In the ongoing debate that followed news that Sweet Briar would close, forever, this summer, people have argued about what led to the private college’s downfall and whether it could have been avoided.
The question matters, as other women’s colleges and liberal arts schools consider their own futures, wondering if there are common threads and warning signs, and as advocates seek to save Sweet Briar with fundraisers and lawsuits.
Several current and former board members have written their own analyses, most recently, former director Richard Leslie, who argued strongly about failed leadership.
Here, David W. Breneman, chair of the academic affairs committee of the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors, responds to Leslie’s opinion.
Breneman is the former president of Kalamazoo College and professor emeritus in economics of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Colorado and a PhD in economics from the University of California, Berkley.
In this opinion piece, he shares his views on what went wrong: “Sweet Briar’s key element, enrollment, went unmet.”
By David W. Breneman
Dick Leslie and I overlapped for his time on the Board at Sweet Briar College, and enjoyed cordial relations. He was a dedicated director, and was never reticent in expressing his views on how the college should be run.
As a former college president myself, and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Sweet Briar board, I heard his frustration at the time, and hear it now in his essay, because the board did not support fully his notions of what we should be doing.
Dick was an avid supporter of marketing, and it is clear that his view was that Sweet Briar had no need for fundamental change, that all we needed was to get our story before more young women and enrollment would soar.
Under President Jo Ellen Parker’s leadership the college did, in fact, enhance its marking efforts, which led to record numbers of applicants. Yet at the same time, yield was continuing to decrease.
Our research indicated that the issues we confronted were not as simple as increased marketing, that many potential students did understand what we had to offer, and they chose not to enroll.
Many had no serious interest in a single-sex college. Others worried that the social life would be constrained given our location. Others felt we were too small, often smaller than the high schools they attended.
Increasingly, many who we were able to attract with large tuition discounts nonetheless departed after the first or second year, and retention became as big a problem as initial enrollment.
The absolutely key element in a viable Sweet Briar is enrollment, for at 600 students, we simply could not realize the scale economies of a college of 1,200 students.
While fundraising was important, there was no chance that we could increase the endowment to the $200 or $250 million mark that would have helped cover our high costs.
Our rural location foreclosed certain transformational changes that have helped other small colleges, such as adding programs for adult, part-time students. The board under a previous president had seriously debated admitting male students, but decided against that option as too uncertain of success.
In short, our traditional market was no longer strong enough to support the college, and at the end we did not have the resources to entertain radical transformation — nor was it clear what that transformation might be.
Our last hope was a merger with a stronger institution, and although numerous potential partners were contacted, none took us up on that offer.
Throughout her time in office, President Parker kept the board fully informed of the difficult issues we faced, and she took on several board-mandated reductions in faculty and staff, as well as reduced employment benefits, in an effort to staunch the financial bleeding.
Needless to say, none of these actions enhanced her popularity with faculty and staff, and are a source of subsequent criticism of her leadership.
The strongest temptation for a college president is to keep problems hidden from the board, but President Parker never succumbed to that temptation.
We knew that we faced an existential challenge, but collectively we were unable to find an answer.
After 106 years of superb educational service to the country, we decided that our best option was to close Sweet Briar with dignity, helping our students relocate (which we have done effectively), paying our creditors and providing our faculty and staff with severance.
Alas, the ensuing reaction and multiple lawsuits have made those last two goals seem out of reach.