet, all of this takes place against this surreal scene. One alumna, Robin Lindsay Frantz, posted this photo:
Shakespeare’s original lines from which Elgar took his line for Pomp and Circumstance are fitting. It is “Pomp, Circumstance and…War”.
My hope is that students years from now will look back on their pictures from the 2015 graduation and know that their education was used for something good. I hope they look back and remember they were part of the future — and that they fought in this war to save the College. It may be the most important fight of their education.
I know I will look back on 2015 with no regrets. I have put my all into saving the College I love. I do feel I have been at war over the past few months. The sides have changed. The battles lines drawn. The legal battles waged, won and lost.
It seems fitting to end with the actual words to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” which actually were not written by Elgar. Arthur Benson wrote the words later. His chorus is the section repeated over and over as graduates cross the stage, “Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free, How shall we extol thee, Who are born of thee? Wider still and wider Shall thy bounds be set; God, who made thee mighty, Make thee mightier yet”
It sounds like a song written for Sweet Briar, Indiana Fletcher Williams and the mighty fight that is now waged:
Dear Land of Hope, thy hope is crowned.
God make thee mightier yet!
On Sov’ran brows, beloved, renowned,
Once more thy crown is set.
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.
Land of Hope and Glory,
Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee,
Who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty,
Make thee mightier yet.
Thy fame is ancient as the days,
As Ocean large and wide:
A pride that dares, and heeds not praise,
A stern and silent pride:
Not that false joy that dreams content
With what our sires have won;
The blood a hero sire hath spent
Still nerves a hero son.
— Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925)
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.Follow us....by
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