By Caleigh Wells
Sweet Briar College First Year Rosie Powers walked into an unexpected meeting with hundreds of her female classmates last week with no idea that her life was about to change drastically.
“When our president told us to have a meeting we thought it was going to be about a death of a student, but in fact it was the death of our college,” Powers said. “Everyone was sobbing.”
On March 3, 532 students and more than 300 faculty and staff at the 114-year-old campus were told that this would be their last term together. The school’s board of directors made the decision to close the school citing “insurmountable financial challenges.”
Decision goes viral
The decision went viral minutes later.
Lexington resident Anne Blanken graduated from Sweet Briar in 1950. She said the school’s alumnae were also blindsided by the news.
“We had no inkling that anything like this was going on,” she said. “As far as I knew the college had a nice endowment and everything was going fine.”
Interim President James Jones told the Sweet Briar community the college will close Aug. 25. Jones took over last year when the previous president left to become president of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Senior Emily Brooks is a member of what will apparently be Sweet Briar’s final graduating class. She said in an email that she was devastated when she heard the announcement. She felt her roommate grab her hand, she said, and felt nauseous.
Brooks and Powers both say they chose Sweet Briar because it offered an exceptional equestrian program and a high-quality education. The school sits on 3,250 acres, which includes riding trails and other facilities. It has six riding teams.
Brooks and Powers said the personal relationships they enjoy with the professors sets Sweet Briar apart from other schools. The Princeton Review ranked Sweet Briar third on its “Most Accessible Professors” list. The school has also made Forbes’ List of the top 10 all-women’s colleges.
Fewer all-women schools
Sweet Briar was founded in 1901, when it was one of hundreds of women’s colleges in the U.S. Only 60 remain.
In a video released by the college, Board of Directors Chair Paul Rice says that even though the college has seen an increase in applications, there has been a decline in the number of women who choose to enroll.
“Fewer and fewer students are choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal arts colleges,” Rice said, “and fewer women today are choosing single-sex education.”
The school has been increasing tuition discounts through financial aid and scholarships to attract students. So for the 2014-15 school year, students on average were paying 38 cents on each tuition dollar to attend. Still, enrollment is 100 students below the board’s goal of 800.
And while the school still has an $84 million endowment, Jones said in a conference call March 3, only $28 million of that is discretionary money. Jones says options like coeducation and merging with another school would take time and money that Sweet Briar does not have.
Alumnae and some other members of the Sweet Briar community were informed of the decision by email.
“I can tell you, within one minute of it going out, I had two phone calls,” said alumna Martha Roberts of Tulsa, Okla. “I likened it to somebody you really loved dying in a car crash. I got goosebumps.”
The school has arranged “teach-out agreements” with four colleges within 70 miles. Lynchburg College, Mary Baldwin College, Randolph College and Hollins University have created an expedited transfer process and will accept all student course credits from Sweet Briar.
Alumnae and students unhappy with well-kept secret
The college’s board acknowledged that it had realized 18 months ago that the school might have to close. Students and alumnae said they were frustrated that the situation had been kept from them.
According to the college’s website, school officials worried that going public with that possibility would have lowered the institution’s bond rating and threatened its ability to pay off its debts.
After an email and two phone calls from the Rockbridge Report, the school’s communications office said no one was available for comment.
School officials have said they do not know what will happen to the campus itself yet.
Some in the Sweet Briar community say they are not giving up. Powers says the alumnae have come together and begun raising money to keep the school open.
“They just want their campus back up and running,” she said. “Students are hoping that they can somehow turn it around and make it Sweet Briar College again.”
Linda Lucas Steele, Sweet Briar class of 1975, lives in Roanoke and worked in public relations at Hollins before retiring. She says the suddenness of Sweet Briar’s announcement shocked some alumnae into action.
“Time will tell if those efforts will develop and be successful,” she said.
Emily Dallas is one of many juniors planning to enroll in the summer credits the school is offering once the current term ends, hoping to graduate with a Sweet Briar degree. She said the news was shocking but trusts her classmates will overcome the challenges they face.
“Sweet Briar embeds resilience in all of its students,” Dallas said in an email. “And we are ready to take on whatever the world throws at us.”