Why Didn't Sweet Briar Anticipate Crisis?

School had ample warning of financial disaster.

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Proud members of the Sweet Briar College community are scrambling to save their venerable school, which will close after 114 years because of a financial crisis.

But there’s been plenty of evidence through the years that the all-female school, with a reputation for small classes and strong academics, was fiscally wounded. One wonders why the school’s administration didn’t take more pro-active steps some time ago.

Here are a few issues:

1. Forbes magazine placed Sweet Briar on a list of financially challenged schools in 2010 along with Pace University in New York and Wabash College. In response, a Sweet Briar spokesman dismissed the report as “selective and unscientific.”

2. According to a recent piece in the Atlantic, Sweet Briar had been discounting its $47,000- plus tuition and board to attract a dwindling supply of applicants. Says the Atlantic: “Revenue from the increasingly discounted tuition and restricted endowment couldn’t cover expenses -- particularly those that were quite lavish.”

3. Sweet Briar has an impressive student-teacher ratio and very small classes. While that might make for an excellent learning experience, it has been proven to be economically unsustainable. So why didn’t the administration take corrective steps earlier?

4. Why didn’t Sweet Briar go co-ed? All-female Randolph-Macon made that move in 2007, as did the University of Mary Washington in 1970. The only two all-female schools left in Virginia are Mary Baldwin and Hollins. The University of Richmond has a coordinate college system that maintains single-sex residential colleges within a co-ed university. I have nothing personally against same-sex schools since I went to an all-boys high school, but the challenges of keeping them going are huge.

5. Sweet Briar’s $84.4 million endowment isn’t very large. Even worse, because of restrictions written into the endowment when it was created, only a small percentage of the endowment can be used for emergencies such as the one today. I’m not a lawyer, but couldn’t the administration have taken proactive steps some time ago to change the endowment rules?

6. Sweet Briar owns an exceptional chunk of real estate -- 3,250 acres of woods and rolling hills. Why couldn’t it have sold some of it for residential or commercial development? Surely, the for-sale tracts might be far enough from campus so as not to be a nuisance. My guess is that decades-old restrictions would not have allowed it, but as with the endowment, why couldn’t the rules have been changed?

For now, alumni have hired Troutman Saunders to help save the school and have begun a crowd-funding effort that's raised at least $1.6 million. That’s swift work in just two weeks, but, regrettably, it likely won’t be enough.

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