Alexis Culley got a call from her older sister and burst into tears. Her mother rushed over, picked her up from high school and they drove straight to Sweet Briar College last March, when the president had just abruptly announced that the school would have to close forever because of insurmountable financial difficulties.
Her sister was absolutely devastated; Grace Culley loved Sweet Briar and couldn’t imagine going to another school. “It was like we were mourning a family member,” Alexis said.
A year later, 18-year-old Alexis is wearing the pink sweatshirt the admissions office sent her with her acceptance letter, and she estimates that 90 percent of her clothes are emblazoned with Sweet Briar’s name, honoring the more-than-100-year-old private school in the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge. When she found out she got in, she said, “I jumped for joy! My mom took a picture of me and sent it to my sister.”
Alexis is one of the 1,300 or so students who have applied this year. That’s double the number of applicants five years ago, and a record high for the 50 years the college has been tracking applications.
In just one year, the women’s college has gone from doomed to resurrected but on life support, to something that is still fragile. But the school is strong enough that its leaders talk confidently about long-range plans and successes that they feel could become a national model for sustaining both liberal arts and women’s education.
With the same pressures other such colleges face – declining demand, rising college costs, over-dependence on tuition revenue in tension with the need to discount sticker price to keep enrollment up – the college will mark Thursday’s anniversary with celebrations, and a new slogan: “Sweet Briar Forever.”
So what happened?
Sometimes it takes a calamity, the board chair, Teresa Pike Tomlinson, said, to get people mobilized about something they care about. Sweet Briar’s near collapse turned out to be a blessing because the school now has an alumnae network that its president described as “like Patton’s army.”
“When you see something as important as this mission is – it’s a joy,” Tomlinson, one of those determined alumnae, said. “All of us associated with Sweet Briar are just filled with confidence that we will get this done.
“Closing is not an option.”
On March 3, 2015, the college’s then-president summoned faculty to a meeting, then students, and told them – to gasps, stunned silence, and sobs – that the college would close that summer.
Enrollment had dropped, the school was discounting tuition nearly 60 percent to attract students, maintenance costs were piling up and administrators had begun to draw down the endowment at an alarming rate. In other words, there was no longer enough demand to keep a private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia afloat.
Alumnae, shocked, immediately began organizing and raising money.
In 110 days they raised $28.5 million.
Lawsuits were filed, and countered. Finally, a settlement was brokered that promised $12 million from the alumnae of Saving Sweet Briar for this academic year, and the Virginia attorney general granted permission for $16 million of restricted money in the endowment to be released for operating funds.
Alumnae leaped to their feet and cheered “Holla holla!” when a judge approved it.
But they knew the challenges ahead were enormous.
Phillip Stone, a lawyer and former college president in Virginia, was tapped to take over by the new board late on July 2.
On his drive from his home in Harrisonburg to Sweet Briar that night, he was headed to a 3,250-acre campus with no students, no faculty, no staff.
Students had all left for other colleges, and every employee except those needed to wind up the closing had been given notice June 30, even with the settlement.
During his drive, Stone posted a notice on the college’s website, basically saying: You are all hereby rehired.
“I hired 200 people sight unseen,” he said. “When I got to Sweet Briar and had that long holiday weekend I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, what have I gotten myself into?’”
He had already started putting out fires; a week before he was officially named president, he was told the head of the engineering department was going to leave. As one of only two women’s colleges in the country with an engineering department, he knew it would be a crushing blow. Stone talked him into staying and a couple of days later he told Stone that a brilliant former student had just gotten her doctorate and would love to teach at Sweet Briar but already had a contract offer on the table somewhere else.
Stone asked: “’Do you have your contract offer at home? Can you type up one just like that with the appropriate salary and get it to her?’
“He said, ‘Can you do that?’
“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll be president tomorrow!’ We laughed — but we learned later that a $3 million gift would have been forfeited if we had lost that program.”
