Raise the Barn/Autopsy the Corpse

A more detailed thinking-through of the case of Sweet Briar, and a proposal.

Five places to start a dissection of Sweet Briar College and the decision of its Board to close the school:

Laura McKenna, “The Unfortunate Fate of Sweet Briar’s Professors”.

Jack Marshall, “The Sweet Briar Betrayal”.

Roanoke Times Editorial Board, “Our View: Sweet Briar Board Should Resign”.

Brian C. Mitchell, “The Crack in the Faberge Egg”

Deborah Durham, “Suddenly Liminal: Reflections on Sweet Briar College Closing”

The thinking through. The more the details come out, the odder the decision to close appears. Sweet Briar had more liabilities and debts than its endowment size might suggest, and it clearly lacked a strategic plan that could provide answers to its shrinking enrollments. But to close so suddenly, while under the leadership of an interim President, and with no leadership in its Admissions office, makes little sense. The faculty and staff had spent a year considering plans. Why not hire a “crisis President” and take a shot at some of those plans? Surely there’s someone talented out there who would relish the chance to turn around a college in crisis. And surely the current students would appreciate their loyalty to the institution being rewarded by such an effort, rather than being pushed out the door allegedly for their own best interests. I think it’s reasonable to wonder if there isn’t a plan that isn’t being disclosed–perhaps that the only way to fully void Indiana Fletcher Williams’ will is to go completely out of business?

The proposal. If the current faculty and staff and students of Sweet Briar would welcome it, why not gather some current provosts, presidents, senior staff and faculty of liberal arts colleges together at Sweet Briar or nearby for a weekend-long summit that reviews the plans composed over the last year and suggests other possible solutions? A sequel, perhaps, to the meeting that the former President of Swarthmore Rebecca Chopp and the outgoing President of Haverford Dan Weiss organized at Lafayette College in 2012.

If there’s little interest among current faculty, staff and students at Sweet Briar, then there’s no point to trying to have such a meeting in a time-sensitive, hastily-organized way. But even if they aren’t interested, I think there should be such a meeting in the next two years, as a post-mortem. I do not accept the thought that some (including McKenna) offer that Sweet Briar is a sign of the imminent death of the small liberal-arts college, in no small measure because I don’t even think Sweet Briar was doomed to die.


Reading about the discussions that have been going on at Sweet Briar itself for the last year, I think it’s clear that folks there understood some of what they’d have to do to be viable, and that some of what they’d have to do would be hard to achieve, especially for faculty. Even in a situation of existential threat, it’s very difficult for faculty to dramatically reimagine the structure of a curriculum and the nature of their professional practices, and to find a way to systematically reduce the size of a faculty. You can’t have over one hundred faculty positions and only 500 students. You can’t have more than two hundred non-faculty employees and have only 500 students either.

This would be job #1 of a potential “emergency summit”: redesign a small college curriculum so that it has 75 or fewer faculty positions and yet retains intellectual and philosophical coherence. Typically when senior administrators are brought in to cut positions (or “detenure”) an institution, they do it by finding out which departments have the lowest enrollments, they do it by finding out which departments are the most politically hapless or exposed. That’s the wrong way to do it no matter what the crisis is, but it’s especially wrong in a situation where the institution itself has an identity problem.

Brian Mitchell’s “Faberge” essay points out that the small liberal-arts colleges that have scrambled to build highly distinctive, imaginative or innovative programs, or have restructured their overall institutional emphasis, are doing ok, precisely because they have something to offer prospective students beyond “small and liberal-arts”. St. John’s College is the classic established example of such a program, but there are many others: Berea College, College of the Atlantic, Quest University, Colorado College, Hampshire College. At the Lafayette meeting I mentioned, I was really struck at how many other small colleges with more limited resources were doing really creative things–and like Mitchell, I was also struck that the wealthiest and best-known liberal arts colleges were dramatically more risk-averse and mainstream.

I’m certain that there are ways to organize a faculty of fifty or seventy-five intellectuals and scholars that channels their teaching and engagement to great effect without having to offer forty-six majors, minors and certificates. I often despair of getting my colleagues at Swarthmore to grasp this same point, that a small college, even a rich one, has a choice between being a great small college or a shitty little university. The more programs a small college tries to have, the more fields it feels it must represent, the more specializations it feels it requires, the more it’s choosing to be a shitty little university. Faculty are usually the ones driving that kind of choice: this is one thing we can’t blame the administrators for. So unless a summit to #SaveSweetBriar was willing to dramatically reimagine what studying at Sweet Briar could entail, and accept that not every job can be saved, this meeting I’m proposing has to be a post-mortem that will warn the living rather than save the patient.

