A Sweet Briar College student walks past a building at the school in Sweet Briar, Va. The school is scheduled to close in August. (Steve Helber/AP)

Since the unexpected announcement that Sweet Briar College would close forever at the end of August, after 114 years as a private women’s college in Virginia, people have been debating what happened and why.

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

Some agreed with the school’s leadership that declining enrollment and tuition revenue and over-dependence on the endowment added up to an unsustainable financial future; others contested those numbers and that conclusion. An unusual aspect of the debate has been the open back-and-forth among former and current board members about leadership.

Recently, Diane Dalton, an alumna who is a member of the Sweet Briar College board of directors and chair of its governance committee, argued that the board worked collaboratively and appropriately but in the end the financial problems were too much to solve.

[Sweet Briar’s leaders didn’t kill off the school. External forces did.]

Dalton closed by saying that former president “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. …

“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.”

Richard Leslie, whose granddaughter is a 2002 alumna, was a member of the Board of Directors of Sweet Briar College for seven years, until June 2014. In the following opinion article, he disagrees:

By Richard Leslie

“Diane Dalton’s piece on Sweet Briar College’s planned closing describes a Board with which, even with seven years’ service, I am unfamiliar.

During the five-year term of the Presidency of Jo Ellen Parker, rather than none, all critical decisions were made by a small subset of the Executive Committee of which Ms. Dalton was a part.

The full board was occasionally asked to ratify decisions, which they dutifully did.

Dalton is correct that no board member was ‘fired’ per se, although I was asked to resign (and did so in June 2014) by the Chairman for unspecified reasons, and his decision was ratified by the Executive Committee.

Five other members resigned over the previous two years out of frustration at the ham-handed, myopic and dictatorial way board affairs were conducted.

Although transparency and inclusion were preached, they were never practiced.

As far as senior staff positions are concerned, during President Parker’s term, the vice president of finance resigned. The academic dean of the faculty resigned. The director of development resigned. Two successive deans of admissions resigned. Two successive directors of marketing resigned. The alumnae director was reduced in rank.

In short, every senior staff position was replaced, some twice, in a five-year period.

Contrary to Ms. Dalton’s recollection, no administrative positions were eliminated but an additional one was created, that of chief of staff.

We did have a planned program, introduced by Parker, to reduce faculty over a five-year period from a ratio of 8 to 1 to 10 to 1.

Hardly draconian, and long overdue, in my estimation.

The “Plan for Sustainable Excellence” (only the third strategic plan in seven years) did involve the entire college over a two-year period and it was, in fact, endorsed by the full board, some of whom were just happy to not hear any more platitudinous fluff replete with unrealistic numbers.

Dalton is correct that “admissions strategy was flawed.”

If only I could have gotten her and our ostrich-like colleagues to make that admission three years earlier, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today.

Upon the entrance of Jo Ellen Parker, all board members were specifically instructed not to contact a member of the Senior Staff without first obtaining permission of the relevant committee chair and the president. They even brought in a coach from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), an organization solely funded by the presidential budgets of our nation’s colleges, to reinforce this stifling of involvement.

As I can personally attest, those who even accidentally violated this rule were reprimanded by the president.

This came to be a board largely created and certainly dominated by the president.  Her dictates were carried out by an all-too-obedient chairman and endorsed by a small coterie of the executive committee.

Rather than inheriting a college in trouble, Parker inherited a college that had turned the corner on admissions and reduced endowment draw to 6.5 percent.

After her arrival, admissions declined and endowment draw grew to the unsustainable level of 9 percent.

The causes were all internal and not external, no matter what Ms. Dalton claims.

Are all women’s colleges and rural or suburban colleges as doomed as the dodo bird?  I think not.

After a period of declining enrollment after the economic disaster of 2008-2009, many are now thriving.

Even now I believe this college can be saved and continue to be a bastion of the much-needed efforts to help our society come to grips with gender inequality. All it will take is positive, creative leadership.

I have no doubt this leadership exists and can be brought to bear if only we can get a strong independent conservator to take the reins.

 

More debate from current and former board members:

[Two board members make the case: Sweet Briar had to close.]

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

More on the college’s past and future:

[Virginia Supreme Court considers arguments to temporarily stop the closure of Sweet Briar.]

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