The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shock over Sweet Briar’s closing turns to somber questions

Placeholder while article actions load

SWEET BRIAR, Va. — The first reactions were of shock: Tears, disbelief, hugs, silence. But then the questions began.

Sweet Briar College’s president stunned faculty, students, alumnae and parents Tuesday when he announced that, because of “insurmountable financial challenges” the women’s college in Virginia would abruptly close this summer. A visitor to campus described how, shortly after noon, every student was summoned to an emergency meeting, down to the last lifeguards ordered to stop watching the pool, and the painful sound that followed the news — almost a collective howl, as hundreds of young women began sobbing all at once.

[Sweet Briar to close because of financial challenges.]

Wednesday was defined by the questions that then poured in, from the sweeping and philosophical to the most minute and practical — everything from what would happen to the college’s rich history and traditions to whether the bookstore, which opened to a long line of tearful students Wednesday morning, had any Sweet Briar t-shirts left.

Colleges are complex operations, and that was brought vividly home Wednesday as an entire community tried to figure out: What now?

Parents asked what would happen to their daughters studying abroad, and about those students who are in Virginia on a student visa; about whether student athletes could talk with coaches at other schools; and about whether there would be grief counseling available on campus. Students — many wearing the school colors, pink and green — asked about their ongoing research projects, how they could transfer credits to other schools, and whether juniors could walk in graduation ceremonies this spring if they finished up their courses over the summer. Faculty members asked when their salaries would end and what would happen to the homes they own on campus. People in the surrounding rural area asked what would happen to the land — more than 3,000 acres of historic Virginia beauty — and to the local economy.

Many alumnae asked: Why didn’t we know about this? Who failed us?

And: How do we stop it?

On Twitter, messages began to be linked with a common hashtag, #savesweetbriar.

A Web site appeared, with a $250 million fundraising goal, and a slogan: “Think is for girls.”

[Sweet Briar to close because of financial challenges.]

A ‘bucket list’ of things to do before graduating from Sweet Briar College became bittersweet for students this week. (Photo: Katie Craig.)

Sweet Briar is meeting a fate that has befallen many all-women’s, small liberal arts schools across the U.S., a list that has fallen from 230 five decades ago to just a little more than 40 today. An increasing financial squeeze and dwindling enrollment has forced many into shutdowns, mergers and coed conversions.

James F. Jones, Sweet Briar’s president for the past year, fielded scores, perhaps hundreds, of questions about what the school’s leaders had looked at before taking such a drastic step. He said mergers with other institutions, co-education and other dramatic changes were all considered, but at the end of the day, they were left with an ever-smaller student population (523 now, with a tuition discount of 62 cents on every dollar.)

“You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to figure out this won’t work,” he told parents Wednesday afternoon. “The numbers don’t compute.”

The school’s $84 million endowment is not anywhere near enough to save the school, Jones said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “We’d need $250 million into the permanent endowment tomorrow morning.”

He said that $56 million of that total are in restricted funds — some of the money dates back more than a century to the school’s earliest years — that the school can only use for narrow purposes.

Jones said that the school plans to petition the state attorney general, Mark W. Herring, in order to free up the funds so that the school can use it to offer severances to faculty members, pay back creditors and cover the costs of shutting down the college.

He said the school plans to sell the 3,250-acre campus and will soon be looking for buyers.

“All I do is tear up these days,” Jones said. “I would have given anything to save it.”

Many alumnae said the news was completely out of the blue. They knew there had been an addition to the library recently, a new gym built several years ago, a cafeteria before that; they knew there were struggles, as at many private liberal-arts colleges, but they weren’t told how dire the school’s finances were and how absolute the choices about its future had come to be.

Laurel Lee Harvey, a 1990 graduate who led fundraising efforts for her class, said in an e-mail that alumnae were blindsided. Many were asking why they were never called to step up. “We were never asked to provide more help. If the request had been made, the answer would have been an emphatic yes. The world needs to know that Sweet Briar women did not desert their alma mater.”

“Social media exploded yesterday across our community,” Harvey said. “We have alums ready to dive in and assist with fundraising, as well as looking at the legal and ethical dimensions of the decision. I think a significant question exists as to whether the board acted as conscientiously as it should have in never raising this concern in a significant way with its primary donor constituency.”

Hallsey Brandt, 21, a junior from Norfolk, Va., was one of many wondering where they would finish college. The president and deans had assured students that four colleges nearby would work for a seamless transition for Sweet Briar students, and all day Wednesday school officials were getting messages from other institutions offering to waive transfer deadlines and other requirements. But “we came here for a reason,” Brandt said. “We didn’t chose Hollins or Lynchburg College or Randolph College.”

She guesses the students’ long-held traditions would disappear, too: The fierce competition among the classes to paint the rock and an old hitching post, the seniors who become engaged will no longer play the “ring game,” where the women pass around the ring and guess who will soon be married.

The campus bookshop on Wednesday was emptied, as students cleared shelves of decals, mugs and glassware. Lynn Lewis, the store manager, said that supplies were dwindling Wednesday and that the shop will not re-stock Sweet Briar merchandise.

Lewis said the store has seen a constant stream of students and alumnae since the news was announced Tuesday. Facing overwhelming demand, Lewis said she shut down the bookshop’s Web site. On Wednesday morning, students had formed a line in front of the door before the shop opened.

“Everyone wants to get something while its still here,” Lewis said. “It’s just a sad time for everybody.”

Richard Lloyd, the father of a graduate of the class of 2007 who was shopping in the book store, said that among women’s colleges, “Sweet Briar was the crown jewel of all of them.” Lloyd noted that there are no visible hints of financial distress on campus; The school’s buildings are pristine and well-maintained.

Lloyd browsed the racks to pick up pink and green Sweet Briar bags and clothes. “I wish I could buy the whole place,” he said.

A sign in the store read: “All sales final.”

Svrluga reported from Washington. Steven Petrow contributed to this report.