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Was Sweet Briar's Board Rash or Reasonable?

Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar College was founded in 1901 when Indiana Fletcher Williams left her entire estate, including the Sweet Briar Plantation, to found an institution in the name of her deceased daughter, Daisy. 114 years later, the school unexpectedly announced its closure – sending shockwaves through alumnae, academia, and Amherst County.  Did the board act prudently, or did it move hastily? 

Nearly three years ago, the governing board at the University of Virginia made a bold and surprising move-- firing the president-- only to encounter a wellspring of anger and disbelief so intense that the decision came undone. Could Sweet Briar see a similar U-turn?

"With the announcement being made that we are closing and all those wheels moving forward, that's something that's very hard to reverse."

That's part-time Sweet Briar faculty member Lynn Rainville, who worries that by announcing the end, the board has already sealed the fate of one college and of many careers.

"It's a tragedy for the faculty and the staff who have given either their entire career or decades of their lives to make this place so special."

They'll get severance pay, this year's seniors will graduate, and Sweet Briar has set up expedited student transfers to four nearby private institutions: Hollins, Randolph, Lynchburg, and Mary Baldwin.

Such planning impresses business writer Megan McArdle as an example of the right way for a cash-burning institution to admit defeat, and she lauds leadership for calling it quits before something dire happens, like the closings she's witnessed when companies realize they can't meet payroll.

"Employees get called in and told there's not going to be a last paycheck. That's the worst possible scenario. It's much better to give people some warning, which Sweet Briar has done."

Sweet Briar's announcement follows the closures of two other private colleges in the Commonwealth: St. Paul's in 2013 and Virginia Intermont in 2014. Both lost accreditation before folding.

Some pundits relish college closures as the catalyst to pop the so-called education bubble, but noted economist William Baumol says society values labor-intensive services.

"As the costs of the training of the faculty members go up, you can't just snap your fingers and say, 'Let's do it more economically."

Alexandria-based consultant Jack Marshall contends that the Sweet Briar board betrayed its mission of educating women.

"When there's life in something that's worth saving, then you go to the mat to save it; you don't just capitulate. I found the decision troubling. It shows a lack of character to me. It shows a tired board."

Marshall discovered, back when he was in college, that his theatrical group was planning to dissolve.

"I put together my own board, we invaded the meeting, and I said, 'Listen, if you guys don't want to keep this organization together and aren't willing to do the work, then turn it over to us, and we'll save it."

Such spirit seems to have motivated the SaveSweetBriar campaign, which hired a law firm and now hints of taking legal action as early as next week.

Volunteer Collean Laney has a message to current Sweet Briar students.

"Certainly apply and get your ducks in a row, but please don't commit to another institution or university quite yet."

In the first seven days, in amounts ranging from $5 to $100,000, the group has raised over $2.7 million toward a goal of $20 million.

"We moved past the crying stage, and we're on to the proving people wrong stage."

This Sunday, Laney and hundreds of other alumnae will converge on campus to welcome the students back-- students whose spring break began two days after their heartbreak. 

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