The Unfortunate Fate of Sweet Briar’s Professors

For longtime faculty and staff, the sudden closure of the small liberal-arts women's college comes as a very gloomy surprise.

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine how any school with such extensive grounds, impressive buildings, and a full staff that educated only a few hundred women could remain financially viable. The restrictions outlined in Sweet Briar’s former missions, wills, and trusts made change all but impossible. Still, as inevitable as it may be, it’s worth acknowledging that the school’s closure has taken an enormous toll on people who’ve devoted their lives to liberal-arts education. And many fear that Sweet Briar serves as a case study for what will play out at similar schools in the coming years.

 

With rolling hills and horse stables, Gothic lecture halls, and a name straight out of an American Girl novel, Sweet Briar College is, by almost all accounts, an idyllic place to work. Faculty members teach three small classes a semester at this liberal-arts women’s institution in rural Virginia. Rather than pump out cutting-edge research articles, they are encouraged to support the college’s mission and excel in the classroom. And the job comes with all the usual perks of being a college professor: time and freedom to think deeply about fascinating topics and, theoretically, a guaranteed job for life.

As John Ashbrook, the chairman of the school’s history department, recently explained,” coming here was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Camillia Smith Barnes, an assistant professor of math, echoed Ashbrook’s praise: “It is a very special place,” she said.

But Ashbrook and Barnes might as well have spoken in the past tense. Last Tuesday, this world came to an end. At  9 am, faculty and staff received an email from the president asking them to “make every effort to attend” an important meeting in the campus chapel at noon. It was at this meeting that the employees learned—for the first time—that financial pressures are forcing the school to shut its doors once the spring semester ends.

The school has been having trouble attracting students to a woman’s college, the president explained. Revenue from the increasingly discounted tuition and a restricted endowment couldn’t cover expenses—particularly those that were arguably quite lavish. Some employees, many of whom live on campus along with students, were reported to have wept silently in the pews as they heard the news.

This story has reverberated across the higher-education community over the past week, as many worry that other small colleges may soon suffer the same fate. It’s already happening in some pockets. The governing board of Tennessee Temple University, a Christian liberal-arts college, for example, recently voted to shut down the school this May and merge with another Christian campus in North Carolina. It may be too hard for the small liberal-arts college model to survive in modern times.

Last week, I spoke with several faculty members from Sweet Briar College to get their perspective on the unfolding events and learn of their plans for the future. After all, while students are certainly struggling as they transfer credits to nearby schools and figure out whether they can graduate on time, employees are facing their own challenges during this process, too.

The school will remain open for a few remaining months. When classes resume next Monday after this week’s spring break, students will still need to take final exams and complete research papers. Faculty, meanwhile, will still conduct lectures and grade assignments—all while managing a major life change and supporting students as they make their next plans.

Faculty and students have these remaining months to savor Sweet Briar’s impressive 3,250-acre campus, once the site of a tobacco and corn plantation that relied heavily on slave labor. Many of the school’s present-day buildings were built by Ralph Adams Cram, the famous American collegiate architect who later designed structures at Princeton University and West Point. Among the other buildings on campus is a renovated farmhouse known as the Sweet Briar House, which was the residence of the 19th-century plantation owner and now serves as the president’s home.

“We knew there were problems, but we didn’t know that the closure was so near. Everyone was digging in and thinking through different strategies.”

Students can exercise and hang out with friends atthe Fitness and Athletic Center. They can run on the three-lane elevated track or play a game of racquetball or squash on two courts. They can shoot hoops in a gym that was remodeled in 2009 and swim a few laps in the school’s Prothro Natatorium. Afterward, they can grab a coffee at the bistro or do some studying at The Mary Cochran Library, which was built in 1929 by Cram and is one of four libraries housed at the campus.

Other facilities include the Babock Fine Arts Center, where students can find the Black Box Theatre; three dance studios; and the 652-seat Murchison Lane Auditorium. At the Harriet Howell Rodgers Riding Center, students can enjoy the country’s largest indoor college equestrian arena, which includes an enclosed lunging ring, seven teaching fields, and miles of trails. Its stables house 60 horses, 40 of which are owned by the college.

These amenities supplement a prolific academic program: The school boasts 46 majors, minors, and certificate programs in areas ranging from arts management to Asian studies. And unlike many higher-education institutions, here the faculty and students are a close-knit group; several professors emphasized to me that the Sweet Briar community feels like a family. It’s these aspects—from the sense of intimacy on campus to its sophisticated, bucolic grounds—that many faculty highlighted when describing why Sweet Briar is (or was) such a wonderful place to work.

Needless to say, these features are very expensive to maintain.

The financial problems at the school, according to faculty, weren’t a big secret. Sweet Briar, like similar private colleges around the country, had been facing mounting costs, a decline in interest in liberal arts, and increasingly budget-conscious customers. The administration found it more and more difficult to attract enough students, especially ones who could afford the school’s full ticket price of $47,095.

Several faculty explained that it grew harder to attract women interested in attending in a single-sex school in a remote location—even one with such spectacular campus and individualized attention. Facing competition with more prestigious women’s institutions such as Wellesley College and Smith College, the school began offering significantly discounted tuition rates to prospective freshmen in an attempt to attract new types of students and improve diversity. According to the U.S. News and World Report, more than three-fourths of the college’s full-time undergraduates receive some form of need-based financial aid, the average award amounting to $22,654.

But the discounts failed to buoy student numbers and, according to officials, this compounded financial pressures and took a big toll on revenue. The student population, which once totaled nearly 700 students annually, steadily dwindled. Last fall, the number of full-time students on campus dropped to 561. By this spring, there were only 532.

Faculty accepted many cutbacks in recent years, including salary freezes and compromises on their retirement benefits.

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