Maggie Saylor Patrick is a 2007 graduate of Sweet Briar College who serves as the Director of the Alumni Annual Fund at Carleton College. She was previously the Director of Development for Women’s Initiatives at Miami University, where she also earned a master’s degree in political science. A former board member at Sweet Briar, she says the school suffered from a failure of leadership so profound that it led to the decision to close the 114-year-old private women’s college in Virginia. Here’s her opinion:
On March 3, Sweet Briar College’s board announced the school’s closure due to declining enrollment and insufficient funds. College leaders say the decision to close is “simple math.” The reality is even simpler, but more reversible: poor leadership.
From 2007-2012, I served on the Board of Directors. During that time I experienced a strong shift in Sweet Briar’s governing culture that concerned me; I shared these concerns privately with friends and colleagues but allowed myself to be convinced by Sweet Briar’s leadership that this new order was necessary in tough economic times — that dissent or meddling would further endanger our stability.
These changes are primarily linked to the hiring of Dr. Jo Ellen Parker as president [from 2009-2014] and the subsequent, drastic reshuffling of Sweet Briar’s leadership. While staff changes can be a natural effect of a new presidency, we witnessed an almost complete turnover—and then drastic reduction—of the senior staff and other critical administrative positions across campus.
At the same time, new policies discouraged active trustee engagement with critical campus endeavors like the strategic planning process and the college’s reaccreditation.
We saw updates at each meeting but were given little insight to the conversations and data behind them. We were discouraged from directly contacting any staff on campus to better understand the decisions we were making. All communication was to be funneled through the president.
We were also discouraged from ever speaking publicly about decisions with which we dissented. “The role of the board is to govern, not to manage,” we were told, a mantra reinforced by a consultant from the Association of Governing Boards.
This statement is not untrue, but is easily exploited.
We received fewer and fewer communications regarding events on campus. Troubling incidents, from the death of a professor to the appointment of a new board member, turned out to have a larger story than initially revealed. Often we received only perfunctory explanations of events, sometimes after public statements had been released.
We were told these matters were taken care of by the president and executive committee.
I suppose I simply could not believe these people, who had excellent credentials and strong ties to Sweet Briar, would lead us astray.
The only defense I can offer is that we were told this was healthy board leadership, and that the recession had pushed us into hard choices. That we needed a president who could make the tough calls. I was inexperienced enough to believe it.
I didn’t know who to turn to; I was afraid my concerns and the others I’d heard were isolated, separate from the broader board membership and pertaining to relatively localized incidents.
With hindsight these warning signs are much clearer, but the shifts were gradual enough that I don’t think any of us could have anticipated they would lead to the breathtaking downward spiral of the last two years.
Many of us wish now we had pushed harder for answers, and have joined the fight to save Sweet Briar in an attempt to make up for our prior silence.
I urge other current and former board members to join me.
I reiterate that Sweet Briar faces this situation not because of a lack of interest on the part of its stakeholders or the market, as has been claimed. The school faces closure because key people in positions of power poorly governed the school.
They froze out the broader board membership and even fired members who disagreed with their policies. They ignored strong enrollment management strategies urged by the board just a few years ago and instead drastically raised the discount rate. A $90 million+ fundraising plan was created and approved but then abandoned.
They fired or pushed out leaders in key positions, including the Dean of Enrollment Management, the Vice President of Development, and the Directors of Marketing, Alumnae Relations, and the Annual Fund. None of these five critical, revenue-increasing positions was replaced.
Sweet Briar’s future has not been lost, but stolen.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of women’s college graduates continually attribute their success to their single-sex education, and that their testimonials are regularly dismissed, is only further reinforcement of our society’s willingness to ignore women’s voices and experiences.
Sweet Briar and her sister colleges hold a desperately needed place in the world and that place should not disappear because a few people who faced hard decisions rejected the resources available to them and refused to own up to previous mistakes.
As a higher education professional, I am grateful for and proud of my Sweet Briar degree every day and know my alma mater offers one of the finest educations in the country. We have the power in us to create a new future — our own future — and we will rise.