Many of Sweet Briar’s signatures – such as its nationally known riding program, and its junior-year-abroad – had been assigned to other colleges. Its insurance policies had been converted to cover empty buildings.
And, that weekend alone, Stone had 1,800 emails to answer.
Alumnae kept coming to help. Some prepared the president’s house for him and when he moved in, there were post-it notes everywhere – even in the freezer – that said, “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Stone, we love you, we’re so glad you’re here!”
Six weeks later, Stone had an administrative team, had gotten key programs restored, and hired back enough faculty to somehow convince 240 students to return and start school the next semester.
It was a fraction of Sweet Briar’s normal enrollment –- which already had dropped alarmingly to fewer than 600 students before the closure was announced — and fewer than the school had hoped for. But they were thrilled to have each and every one of them.
Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said it was the worst possible time to try to turn around a closure, with students long since having committed to attend other schools.
“They have a very energetic leadership,” Ekman said. “Phil Stone is quite a talented president. That gave them a shot at long-term survival.”
Those enrollment numbers, though, “make me think it’s a bit more of an uphill slope.”
Alexis Culley’s sister already had committed to another college, and some of her friends were unable to return to Sweet Briar — one, for example, was offered a full scholarship elsewhere — but Grace Culley decided to return for her junior year.
Alumnae swarmed campus to help prepare the grounds and to welcome the new students at the end of August. Stone realized after thanking one woman working in a flower garden on a hot and sweaty day that she had taken her two weeks of vacation and flown in from New Mexico to be there to help. She was a professor of medicine.
“It was just magical,” he said.
Stone wasn’t always so wide-eyed. When the closure was announced, he said, “I’m among those who thought the alumnae did not have a chance of pulling it off.”
Most everyone loves their alma mater, and lots of colleges are pretty and draw alumni back, Stone said. He’s come to believe there’s something else about Sweet Briar, something about the bonds formed at a women’s college that is powerful in a way he hadn’t anticipated. An alumna in her 90s and one in her 20s can meet and feel an immediate affection for one another, he said.
“That has tied them together in such a special way, and made them feel like they were the National Guard ready to go into action,” Stone said.
But he worried about how it would feel for the few students at Sweet Briar, rattling around this beautiful but enormous campus.
The freshman class had 24 students.
There were some classes that had three or four students. There were tutorials for seniors who had been promised they could get the credits they needed for graduation. Stone thought it might feel like walking around a warehouse.
The school was at risk of losing its ability to play intercollegiate sports under NCAA rules if Sweet Briar didn’t participate in the scheduled games this year, Tomlinson said, and it could have been years before the school could restore eligibility. But with such low enrollment, there weren’t nearly enough athletes. And without sports, students who had counted on competing during college surely would leave.
So the athletes, she said, “literally went through the dorm, and their classmates said, ‘Sure, show me where to stand. Show me how to hold a lacrosse stick.'”
The emotional power of what had happened made students willing to go to unusual lengths to rebuild their collegiate experience, she said: “Even if it meant personal humiliation from an athletic standpoint.”
At a recent field hockey game a crowd, including 150 or so from the local community, gathered to cheer on the team.
They lost, just as they had every other game that season. Tomlinson was proud.
“We fielded a team for every game, kept our schedule,” she said.
One surprise when the new leadership took over, Tomlinson said, was finding that the financial situation wasn’t as dire as they had expected. The closure was based on projections; if trends continued it would have been unsustainable. The current administration believes that changes can keep the school competitive, she said, despite the multi-million-dollar impact of the closure, including lawsuits, severance, and buying back faculty houses on the campus from professors who have gotten new jobs.
Stone created a budget (in some cases, without department heads to guide him) that includes for the first time a contingency budget and a capital budget and holds withdrawals from the endowment to 5 percent, much lower than in recent years.
So far, the school is on track. Sweet Briar hasn’t had to use any of the $16 million the settlement freed up from the endowment. Expenses are down, in part because about a third of the faculty are gone.
