One year ago, Sweet Briar College (SBC) was doomed.
Inside the “pink bubble,” as the bucolic Lynchburg, Virginia campus is often called, shock and disbelief mounted on March 3, 2015 as then-President James F. Jones Jr. announced that due to “insurmountable financial challenges” the women’s college would be shutting its doors forever.
That shock quickly spread to the alumnae base of SBC, as the college posted a video message to Facebook alerting the broader community to the announcement students had just learned.
“I went from shock to anger,” Tracy Stuart, SBC class of 1993, told Business Insider.
Stuart is the alumna whose quick action and resolve led to the formation of an organisation that eventually helped save the school.
She explained that shortly after the news broke of the school’s closing, SBC community members began discussing their options in a Facebook group. Many seemed resigned to the news.
However, Stuart said, “Something in me couldn’t let it go. I felt we needed action and we needed it quickly.”
Sweet Briar is a 115-year-old liberal arts college well-regarded for its spirit of independent thinkers. The unexpected closure certainly stunned its deeply loyal alumnae base.
But elsewhere, news of its closure similarly shocked the world of academia. Questions began to filter down about the future of single-gender education and liberal arts education.
Those with tangential expertise in higher education also piled on. Mark Cuban warned about an impending “student loan bubble,” that would eventually burst and leave students stranded in its wake without a school.
“As this little college saw, there will be other students that get their heart set on one college, and it won’t be there when they graduate,” Cuban said in an interview with Business Insider.
Stuart ignored such discussions and was singularly focused on building a team to fight the decision. The day after the announcement of the closure she began reaching out to law firms in state of Virginia. Stuart said that many firms were hesitant to take case, and advised her that it was not a case they would likely win.
However, Ashley Taylor, a lawyer at Virginia-based Troutman Sanders, took on the case, instilling in Stuart a confidence that they would win.
Next, Stuart hired an expert in crisis communications to run the public relations arm of the group she was beginning to build.
Her PR person helped drive the messaging early on.
“We made sure to say that there was a group of people working on this, even though it was just me at that point,” Stuart said. “We wanted to instill faith in the crowds.”
Two weeks after SBC’s closure announcement, Stuart had filed the 501(c)(3) paperwork to found Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., and she brought on a board of directors for the organisation.
“I barely slept and barely ate those first few weeks,” she said.
At the time, Stuart was living in Martha’s Vineyard and working in residential real estate. She stopped working to completely focus her attention on the effort to save Sweet Briar.
After the legal and PR teams were assembled, Stuart then began ticking away at another question that vexed her. “How can an institution with an $85 million endowment be on the brink of financial ruin?”
She hired financial analysts and forensic accountants to take a look at the school’s financial situation. That led her to find
red flags she believed may have indicated the prior administration made errors in judgment.
For example, though there was declining attendance over the past few years, the school was giving a higher percentage of tuition discount rates to students, Stuart said. She also pointed to the fact that the director of admissions role was left vacant when it was most needed during the period of declining applications.
Saving Sweet Briar, Inc, also worked to help drive fundraising efforts. The work proved important when the group negotiated a mediated settlement to help keep the school open. The agreement indicated they had to pay $12 million in order for the school to stay open. They were able to pay that sum, and, in June, a judge approved a deal to keep the school open.
Now, the school isn’t just subsisting. It seems to be thriving. In January, Sweet Briar reported a record number of applications for the next academic year. That’s a pretty sweeping change from the “insurmountable financial challenges” the school faced last March.
“By closing the way that they closed, which was very suddenly without warning, I think it ignited this group of angry alums to step up and fight harder,” Stuart said.
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