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Opinion Sweet Briar president: More than miracles needed to save small colleges

Graduating seniors at Sweet Briar College participate in the traditional senior ride on the quad. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Phillip C. Stone stepped into an extraordinary challenge when he became president of Sweet Briar College last summer: no students, almost no faculty or staff and millions in mandatory severance payments.

He agreed to lead the school after alumnae and other supporters brokered a settlement with the leadership who had forced the closure of the more-than-100-year-old women’s college in rural Virginia. Like many small, private liberal arts colleges, Sweet Briar had been struggling to survive. But alumnae fought to save it.  

Stone had to enact a turnaround with lightning speed: The school year would begin in six weeks.

Alumnae vowed to keep Sweet Briar from closing last year. And they did.

Here, he writes about lessons learned after an unprecedented year in higher education and what that could mean for other small colleges.            — Susan Svrluga

A year after the alumnae of Sweet Briar College stopped a plan to close their school, the college exceeded fundraising goals for the 2016 fiscal year, balanced the budget without spending from the endowment, raised $10.25 million in 10 months, and recruited five times more new students than last year.

How we accomplished all this carries vital lessons for other liberal arts colleges.

First, we recognized that, while the closure attempt ushered in changes — with more to come — Sweet Briar’s fundamentals are sound, and we must play to our strengths.

As one of only two women’s college with an accredited engineering-degree program, along with strong math and science departments, we’re part of the national conversation about increasing the number of women and minorities in STEM. Our 3,250-acre campus on a former plantation is one of our greatest assets — an inspiring laboratory and classroom for every subject from ecology to creative writing; a horseback rider’s paradise with 18 miles of hacking trails; places to hike, bike and paddle; and a secure place for students to live, learn and grow.

Sixteen months ago, this special community came perilously close to closing.

Sweet Briar to close because of financial challenges

On March 3, 2015, an announcement that Sweet Briar would shutter after 114 years stunned alumnae, faculty, staff, donors and the community. But alumnae won a legal battle to remain open and raised the money needed to do it. A new board and administration took over Sweet Briar’s governance last July. Most faculty and staff were gone, students had transferred, and the riding and study-abroad programs had been moved to other colleges. Even the food service was terminated.

Six weeks later, classes started on time. A new senior team was in place, 236 students were enrolled, our signature riding and study-abroad programs were back, a new food service was retained, and an excellent faculty and staff were on the job.

Shock over Sweet Briar closing turns to determination to save it

Then we had to get through the year with limited funding.

A second lesson: We knew it wasn’t enough to spend within our means; we had to spend well below them. After finding operational efficiencies in areas such as food service and vehicle maintenance, we temporarily froze salaries and cut retirement contributions. Our dedicated staff and faculty stayed anyway.

Sweet Briar ended the fiscal year with better results than anybody could have imagined — spending $2 million below projections in an already reduced budget.

Despite having 60 percent fewer students, almost $5 million in required severance payments and millions more in other closing costs, the college did not spend a penny from its $65 million endowment to operate this fiscal year — ending 20 years of draws in excess of the 5 percent target.

Our third lesson is to keep alumnae close and to treasure them in ways that go beyond college magazine headlines.

We’ve called our successes “miracles.” But miracles followed hard work by Sweet Briar women who saved something worth fighting to keep. Alumnae put their lives on hold to raise money or left lucrative jobs to work for the college through the transition.

First, they kept the college open by pledging $28.5 million in 110 days and delivering $12 million by Sept. 2, 2015.

This year, they raised $10.25 million to help cover costs incurred by the near-closure.

And it’s not just money. Our alumnae staffed 400 college fairs this year. They come to campus in the hot summer in overalls to paint, hammer and weed as they maintain historic buildings and gardens. They even rallied enough votes for Sweet Briar to win the national online Sports Illustrated mascot contest.

This year, our community was forced to adapt to extraordinary circumstances. But adapting is crucial to thriving in a higher education marketplace dominated by a single question: What will tuition money buy?

A year after Sweet Briar was saved from closing, leaders celebrate fundraising growth

Liberal arts institutions are pressured to prove their worth by showing, literally, how much a degree will fetch in the open market.

Several years ago, Sweet Briar increased enrollment after making market-based changes. Adding engineering and a business program in the early 2000s helped historically low enrollment rebound to a multiyear high.

We will continue to adjust to market conditions, but it cannot be at the cost of what Sweet Briar does best: providing an immersive, rigorous educational and leadership experience for women thoroughly grounded in the liberal arts, regardless of major.

If the goal of higher education is to prepare students to thrive in an ever-changing workplace and in life, then the savvy, resourcefulness and tenacity our alumnae displayed saving Sweet Briar makes its case.

Our history affirms that we can overcome the hurdles we face.

We have not reached full strength — but like all who treasure the value of liberal arts institutions, we will make the choices and do the work that we know is required of us.