The Unfortunate Fate of Sweet Briar’s Professors

For longtime faculty and staff, the sudden closure of the small liberal-arts women's college comes as a very gloomy surprise.

With rolling hills and horse stables, Gothic lecture halls, and a name straight out of an American Girl novel, Sweet Briar College is, by almost all accounts, an idyllic place to work. Faculty members teach three small classes a semester at this liberal-arts women’s institution in rural Virginia. Rather than pump out cutting-edge research articles, they are encouraged to support the college’s mission and excel in the classroom. And the job comes with all the usual perks of being a college professor: time and freedom to think deeply about fascinating topics and, theoretically, a guaranteed job for life.

As John Ashbrook, the chairman of the school’s history department, recently explained," coming here was the best thing that ever happened to me." Camillia Smith Barnes, an assistant professor of math, echoed Ashbrook’s praise: "It is a very special place," she said.

But Ashbrook and Barnes might as well have spoken in the past tense. Last Tuesday, this world came to an end. At  9 am, faculty and staff received an email from the president asking them to "make every effort to attend" an important meeting in the campus chapel at noon. It was at this meeting that the employees learned—for the first time—that financial pressures are forcing the school to shut its doors once the spring semester ends.

The school has been having trouble attracting students to a woman's college, the president explained. Revenue from the increasingly discounted tuition and a restricted endowment couldn’t cover expenses—particularly those that were arguably quite lavish. Some employees, many of whom live on campus along with students, were reported to have wept silently in the pews as they heard the news.

This story has reverberated across the higher-education community over the past week, as many worry that other small colleges may soon suffer the same fate. It's already happening in some pockets. The governing board of Tennessee Temple University, a Christian liberal-arts college, for example, recently voted to shut down the school this May and merge with another Christian campus in North Carolina. It may be too hard for the small liberal-arts college model to survive in modern times.

Last week, I spoke with several faculty members from Sweet Briar College to get their perspective on the unfolding events and learn of their plans for the future. After all, while students are certainly struggling as they transfer credits to nearby schools and figure out whether they can graduate on time, employees are facing their own challenges during this process, too.

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The school will remain open for a few remaining months. When classes resume next Monday after this week's spring break, students will still need to take final exams and complete research papers. Faculty, meanwhile, will still conduct lectures and grade assignments—all while managing a major life change and supporting students as they make their next plans.

Faculty and students have these remaining months to savor Sweet Briar’s impressive 3,250-acre campus, once the site of a tobacco and corn plantation that relied heavily on slave labor. Many of the school’s present-day buildings were built by Ralph Adams Cram, the famous American collegiate architect who later designed structures at Princeton University and West Point. Among the other buildings on campus is a renovated farmhouse known as the Sweet Briar House, which was the residence of the 19th-century plantation owner and now serves as the president’s home.

Students can exercise and hang out with friends at the Fitness and Athletic Center. They can run on the three-lane elevated track or play a game of racquetball or squash on two courts. They can shoot hoops in a gym that was remodeled in 2009 and swim a few laps in the school's Prothro Natatorium. Afterward, they can grab a coffee at the bistro or do some studying at The Mary Cochran Library, which was built in 1929 by Cram and is one of four libraries housed at the campus.

Other facilities include the Babock Fine Arts Center, where students can find the Black Box Theatre; three dance studios; and the 652-seat Murchison Lane Auditorium. At the Harriet Howell Rodgers Riding Center, students can enjoy the country’s largest indoor college equestrian arena, which includes an enclosed lunging ring, seven teaching fields, and miles of trails. Its stables house 60 horses, 40 of which are owned by the college.

These amenities supplement a prolific academic program: The school boasts 46 majors, minors, and certificate programs in areas ranging from arts management to Asian studies. And unlike many higher-education institutions, here the faculty and students are a close-knit group; several professors emphasized to me that the Sweet Briar community feels like a family. It’s these aspects—from the sense of intimacy on campus to its sophisticated, bucolic grounds—that many faculty highlighted when describing why Sweet Briar is (or was) such a wonderful place to work.

Needless to say, these features are very expensive to maintain.

