Friday, March 6, 2015

Sweet Briar

So Sweet Briar College is closing. Or maybe it isn't.  And I'm not sure how much to care.  On the one hand, it's kind of easy to dismiss the place, what with the name (inherited, according to Wikipedia, from the former plantation on which it sits), and the school colors (pink and green?!?), and the overall air of gentility and privilege.  I know a few Sweet Briar alumnae (fellow-graduates of the girls' high school I attended, which, at least when I was there, had some of the same atmosphere, and about which I have similar ambivalent feelings, so maybe my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt).  They're very nice, charitable and civic-minded, if perhaps also somewhat sheltered, women.

Still, it's a women's college, founded in a time and place when the availability of higher education for women was still limited, even controversial, and it has made some efforts to open up new fields to women (for instance, it offers an engineering degree).  And it's a college, period -- an accredited, not-for-profit, by all accounts up-to-now fully functional college, with a tenure system and longtime faculty and staff, whose lives are intimately interwoven with the institution (in some cases to the extent of living, and even, according to one article, owning homes on, campus. Not sure how that works, but yikes, that would be a mess to untangle.   I can't help feeling for faculty who, in the face of the ongoing -- for several academic generations now -- job crisis, perhaps took their mentors' advice to make the best of the job they could get, and did just that, and now find themselves unexpectedly adrift at mid- or late-career.  It sounds like staff may have even longer, closer ties to the institution; in some cases multiple members and/or multiple generations of the same family work and/or live there.  They'll be even more adrift, with fewer options.) 

It sounds like part of the point of closing the place down now, before it's financially in extremis, is to make sure there are still funds available to cushion the blow for employees. That sounds like a sensible and compassionate plan, one I'd support.  And the board of trustees seems to have thought the whole thing through.  But I still can't help feeling some sympathy for those who want to keep it open.  Because, well, it's a college.

What do you think? Does it matter if one relatively-small, relatively-privileged college closes? What about the not-so-privileged ones that are in trouble -- e.g. the HBCUs, or the small Catholic colleges founded to serve, and often still serving, the poor?  Are we, as one entrepreneur claims, at the beginning of  a "college implosion"?  If so, is that a bad or a good thing, or does it depend on the circumstances of the particular institutions involved? 


  1. It would not have been the college for me but it's clearly the right one for many others. The corporatization of higher ed is coming very quickly and the closing of any college will probably hasten it.

  2. Although I don't like it, I think simple demographics mean that either some colleges have to close or they all have to shrink. Since shrinking is antithetical to how we usually operate (grow! more programs! grow!) it will have to be former.

    This looks like it was a lovely college though. Shame.

  3. It is sadly ironic that schools that first provided education to women and minorities are among the first to suffer when society as a whole endorses eduction for those same students.

  4. The non-elite HBCUs are in even worse shape and it is a real shame. I once had a number of meetings with HBCU faculty in a program that involved helping them get research projects off the ground and the conditions they worked in were eye-opening. No phones in their offices. No campus IT support. Wages that would make PhD students at elite schools contemplate going on strike. I could go on. These schools have no endowment to speak of and the communities they serve can't afford tuition of almost any sort. It's a vicious spiral. The public battles are over funding for state systems, but in many cases the real casualties are the non-elite HBCUs and Women's Colleges. The withdrawal of public support makes them unsustainable.

    So I'm sad to see this. I suppose that the demographics of Sweet Briar mean that most of the women who would have gone there will have other options. The same can't be said for some of the other institutions in the same boat. The Wellesleys, Spelmans, Howards, and Morehouses will always be fine. But the Sweet Briars, the Stillmans and the Miles Colleges of the world are sadly probably all doomed in the long term.

  5. A friend of mine passed this along on his FB page, and all of us who graduated from the same tiny SLAC in the midwest saw our alma mater in this place. It is co-ed but small and (to me) hideously expensive, and I don't think it has a lot of name recognition outside the Midwest. The alumni in the thread are worried, and they are probably right to be.

    FWIW, I couldn't afford to go there back in the day--my English prof helped me navigate the financial aid morass to get grants and apply for as many scholarships as possible because he didn't want to see me leave for the state school up the road. I took on debt (at the time, the maximum I could borrow was about $17,000 over the 4 years, but this was 20+ years ago).

    I do not regret one second of the time, nor one penny of the money I still owe, because I use the high-quality education I got there every day of my professional life. I am not sure I would have had as good an experience at a state school (not that I am denigrating such places, especially since I teach at one).