Saving Sweet Briar

By Audrey McMillion

Sweet Briar College, home of the Theta of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, is an idyllic women’s liberal arts college, but in the last year, the school’s fate has fluctuated greatly. On March 3, the interim president of the college, James F. Jones, announced that the school would close due to “insurmountable financial difficulties.” The day after this announcement, alumni gathered to express their concerns at losing their alma mater, one of 45 women’s colleges that remain in the United States and one with an incredibly rich 114 year history. They launched Saving Sweet Briar Inc., a fundraising effort to save the school, and they also sued to install a new board of directors. On April 15, a temporary injunction was established to halt the school’s closing for at least 60 days.

It seemed that the injunction would only prevent the inevitable for a short while. Sad hesitation and anxiety surrounded the closing. Graduation on May 14 was a bittersweet event, surrounded by Sweet Briar traditions that have occurred every year since the school’s founding, traditions that were expected by many to never be celebrated again. Students and faculty alike moved to other schools and prepared for a life away from Sweet Briar.

However, in the summer, things improved drastically. A series of hearings ended in a settlement requiring a new president and school board to be installed at Sweet Briar. The settlement further established the amount of money that was deemed necessary for the school to remain open: $12 million in donations from Saving Sweet Briar Inc. and $16 million from the college’s endowment.

On July 2, Phillip C. Stone was hired as the new president of the college. Stone has an impressive record of success as a college administrator and lawyer. As a past president at Bridgewater College, he raised enrollment by almost a thousand students. He believes that increasing the enrollment at Sweet Briar is the key to the school’s recovery and success, and he will be working to maintain Sweet Briar’s status as a women’s liberal arts college.

On August 23, Sweet Briar opened its doors once again to continue their tradition of providing a strong liberal arts education to young women. Classes began August 27. With the first day of classes, the school launched an art exhibit entitled “We Are Sweet Briar: A Community Rises” that follows the events and struggles of 2015. SBC’s academic schedule will remain as it was established before the closing, although departments and classes will be much smaller this year. Varsity sports will also continue as scheduled. 

In an interview with Steve Kolowich of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stone voiced his belief that the challenge Sweet Briar will face in the coming months and years is building upon the energy of the alumni. He will direct their efforts to help them achieve stability for the school they love so much. Amongst his thoughts on providing further financial aid for Sweet Briar are adding a private K-12 school or agriculture experiment on the 3,250 acre property or beginning sustainability farming. His goal is to raise enrollment from 300 students to 800 students in about five years. The school will have to regain momentum from before the closure, as the enrollment upon closing was about 500 students and not all faculty who were released from their contracts were able to return this August. 

Perhaps the disaster of nearly losing this strong women’s liberal arts college, rich in history, will become a positive force, encouraging the community of Sweet Briar to grow even stronger. As Pam DeWeese wrote to her colleagues upon her appointment as Interim Dean of Students, Sweet Briar is a “miracle school.” Stone hopes that Sweet Briar’s well-known tale will also increase enrollment and bring the school the prominence that it deserves. The progress made in the next year will be absolutely necessary to continuing the long-term success of the school, as Sweet Briar serves as a model of admiration for many other small, private, liberal arts schools that endeavor to provide their students with an unmatchable education and experience.

Audrey McMillion is a senior at Hendrix College majoring in English. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.