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The financial problems at the school, according to faculty, weren’t a big secret. Sweet Briar, like similar private colleges around the country, had been facing mounting costs, a decline in interest in liberal arts, and increasingly budget-conscious customers. The administration found it more and more difficult to attract enough students, especially ones who could afford the school's full ticket price of $47,095.

Several faculty explained that it grew harder to attract women interested in attending in a single-sex school in a remote location—even one with such spectacular campus and individualized attention. Facing competition with more prestigious women’s institutions such as Wellesley College and Smith College, the school began offering significantly discounted tuition rates to prospective freshmen in an attempt to attract new types of students and improve diversity. According to the U.S. News and World Report, more than three-fourths of the college's full-time undergraduates receive some form of need-based financial aid, the average award amounting to $22,654.

But the discounts failed to buoy student numbers and, according to officials, this compounded financial pressures and took a big toll on revenue. The student population, which once totaled nearly 700 students annually, steadily dwindled. Last fall, the number of full-time students on campus dropped to 561. By this spring, there were only 532.

Despite the shrinking numbers, the school maintained a full faculty and staff to support those students. Although the average class size is 11, Sweet Briar continued running courses that enrolled significantly fewer students; some classes had only one woman signed up. While a few of the younger hires, due to budget cuts or opportunities elsewhere, started to leave roughly two years ago, most of the faculty remained. This spring, roughly 110 faculty, 80 of whom work at Sweet Briar full-time, are conducting classes on campus. They’re joined by a full roster of administrators who provide services ranging from academic advisement to alumni outreach, as well as a sizable staff that provides campus upkeep. The school also employs two chaplains, as well as three postal workers.

The school has an $84.4 million endowment, which is relatively small for small liberal-arts colleges. But much of the money in this pot is severely restricted; a portion of the endowment funds, example, is earmarked for maintaining the 58-year-old campus arts center.

Aware of the financial pressures, several faculty told me that they accepted many cutbacks in recent years, including salary freezes and compromises on their retirement benefits. Salaries at Sweet Briar in 2012 were well below the nationwide median.

Last fall, administrators asked the professors to form committees to explore different proposals aimed at keeping the school open, such as merging with other nearby colleges and expanding the equestrian program. Faculty said they spent hundreds of hours total working through the proposals and believed that the administration would adopt one of these plans.

One proposal was to turn Sweet Briar into a co-ed school, but the obstacles were apparently too great. In 1900, Indiana Fletcher Williams, whose father ran the plantation, bequeathed the land to form the college in memory of her daughter, stipulating that the institution exclusively serve white women. It took years of legal work just to change the will to integrate the school in the late 1960s, a decade after Brown v. Board of Education. As some faculty members explained, an additional change to Williams’ will to admit men would have been a legal nightmare.

Despite these circumstances, the faculty said that they were completely surprised when they learned last Tuesday that the school was closing for good. During their meeting at the chapel, College President James F. Jones, Jr. briefly delivered the facts and explained that a quick closure was necessary; that way students wouldn’t experience an unacceptable, long-drawn-out decline in services, he reasoned. Some professors had gone to the meeting expecting an announcement that they were going co-ed or that there would be another freeze on their retirement savings. No one expected the school would close shop this June.

“The distressing part for me is the rapid timeframe at the end," said Lynn Rainville, an anthropology professor and the director of the school’s educational outreach center. "Last September, we knew there were problems, but we didn’t know that it was close. Everyone was digging in and thinking through these strategies."

John Casteen, an associate professor of poetry, pointed out that six years ago Forbes had listed the college as being in one of the most unstable financial situations among private colleges in the U.S. "It is impossible to say that any of us lacked information to understand how dire the situation was," he said. "At the same time, not a single person thought there was any possibility that the college was going to close at the end of this year. It was very abrupt, a huge surprise."

Now, Sweet Briar’s professors have to prepare to enter the job market—not an easy proposition in the current economy, especially in higher education.

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Indeed, many of Sweet Briar’s professors are undergoing the same kinds of challenges faced by people in many sectors these days: difficulties affording health care, endless bills, limited employment options—even depression. But in academia, as many professors at Sweet Briar emphasized, a lost job can be particularly catastrophic.

