By Lisa McDonald
On March 3, 2015, an unexpected announcement was made by the Sweet Briar board of directors: Sweet Briar college would not see any more students pass through its halls since this August it would be closing its doors. The unsettling proclamation caused uproar from the Sweet Briar community with students, faculty, and alumni coming together to find ways to fight the close. While at this point the end result of the situation is unknown, what is known is the rich history of the college and the wonderful programs that are going on today.
Sweet Briar College was founded in 1901, through the estate of Indiana Fletcher Williams who, in her will, gave the land to found the institution in memory of her only daughter, Daisy, who died in 1884 at the age of sixteen. The institution was established on the principle that Sweet Briar would be free from denominational control, a statement that still holds to this day. In 1950 the Theta of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was chartered there. If Sweet Briar does close its doors, Theta of Virginia will be the first chapter in the Society’s history to lose its sheltering instituton.
The first board of directors was determined the college would uphold the highest of academic standards, and looking at the college today it is easy to see they have done just that. As a liberal arts school, Sweet Briar makes sure to stress the importance of writing, having all first-years begin their journey with a writing emphasis course and requiring three more (minimum) be taken throughout the rest of their time at Sweet Briar. This experience helps strengthen the students in whatever discipline they choose to pursue, and they have plenty of options to choose from.
For the sciences, Sweet Briar is proud in the knowledge that they are one of two women’s colleges to have an accredited engineering program, a program that has been at the college approximately ten years. Not only do students enrolled in the program have the opportunity to do research with their professors, they also have the chance to work at regional companies to get real world experience.
On the liberal arts side, Sweet Briar offers a very special minor: Medieval and Renaissance Studies (MARS). Started in 2010, the MARS minor has already taken off. Lynn Laufenberg, associate professor of history and Phi Beta Kappa secretary, notes: “It’s a minor, but it’s been extremely popular with the students.” Interdisciplinary, the minor encompasses courses from English, history, and art history as well as promoting foreign language classes, ancient Greek and Latin among them. This minor provides a special chance to examine the differences between the Medieval and Renaissance periods and begin a concentration in this area before a student heads to graduate study.
While Sweet Briar fights to keep these wonderful courses as well as all the others going, they have found help from their all-male college neighbor Hampden-Sydney College. Not only have the colleges opened classes to the other’s students, the two have shared social outings that form close ties of friendship among the students. As such, Hampden-Sydney started “A Rose for a Vixen” campaign to raise money, as well as “Shop for Sweet Briar” which ran March 30 to April 5.
Besides raising money, Sweet Briar has also talked over alternative options to keep the school running. One idea would be to turn the school’s focus to an accelerated STEM program that would still emphasize the liberal arts in the first year of general education courses, but nothing definitive has been put together yet.
While Sweet Briar has promised to help place students at new colleges and universities if the doors do close, faculty do not have such a luxury, especially since many of them live on the campus itself. While they own the house they live in, the college has ownership of the land it stands on. At this point they still don’t know if they’ll be allowed to continue living there or if they’ll be evicted from what for some of them are their long-time homes.
At this point the future is unclear for everyone involved, but for the present we can keep our hopes high and celebrate Sweet Briar for all it has done.
Lisa McDonald is a sophomore at Coe College majoring in Physics and Communication Studies. Coe College is home to the Epsilon of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.