Sweet Briar College in Virginia (Photo by Aaron Mahler)

After Sweet Briar College’s president suddenly announced in March that the private liberal arts women’s college would close forever, people began debating what happened and why. Maggie Saylor Patrick, a former board member, argued, “College leaders say the decision to close is ‘simple math.’ The reality is even simpler, but more reversible: poor leadership.” 

[The leaders failed: A former board members speaks out.]

Not true, responds Diane Dalton, a member of the Sweet Briar College board of directors and the chair of its governance committee. Dalton, a 1967 alumna who went on to receive a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, wrote her own response to Patrick’s piece. She said the distress Patrick expressed is understandable — but she disagrees with her account: 

By Diane Dalton

All critical matters affecting the College were considered in Board committees, and all critical decisions came before the entire Board. The Board did not fire anyone, a concept foreign to college and university board governance. Rather, some Board members rotated off the Board as the bylaws specified after completing terms of service. Others, after being encouraged to abide by standards of civil discourse and board policies of confidentiality, decided to submit their resignations.

Three of six Cabinet members in office when President Jo Ellen Parker was appointed served throughout her term, and two of those still serve, with terms ranging from 13 to more than 30 years. Three others resigned (most after longer-than-average time in office) to assume other positions and were replaced, in some cases by promotion from within. All key positions have been continually occupied, sometimes after a national search or in two circumstances by very competent and experienced professionals on an interim basis with Board agreement.

It is important to note as well that reductions in administrative staff were a response to Sweet Briar’s growing financial problems and were identified in collaboration with faculty and staff and approved by the Board.

Nearly 800 people, including members of the Board, campus community and alumnae, were fully involved in the strategic planning exercise that led to the “Plan for Sustainable Excellence.”  The Board, on which Ms. Patrick then served, unanimously approved the plan.

The assertions that both a plan to raise $90 million and a strong enrollment strategy were abandoned neglect key facts: a feasibility study concluded $90 million was not achievable, while declining enrollments and yield from increased applications meant the admissions strategy was flawed, not strong. Moreover, retention was as much a problem as recruitment, with only three-fourths of enrolled students staying for the second year and only slightly more than one-half graduating in four years.

Despite our collective passionate belief in the power of women’s education, this belief was not enough to enable Sweet Briar to attract and retain the numbers of students it needed to survive much less thrive.

[Sweet Briar to close because of ‘financial challenges.’]

Ms. Patrick is frankly misguided in her complaints that Board members were discouraged from directly contacting any staff on campus to better understand the decisions we were making and “discouraged from ever speaking publicly about decisions with which we dissented.”  In fact, she herself notes that these are standard practices according to the Association of Governing Boards, which defines the appropriate responsibilities of board members as relating to policy and strategy and those of the president to operations and tactics.

Commitment to the belief in the value of a women’s college education—which I as a Sweet Briar graduate proudly share—does not override irrefutable evidence that women’s colleges are not thriving (whereas there were 250 women’s colleges 50 years ago, today there are fewer than 45, and many of these admit men into their graduate programs).

We cannot ignore the realities of Sweet Briar’s enrollment decline and the over-spending of the endowment in the 1990s and early years of the 2000s in the noble but unfulfilled hope that “if we build” new programs and buildings “they will come.”

Jo Ellen Parker inherited a college that was in financial trouble, mirroring circumstances at many small, underendowed liberal arts colleges, particularly those in rural areas. She worked valiantly with the campus, the board and the alumnae to create a strategic plan to sustain Sweet Briar while retaining as much of its quality as possible.

President Parker provided notably strong leadership at a time when a perfect storm of external forces beyond her control was brewing and which eventually overwhelmed a precious but vulnerable institution.

[Virginia Supreme Court to hear oral arguments over Sweet Briar closure]

[The 114-year-old college has a rich history]