Mid-career faculty at the school, including many revered professors who’ve devoted their lives to education, will likely have a tough time finding similar positions at other college institutions. As many higher-education experts will attest (and as I have witnessed in my own experience), these institutions typically prefer to hire junior faculty who have well-adorned resumes and are fresh out of prestigious graduate schools but are less expensive and willing to commit to a job for decades. With what are often hundreds of applicants for every opening, schools can be picky.

Compounding problems, starting a job search in March is tough in academia: The school year is ending, meaning colleges have probably already filled any open positions for the fall. Some faculty fear they might be forced to find low-paying adjunct positions—jobs that, Ashbrook noted, "won’t pay the bills, but at least we won’t have a gap on our CVs." Ashbrook’s wife teaches at a local high school earning a salary that can probably be stretched to support both of them for a year, but it wouldn’t suffice much longer than that. Some professors, including Ashbrook, are getting desperate: "I’m more than available," he said. "In fact, I’m pretty cheap right now."

And in my discussions with faculty, I learned that while some are considering work outside of academia, few have knowledge of how to pursue such opportunities. Even those in the math and sciences—industries generally highlighted as ones poised for immense job growth these days—aren’t sure that their skills will translate to another sector. The school, they say, hasn’t offered them career counseling or transition services. (The administration for its part says that information regarding severance pay and outplacement services will be available in April.) And there is little hope for a severance package, some faculty told me. With most of the endowment tied up in legal restrictions or designated for creditors, little spare money exists to provide a soft cushion for employees.

Barnes, who was a year away from getting tenure, worries about her current resume; until last week, she felt secure. Like many of the faculty whom I spoke with, Barnes said that she was struggling with shock and debilitating stress. "I started the job search on Tuesday night," she said. "But on Wednesday, I was too depressed to do anything." Students and faculty didn’t attend classes last week after hearing the news because they were too emotional to focus on their work, some explained.

And then there’s the challenge of finding new housing. One source estimated that as many as 40 percent of the school’s faculty lives on campus in private houses or apartments, some of which have to be vacated by August. It’s a particularly thorny situation because the college, according to one professor, encouraged faculty to build their own homes on school grounds—land that the institution owns. The school apparently promised faculty members that, if they were to relocate, it would offer them a fair market price for their homes; they’ll learn in April whether that’s the case. Rainville speculates that these homeowners may get pennies on the dollar from whatever developer buys the property.*

Seth Clabough, who directs the college’s writing center, discussed these housing concerns in a piece of commentary for The Chronicle of Higher Education:

A number of faculty members have bought houses on campus from the college. These are people who have essentially bonded their lives to that of the college. It’s an extreme level of commitment, and I admire them for it, for the way they’ve consistently opened their doors and lives to students over the years and, in some cases, over the decades. The idea that they might now be somehow penalized for making this commitment is particularly hard to swallow.

Of course, faculty members aren't the only employees who are taking a hit. Rainville suggested that nearly a third of the college’s hourly workers are descendants of the Fletcher plantation’s original slave community. Some of the staff members have worked at Sweet Briar their entire adult lives.

Soon, after freeing itself from any legal and financial entanglements, the college will begin the tricky business of liquidating itself and monetizing its assets. Professors cited difficulties selling science equipment, including chemicals and a gene-splicing machine. And the school will probably have to auction its extensive art collection—if it’s legally allowed to divest itself from works that were donated with very specific instructions—and find someone to buy the books in its four libraries. It may even be impossible to sell the land due to the original will’s wording. Clearly, disposing the assets of a century-old institution is hardly a simple task.

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine how any school with such extensive grounds, impressive buildings, and a full staff that educated only a few hundred women could remain financially viable. The restrictions outlined in Sweet Briar’s former missions, wills, and trusts made change all but impossible. Still, as inevitable as it may be, it's worth acknowledging that the school’s closure has taken an enormous toll on people who've devoted their lives to liberal-arts education. And many fear that Sweet Briar serves as a case study for what will play out at similar schools in the coming years.

* A previous version of this post said it was Camillia Smith Barnes who speculates that Sweet Briar College homeowners won't be able to sell their properties at full value. We regret the error.