The president of a women’s college in rural Virginia is defending the school’s abrupt decision earlier this month to close its doors despite having the funds to continue on for at least several years.
Because of the abrupt nature of Sweet Briar’s announcement and the questions still surrounding its financials, many alumnae are asking why the school didn’t explore more options to save itself — such as a fundraising campaign, admitting male students, or a merger with a larger college.
Sweet Briar Interim President James F. Jones seems to be responding to some of this criticism now, speaking with The New York Times, as well as participating in a Q&A with local Lynchburg, Virginia newspaper The News & Advance.
Here are his responses to three of the most common questions surrounding the school’s decision to close:
Some alumnae question why they weren’t told about the school’s financial worries years ago, when they may have been able to donate money and keep Sweet Briar alive.
However, both Sweet Briar president Jones and Paul Rice, the Sweet Briar board chairman, told The New York Times that “Sweet Briar’s rich-girl days were long gone.” Similarly, one professor said today’s Sweet Briar is no longer the “horsy school on the hill,” according to The New York Times.
Jones told The New York Times that for students who entered Sweet Briar in fall 2014, 37% are first-generation college students, 32% are minorities, and 43% received Pell grants — federal financial aid grants for low-income undergraduates.
Sweet Briar determined in 2011 that the alumnae’s changing demographics made it impossible to effectively conduct a large-scale fundraiser, Sweet Briar’s vice president for finance Scott Shank told The News & Advance.
Another path that critics say Sweet Briar could have explored, as some of its peers have, is taking on male students and becoming a coeducational college.
However, it appears that the college’s financials would have prohibited any move Sweet Briar potentially made to set up the school for male students.
“The endowment we have never could have supported a move to coeducation,” Jones told Inside Higher Ed when Sweet Briar first announced it was closing.
Here’s more from Jones’ conversation with IHE earlier this month on Sweet Briar becoming co-ed:
Jones said that, at Sweet Briar, going coeducational did not seem like a simple solution. He said that such a move would have required lots of money for scholarships and facilities, and he wasn’t subtle about the purpose of the spending. “We would need scholarships to basically buy males,” he said.
Rice elaborated on the projected increased spending in The New York Times.
“You don’t just take ‘ladies’ off of every other bathroom door and put ‘men’ up,” Rice said. “You have to add programs and facilities, athletics. All of these things take significant investment and time.”
There are questions as to why, rather than close, Sweet Briar didn’t pursue a merger with another college, or even the possibility of being absorbed into a larger school.
While Jones admitted there were discussions about this option, they were ultimately unfruitful, again due to Sweet Briar’s financials. As Jones explained to The News & Advance:
There’s $US28 million of maintenance and $US25 million of bonds [connected to Sweet Briar and its campus] that’s a pretty significant thing, that [as the president of another college] you’ve got to go to your board, or God forbid, if you are a public institution, you’ve got to face your state legislature in Richmond, saying ‘you know that we need $US53 million to take over Sweet Briar.’
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