“Insurmountable financial challenges." That’s what the e-mail said.
With no warning whatsoever, the interim president announced that my alma mater was closing. It took the community -- faculty, students, parents, and alums -- about a day to figure out that finances were just an excuse for something more nefarious that had been in the works for quite a while.
Long story short, we saved Sweet Briar College. And fortunately, our newfound reputation as a college that teaches students not to take no for an answer has garnered us record numbers of applications for 2016-17. But no one has been held accountable for what almost certainly involves criminal conduct. The old “leadership” simply resigned, and the president walked away with hundreds of thousands of dollars of severance (from an interim position!).
I really hate that the narrative in the media and elsewhere is that the college was running out of money until the alumnae swooped in and saved the day. No, it wasn't. (But yes, we did.)
The reality seems to be that key players were trying to kill Sweet Briar because for them, the value of its 3,250-acre campus had eclipsed its 114-year legacy of educating women. There are still some gaps in our collective understanding of what happened, but here's what we know:
- The stated reason for the closure was declining student enrollment and inadequate alumnae giving -- but the top positions in both admissions and development had been left unfilled for about two years (and despite that, enrollment was only slightly down from the record high).
- In announcing the closure, the president (who had come to Sweet Briar after being fired from his previous college for, among other things, fiscal impropriety) pointed to the proportion of students who were minorities, low-income, and/or first-generation college students as evidence that the college was not worth trying to save. (!!)
- He also claimed that the $80-90 million endowment minus the $55 million that’s restricted to specific purposes and $25 million in bond debt (payable over a decade) left the college basically broke -- fuzzy math at its finest.
- The Virginia Attorney General, who has jurisdiction to prosecute violations of charitable giving laws and mismanagement of trusts, not only refused to intervene but actually went to court to argue against the county attorney's authority to do so on our behalf. (The court sided with the county attorney.) Was the Attorney General motivated by campaign contributions from an individual or business who stood to gain from the closure?
- As of the day of the announcement, the college administration had already begun the process
of seeking the Attorney General's permission to use funds for purposes other than those for which they were donated, in order to close the college and repurpose the endowment into some sort of scholarship fund -- but they wouldn't, and didn't, seek to have those same funds unrestricted to use in support of the ongoing operation of the college (not even for a single year to allow the juniors to graduate and to give underclassmen the time to fully explore transfer options).
We don’t know what the plans were for the campus, but theories have included a resort, Disney park, emergency shelter for D.C. officials (similar to the The Greenbrier resort), and government intelligence/communications center. The reality, though, is that the campus is big enough to fit ALL of these endeavors at the same time, with room to spare. It’s killing me not to know what was deemed worthy of breaking multiple laws to put on our campus.
There’s so much more I could say, but I’m up against the word limit. If you’d like more information about this situation (or about Sweet Briar) or want to trade theories, shoot me an e-mail.
D from Sweet Briar