Supporters of embattled Sweet Briar College seemed to score a massive victory this weekend, as an agreement to keep the college open at least one more year thwarted an earlier decision to close the 114-year-old women’s college this summer.
But the deal most likely won’t mean the college will stay open after that year, according to Ronald G. Ehrenberg, who heads Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute.
“[T]he new president and board face a very hard road because the finances are still very perilous, many of the existing students have already made plans to transfer to other institutions, and it is unlikely that they will be able to attract a large first year class,” he told Busienss Insider in an email message.
The deal to save the school — reached between the school’s leadership, activist alumnae, and Virginia’s attorney general — gives Sweet Briar at least $US12 million raised by an alumnae group called “Saving Sweet Briar,” as well as $US16 million that will be unlocked from the college’s endowment by Virginia AG Mark Herring.
The agreement also stipulates that the majority of the board will step down, as will Sweet Briar president James F. Jones.
While this may look like an overall win for the various parties who have been fighting to keep Sweet Briar alive, the new leadership still faces significant challenges. Here’s more from Ehrenberg, who said he’s “very pessimistic” about the long-term future of the college:
It is wonderful that the attorney general has given the interested alumni group and a new board that opportunity to keep the school open. It is wonderful that he also has removed the restrictions that were on much of the endowment to allow more of the endowment to be used for general current operations. But the new president and board face a very hard road because the finances are still very perilous, many of the existing students have already made plans to transfer to other institutions, and it is unlikely that they will be able to attract a large first year class. Similarly some faculty have already left and given that it appears from news stories that they will not make commitments to hire faculty back until August, one might expect that they will lose some others also. I wish the institution well but I am very pessimistic about its long-run future.
Sweet Briar’s new leadership — which will likely be headed up by former Bridgewater College president Philip Stone — has a hard path ahead. The very real problems that faced the college before the decision to close was announced in March may have gotten even worse in the past few months.
For example, Inside Higher Ed has a good breakdown of Sweet Briar’s troubling enrollment numbers:
Sweet Briar had an undergraduate enrollment of about 561 students in the academic year that just ended. Since then, 134 have graduated and another 231 have requested final transcripts, an indicator that they have transferred to another institution, or plan to. The college did not admit students for a new freshman class. The upcoming class is likely to be small.
Whatever happens in the college’s future, one thing seems clear from this weekend’s agreement. Sweet Briar’s departing leadership did not do enough to save the school.
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