Job #2 is also clearly something that the faculty and senior staff at Sweet Briar are painfully conscious about, which is to break some of the restrictions surrounding the gifts that founded and sustained the college. But it’s been done: Sweet Briar found a way to get loose of the initial requirement that its students be white. Even if Sweet Briar were to remain a college for women, it could have a dynamic admissions strategy that sought out students from outside the United States, and non-traditional students inside the U.S. (which might then influence the curricular redesign in #1).

Job #3 is look at the financial picture after #1 and #2 and see what else the institution can do more cheaply or not at all. People who imagine that there’s lot of waste in a budget, any budget, are almost always wrong. But there might be administrative operations that a small college with a newly envisioned mission doesn’t need to pursue. And stop hiring consultants: that would be another purpose for this summit, to build a “pro bono” network of peer experts who can pitch in until the college is stabilized. The summit could look with fresh eyes at the day-to-day operations of the college and see what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense going forward.

Job #4 is a capital campaign that follows straight off of #SaveSweetBriar. Use the resigned, reimagined curriculum as a selling point to bring in new supporters, as well as tap the obviously considerable goodwill of Sweet Briar’s established donor base. I think a summit could at least help lay the groundwork for such a campaign.

This is obviously ambitious for a weekend, especially if it’s a meeting convened on short notice. But I don’t think it’s completely implausible.

If this ends up being a post-mortem instead, then the review of the issues involved could be broader, but I still think might follow the same rough contours: curricular design, admissions practices, donor practices, fiscal restraint (that avoids being austerity). All of it aimed at asking: how can liberal-arts colleges avoid making the same mistakes? What do we have to do in order to secure our collective future?

This entry was posted in Academia, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Raise the Barn/Autopsy the Corpse

  1. Daniel Shiner says:

    I am a member of the Board of Trustees of Shimer College, a small liberal arts college in Illinois. In 1973, the Board of Trustees voted to close the college. Faculty and students refused to accept that decision. They took over operating the college, raised needed funds, wrested control from the bankruptcy trustee whom the Board had hired…and 42 years later, Shimer College is still providing students with a first rate education, as they have since opening as a rural women’s college in 1853. Don’t give up! Sweet Briar has a storied past, and deserves to have a great future!

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    There’s a great story for the Sweet Briar faculty to hear.

  3. Nord says:

    Since you probably don’t drive by power line too much:


    I think they agree with you!

    “But there is an amazing failure of imagination here—rooted in the institutional liberalism pervasive in higher ed—and a terrific opportunity for an educational entrepreneur.

    So what if Sweet Briar had decided that instead of trying to compete head-to-head with Smith and Wellesley, they self-consciously set out to be the anti-Smith and anti-Wellesley? I have little doubt that a women’s college that advertised its deliberate rejection of the gender politics of “mainstream” womens’ educational institutions would have no shortage of applicants for admission.”

  4. Brad Weiss says:

    One thing to add: SBC has not had a director of admissions in two years, I believe. That points to both a pre-ordained determination to shut the place down a while back; but, more optimistically, it also suggests that enrollment COULD improve if there is some leadership in recruiting. Maybe not enough to save all the faculty/staff, but to at least buy time to make judicious cuts.

  5. Daniel Gottlieb says:

    Sweet Briar faculty member here…
    We’re still processing what’s going on, helping students, determining a course of action on the fly. I think we would welcome all help, but we are stretched to our limits, and organizing events is difficult at this time.
    I’m busy poring over numbers, and it makes less and less sense the more I learn. It certainly does not seem like the narrative we’ve been told makes much sense at all. Very odd. Seemis to me a summit would be good once we figure out the problem and the scale of it. But I don’t think the problem is what we think it is. Back to the numbers…

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks for the update, Daniel. I agree that any such summit won’t help unless the outsiders have a fairly transparent or forthcoming access to the real financial picture. So on some level this will require at least the acquiescence of SBC’s current administrative leadership, which seems to have gone into a defensive stupor.

Comments are closed.