The school needs to raise $10 million before the end of June to keep on target, so with the fires put out and the college up and running again, Stone has embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign. The goal is to raise $30 million to support the school for the next several years, as that tiny class of freshmen moves through, with tuition revenue at unsustainably low levels.
“Those three to four years are going to have to be carried by the generosity of our stakeholders,” Tomlinson said. “Because the math will not work without it.”
Alumnae returned to Sweet Briar to work – heading up fundraising, teaching courses – and to volunteer. Some baked cupcakes and mentored students. Some who work for higher-education consulting firms provided their expertise — advice that might cost colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars — for free.
“These alumnae that have been awakened,” by the shock of closure to why they care so much about their alma mater have created networks, she said. One effort sends volunteers to college fairs across the country. The college can afford to send staff to just a few states, but alumnae now are talking up Sweet Briar to students in all kinds of places.
“I go,” Tomlinson said, referencing her job: “The mayor of Columbus, Georgia, is going and standing for eight hours in a school cafeteria, if that’s what I have to do. You see that replicated across the country.”
Alumnae sold Kirsten Reinhart, an 18-year-old who lives in Singapore, on Sweet Briar.
She was initially drawn to the school when she was a freshman because of its riding program; she competes internationally. But when she visited colleges on a trip to the U.S. last summer, she didn’t visit it because it was closing.
But a Sweet Briar alumna, who knew her mother through work, told her to apply. She connected her with the riding coach. Other alumnae reached out to her, too.
When she visited campus during winter break, Reinhart talked to alumnae working with admissions “who left their law practices to come save Sweet Briar. That was really memorable to me. So many people are in love with this school, and would do anything to save it.”
All that outreach –- plus intense national media attention last spring — seems to have had a real impact on the number of applicants. Almost three-quarters of them applied directly through Sweet Briar’s website, not the common applications that allow students to reach out to a dozen or more schools with a single form. School leaders are hopeful that’s a good indicator for how many will commit to the school; the rate had been just more than 20 percent in recent years.
If that proportion holds true, they would have a strong incoming class.
They have capacity for 800 students, Stone said. The dorms are there, the beds are ready, the classrooms waiting.
Meanwhile, Sweet Briar celebrated enrolling 31 more students in the spring semester.
Student by student, they hope to build those classes.
“I see a lot of colleges that are in far worse financial condition than Sweet Briar,” Ekman said, because its endowment gives it a cushion that many don’t have.
A Moody’s Investor Services report last spring said that Sweet Briar’s enrollment and revenues were smaller than all other women’s colleges it rates, and that its business model was unsustainable. “With operating revenues of just $27 million, Sweet Briar had limited flexibility to adjust to its multi-year decline in enrollment,” the report said. “Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000.”
Ekman said Sweet Briar now has a chance to try some of the things similar schools have done, such as creating a college of health sciences to supplement revenue, establishing satellite locations within corporations, adding online operations.
Stone just got back from a recruiting trip to China. International students are particularly important on an isolated rural campus, to round out students’ experience, he said.
They also tend to pay full tuition.
Despite the uncertainty, despite the unknowns, Sweet Briar’s leaders are now gearing up to talk about a long-term vision for the school. That will surely include lots of input from the alumnae, Tomlinson said, a level of engagement that she believes will set a new standard for non-profits.
People keep donating “because they feel like they’re valued investors in this. That does not come just because you have fond memories of 40 years ago. It’s because they are being listened to, and cultivated.
Culley, the high-school senior from Louisa County, Virginia, chose Sweet Briar because she heard from her sister there was a strong sense of community, people who were pulling for each individual student’s success, an engineering program where she wouldn’t just be “the only girl in a class full of boys,” and a beautiful setting.
“You can’t help but smile and feel butterflies when you walk on campus,” she said.
She wondered about its long-term financial health, and how much of a risk it would be to enroll.
Ultimately, it was those who came before that sold her on the school.
“I saw what the alumnae did,” she said. “That made me want to be connected with them, also. I couldn’t imagine going somewhere else.”