A professor at an imploding Virginia college explains why it's irresponsible to close the school

Sweet Briar College Students CampusScreenshot via YouTubeSweet Briar College students walk on campus.

Sweet Briar College psychology professor Dan Gottlieb will most likely be out of a job after this semester.

Sweet Briar — a 114-year-old rural Virginia all-women school — recently announced it would be shutting its doors at the end of the academic year.

Gottlieb has become one of the administration’s most prolific on-campus critics, producing a series of charts on his Facebook page that appear to contradict many of the administration’s reasons for closing.

“The narrative that we’ve been told for years, frankly, just doesn’t fit with the data,” Gottlieb told Business Insider. “Certainly if we close, that means that half the colleges in the country should have closed if this was the responsible decision.”

Since the announcement, questions have been raised about Sweet Briar’s reasons for closing. While school seemed to be in stable financial health, Sweet Briar leadership cited insurmountable enrollment trends that would prevent the college from operating long-term.

Gottlieb recently posted a longer look at the college’s decision to close. With his permission, we’ve reprinted that post below:

The neocons had an unwavering belief about how an invasion of Iraq would go. They were shown to be wrong in the same way anyone who predicts specific outcomes of complicated processes across long stretches of time are wrong. They underestimate variance. For the neocons, every step had to go right, and any deviation was likely to lead to a less positive outcome. They picked one overly optimistic story about the future, when any particular story was extremely unlikely. It was an error of arrogance.

I’m starting to think the same thing happened with Sweet Briar, that members of the Board have an ideological belief in the future of higher education and that they think they can predict its trajectory 10-20 years down the line. They, too, are making the mistake of underestimating variance. In this case, deviations from their expectations are almost certain to be on the positive side. They are picking one particularly negative view of the future that is almost impossibly unlikely to come about. It is also an error of arrogance. Looking at financial information for Sweet Briar, for them to be right, a majority of colleges will have to have closed in the next decade or so. This won’t happen any more than Iraq was transformed according to plan. And, yes, I’m sure people will profit on this, too, and it will probably be people with a lot of money already.

Just like with Iraq, a triggering event was needed (WMD). A particularly bad year in terms of enrollment and tuition revenue is that trigger here. And just like with Iraq, we can look back and determine the series of events that led to this point. In this case, here are what I think those events were:

1. The financial crash of 2007-2008. Although the market has recovered, and our endowment mostly has, as well, the up and down resulted in a redistribution from unrestricted to restricted funds. I’m not sure why this happened, but it’s not unique to Sweet Briar. Agnes Scott, for example, saw a truly tremendous redistribution, on the order of 200,000,000.

2. Tuition increases starting in around 2010. In 2010, Sweet Briar raised tuition to be above average for the sector. This coincided with an increase in the discount rate. This is a game colleges play, and the argument for raising both is that people respond well to being told they’re getting a big discount. But this always seemed strange to me, and I suspect it’s better to lower tuition and the discount rate. Converse College did that recently and reaped the benefits.

3. [Former Dean of Admissions] Ken Huus leaving in January 2012. Since Ken, Sweet Briar had one Admissions Director who lasted less than a year, then moved its Chief of Staff into a position that more and more cannot be done by anyone but a specialist. Not her fault at all.

4. Marketing. Sweet Briar was plagued by intermittent personnel problems and the lack of a unified vision. As a result, it never figured out how to sell what it was. This is not to blame at all the current Director of Marketing — a vision is bigger than any department or individual.

5. Alumnae giving. Alumnae giving has been on the decline across the sector, but this was slightly more pronounced at Sweet Briar. I’m not sure why that is, though I have suspicions, but the Board clearly thought that trend would continue. (More on that later).

These are all manageable, if you believe in the college and its mission. But, frankly, the ideologues on the Board did not. Or, at least, this is what I think now, giving everyone involved the benefit of the doubt (and I reserve the right to change my views:) Even with the benefit of the doubt, I am convinced there are at least implicit class and race biases leading some in power to see the modern Sweet Briar (and a future Sweet Briar) as a place becoming too different from the one they loved. And that needs to be said, just as President Jones’ comments that demonstrate those biases need to be condemned and opposed.

Information about finances will be coming out sometime soon. It makes me sadder about this situation. So unnecessary.

As a colleague reminded me, this is serious stuff, don’t be silly and snarky. Yes. So the financial information, when presented, will be a more somber affair.

I still believe this one can be won, but it will take both passion and numbers. We have both, but we will need more people on our side, more pressure applied, so please keep speaking up, loudly and clearly, recruit others, and keep fighting.

Sweet Briar College declined to comment about Professor Gottlieb’s post.

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